The release of Wolf Of Wall Street smashed a cocaine-white Lamborghini through the notion that it would be a peaceful slide into retirement for cinema legend Martin Scorsese. The very idea that the now 75 year-old director was in the room for the infamous plane orgy scene (although let’s be fair, what part of Wolf Of Wall Street wasn’t infamous) blows the mind. His latest film Silence is a change of tune – don’t expect peace-and-quiet, however.
The film travels to 17th century Japan, a kingdom shut off from the rest of the world where Christians are executed in state-endorsed displays of torture. Liam Neeson’s Jesuit priest Ferreira has renounced his faith, or so the rumours report. His two young disciples Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) decide to venture forth and unearth the truth. Arriving at the island, the pair discover their quest is more gruelling than they could have ever imagined. The villagers who support them are persecuted, and the canny local Inquisitor is constantly looking for ways to expose Christianity’s hypocrisy. As the missionaries delve deeper and deeper into the foreign culture their difficulties mount, testing their religious reserve to the limit.
Photo Credit: Kerry Brown
Silence is Scorsese’s first filmic venture east, and the movie swirls with influences from Japanese cinema. A constant dialectic bounces back and forth between the amplified movement of Akira Kurosawa and the stillness and poise of Ozu. The film opens with an immense play of sounds. The soft rustle of bugs and birds swells into a cacophony, pounding into and through the audience, louder and louder. And then, silence – the eponymous Silence, as the title card appears.
It’s very much the model of the film. The trials of Rodrigues and Garrpe begin as the mild inconveniences. The priests must spend their days shut in a mountain hut, warned to stay hidden lest a passerby betray their location. They gall and gnaw at their tedious confinement, exasperated at being forestalled from seeking Ferreira. Venturing out in the open, however, their ordeals multiply rapidly. Having embarked off on his own, Rodrigues finds himself captured and tortured. The torment, however, is moral, not physical, as the Inquisitor and his mischievous gang force the preacher to watch as his flock are crucified, burnt, drowned, beheaded and exposed to the dreaded pit. “The tree of Christianity will not grow in Japan,” the Inquisitor demands. Rodrigues must renounce his faith to save those around him, a burden that mounts into an unbearable cross to bear.
For all its clamour and clang, however, Silence is an oddly austere film. Scorsese refrains from the usual Hollywood narrative dramatics. Although the priests’ merciless persecutors are cruel, they are never devils: their own fears as a culture invaded by foreign dogmas are always on show. Although the persecutions intensify, they are never elevated beyond the gruelling tests they are. There are no fireworks, no plot twists.
This thuddingly sombre pilgrimage is both the film’s greatest virtue and its greatest vice. On the one hand, the piety of endurance could not be more exalted. Garfield’s Rodrigues suffers more and more and more, and his righteous stamina under countless spiritual bludgeonings is Silence’s crowning affirmation. Yet, conversely, the homogeneity of the punishment upon punishment upon punishment makes the padre’s story decidedly flat (something one can very rarely say of Scorsese’s work). With no gloss or thrills, there is so little to hang on to outside martyrly pain and suffering. The film quickly becomes an exercise in stamina for the audience, as well as the protagonists, and many are likely to feel exhausted by two and a half hours of unremitting toil.
A tale of devout missionaries, Silence is, ironically, unlikely to convert the unconverted. Its unswerving discipline should be lauded, by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. However, most, one suspects, would much prefer Wolf of Wall Street’s spiralling revelry to this tumult of reverence.