By Jason Abdow
Making a movie about religion is always difficult. It seems like filmmakers will either try to focus on appealing purely to a faith-based audience, “Heaven is For Real” and “God’s Not Dead” are good examples of this, or you can use religious ideas and events to make something that is purely a spectacle, such as “Noah” or “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Personally, neither of these formulas have connected with me which made me cautious going into “Silence,” a film focusing on a pair of Portuguese Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who go into Japan in search for their mentor (Liam Neeson) and to propagate Christianity. The biggest draw for me was easily Martin Scorsese, who I would argue is the best American director of all time. Even at his worst, he is still phenomenal, meaning I had high hopes for this film.
From a technical aspect, this movie is flawless. The cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto was breathtaking at parts, painting 17th century Japan as this cold, unforgiving place. It helped capture the feeling of danger that our protagonists are in, as Christianity was strictly outlawed at this time. While used sparingly, the score was effective when it was used to build tension with its screeching strings that were unnerving to listen to. The production design, as well, is noteworthy for recreating the villages, which never feel inauthentic and really put you in the center of this time period.
The trio of performances that this movie has been selling itself on, are all solid, even if I would not call any of them Oscar worthy. Liam Neeson, who probably has less than 10 minutes of screen time, is great with what he is given, even if he does not even attempt an accent. Adam Driver, the only actor who keeps a consistent accent, is probably my favorite of the three. I just wish the script had given him more to do because he is giving one of his career best performances. The only actor that has plenty to do is Andrew Garfield, who is very good in his role. A lot of this movie rests on his shoulders and he rises to the occasion here and if you excuse an accent that comes and goes, he delivers one of his best performances.
In my opinion, the greatest performance was given by Issei Ogata, who played a government inquisitor who was responsible for spear-heading the Christian persecution in Japan. Ogata steals every scene he is in, coming across as warm and occasionally comical even when you know he is responsible for horrific acts. While it might appear that his character would be the villain, the film does an excellent job of fleshing him out to show that he has a legitimate reason for keeping Christianity out of Japan.
This gets at what I think works best about “Silence,” the themes and questions that are brought up. I think it is important to note this movie is far from being anti-faith. If anything, this movie might actually play well to faith-based audiences, as it shows how willing several members of Japanese society were willing to die as a martyr for what they belief. While I would not advocate taking a Christian Youth Group to see this, this film can get brutal to watch at times, more mature Christians will definitely find this examination of faith fascinating.
The idea of martyrdom in general is closely analyzed throughout this film, and the questions it asks are truly challenging, which is a staple of any great religious movie. Questions like, how far should you go to protect your faith? Is it worth dying for your faith? Is dying as a martyr brave or egotistical? These questions are constantly brought up, making the audience constantly think which definitely made the 160 minute runtime easier to sit through.
I feel like Scorsese tackled these difficult questions and themes in the smartest way possible. He painted a vivid picture of the events that surround this movie and just lets it all play out in a way that does not feel incredibly biased. This makes it easier for the audience to really take away whatever they would like from the film, and by the end I am sure people will come out having different feelings about what they have just seen.
Regardless of religious beliefs, I think this is a must see movie if you are a fan of Scorsese and films that challenge you. The long runtime and quietness might be a turnoff for some people, but those who stick with it will definitely be rewarded. It is a shame the Academy Awards did not go for this, but it is still phenomenal regardless. This is probably Scorsese’s best work since “The Departed,” and “Silence” certainly deserves any acclaim it can get.