“The moment you set foot in that country, you step into high danger.”
“The price for your glory is their suffering.”
Silence is a slow film, and it’s a masterpiece if you want it to be. It lumbers like a historical text, but even a text may contain strong, true drama. Here, no plot points feel contrived because the story doesn’t depend on their happening at the right time. This is both a strength and a weakness. When there is suspense, we have no idea how long it will last, and that works to the film’s advantage, but there are also periods of what feels more like reenactment, and they stretch for unmerciful lengths of time. In the end, I am happy this happens, because it colours the world to the point that there’s an immersion, one that feels necessary if we don’t get the dramatic turns and cues for which we’re trained to look.
The premise is ripe for thrills and suspense. It is the 17th century. Two young jesuit priests, Father Rodrigo and Father Francisco, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, respectively, must track down a third priest, Father Ferrara (a comeback performance for Liam Neeson), who they believe has been taken captive by the Japanese, where Christianity is outlawed. This premise is wide open. Any kind of story fits into it, and yet the one director Martin Scorsese chooses is something akin, in structure or lack there of, to Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan. Anything can happen at any time because there’s no strict set of rules in Vietnam, in World War II, or in 17th century Japan; so much can happen, in fact, that your faith may wane. Father Rodrigo begins to struggle with his responsibility. Japanese Christians routinely die in front of these priests, and all they can do is pray to God. They don’t have weapons, or any sway in such an isolated, distant country. So what happens when God gives no answer?
Andrew Garfield’s performance as Father Rodrigo might be his best work to date, if he wasn’t so good as battered puppy best friend in The Social Network, but here his pain seems more mature. He deals with greater questions. Lives are at stake. Adam Driver looks like he put himself through the wash for this film. Father Francisco’s cheeks are hollow, and his body is emaciated. Driver puts in a stoic performance, one that’s complimentary to Garfield’s work. My only gripe here is the accents. The quality flags when each actor uses his voice for anything more than conversational volume. The rest of the movie is strong enough, however, for this to matter very little.
The cinematography is reason enough to see this film. The camera is as dynamic as always in Scorsese’s work, but he adds another layer, one that brings to mind paintings rather than well crafted shots. Many shots that feel unorthodox, particularly the ones that hang directly above the characters’ heads as they move down church steps, lie in bed, or pray in a cell, begin to make sense when you remember the figure most important to the story and yet who’s invisible — God.
There isn’t much of a score, save for jungle and ocean noise. Sometimes a band plays in the background at a gathering in a town or square, but that doesn’t count much towards a score, as the band doesn’t play to the emotion of the scene. They could play anything. I think the lack of a score is the film’s greatest weakness — or “only” weakness I should say. I understand. The film is called Silence and so if strings accompanied every moment it would be contradictory, but there are moments in the film when, frankly, silence isn’t enough, nor the actor’s performance, and the right unsettling melody could pick up the slack. My biggest wonder is this. The trailer’s score is perfect. It seems right for the film’s atmosphere, and the instrumentation matches the setting. Why not use the material from the trailer in the movie?
This is a movie you can sink your teeth into, but if discussions of faith or history turn you off, you may regret braving the film’s sweeping two hours and forty minutes.