Monday, January 2, 2017

Review: "Silence"

Director: Martin Scorsese
Runtime: 161 minutes

Martin Scorsese has been grappling with his Catholic faith for his entire career, even when it seemed the least obvious. The intensity of his religious convictions, as well as the intensity of his questions and severe doubts, have manifested in ways both literal (The Last Temptation of the Christ) and abstract (Taxi Driver). Catholicism (or, in a sense, any faith) is the third pillar at the foundation of his filmmaking, seated right alongside masculinity and violence (and all of the intersections among the lot). 

Though Scorsese remains an impeccable craftsman, often invigorating his material with dynamism of someone decades younger, he has recently started to run on fumes when dealing with story's beyond their basic text. The Wolf of Wall Street tackles excess, but to the point of becoming excessive itself. Even Best Picture winner The Departed, though powerfully acted and edited, comes up short when one looks for something to chew on beyond the bloody bodycount. 

The apparent exhaustion of two of Scorsese's thematic pillars (well, for now) has left a clearing for capital F Faith to grab the spotlight all for itself. After an on-and-off journey of roughly 30 years, Scorsese has taken Shusaku Endo's novel "Silence" and brought it to life on the big screen. Here, the man who almost became a priest turns his camera to meet not just his maker, but the ideals and practices of those serving in his name. And, while not without its faults (largely at the outset), Silence ultimately proves itself to be a worthy landmark moment of the latter stages of Scorsese's career. Regardless of your religious persuasion (or lack thereof), there is a tremendous amount of value in the issues raised in this exhaustive and exhausting work of Catholic cinema. Though not the director's most polished or lush work, it more than compensates with its staggering devotion to crafting a drama filled with ideas about the earthly and the transcendent. 

Yet much like the film's journey to the big screen, Silence is not without its hiccups. The earliest passages, concerning Jesuit priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) seeking out a former mentor in 17th century Japan, come off as stilted. Despite some striking, simple visuals, Silence begins by playing things in a strangely safe manner. At times, it even seems shockingly amateurish. Even longtime Scorsese editor (and basically co-director) Thelma Schoonmaker isn't immune, and turns in some of her weakest work to date. Simple conversations change angles with a frequency at odds with such contemplative subject matter. And Mr. Driver, though an intriguing casting choice, can't quite master what is supposed to be a Portuguese accent (the Portuguese characters speak in English). Early on, a few lines escape his throat like a squawk from a goose raised in the Bronx. Garfield generally fares better, though even he is not without his stilted moments. It's not an auspicious beginning, especially for a film that is so clearly a labor of passion. 

But the further the two Jesuits step into the so-called "swamp of Japan," the more Silence finds its footing. The beauty of Endo's novel, which Scorsese has wisely left intact, is its refusal to sugarcoat or simplify the conflicts at hand. And what conflicts they are. On the surface, Silence's tale involves priests administering aid to Japanese Christians living under persecution. In less enlightened times, such a socio-political conflict would have likely been sanded down to lift the Jesuits up as Christ-like figures. Scorsese includes such a moment, though it's hardly presented as sincere. Alone and starving, Fr. Rodrigues finds himself confronted with his reflection. After a moment, the face transforms into a familiar sight: a Goya painting of Christ's face which we've been shown as how Rodrigues imagines the Lamb of God in his prayers and meditations. Garfield, with his thin features and his hair grown out into a magnificent mane, makes a fitting vessel for this sort of transfiguration. 

The moment, alas, does not come greeted with a moment of intervention or inspiration. Rodrigues bursts into unsettling, hollow laughter. In his manic, dehydrated state, he seems ecstatic with such a vision, but the tone and timing suggests the sort of madness one would find in a 70s-era Herzog drama. Yet Scorsese curtails the sequence before such madness turns hallucinatory. Rodrigo Prieto's images, even at their most painterly, have an air of reality to them. The staging thrives on ordinariness, rather than elaborately constructed tableaus.

All the better, then, to enable the film to cut to the heart of its conflicts. Somewhere towards the middle (I think) of the film, Silence shifts from acting as a drama about the faithful, and morphs into a searing interrogation of men of the cloth and their motivations. Rodrigues meets a number of foils among the Japanese, chief among them a translator (Tadanobu Asano) and the inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata). Though radically different in their approaches, the two men proceed to challenge not just Rodrigues' convictions and his mission, but the core of Catholicism itself, as well as its place in a country like Japan. 

And it's here, when it's most bound to simple scenes of people talking, that Silence finally grasps the intangible profundity it's been reaching for the whole time. Asano and Ogata make excellent philosophical adversaries for Garfield's Rodrigues, with Ogata in particular relishing every word (among his most notable jabs: "the price for your glory is their suffering.") So many faith-based films use Christian conviction as a crutch, including this year's Hacksaw Ridge, which also planted Mr. Garfield at the center. With that baseline established, a film like Silence becomes all the more remarkable. Here is a drama with source material from a Catholic writer (albeit a Japanese convert, and not a European), directed by a passionately Catholic director, that avoids turning its protagonists into the one-note martyrs they secretly wish to be. 

The most magnificent wrench of all, however, comes in the form of Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson, thankfully not even attempting the accent). In addition to administering to the persecuted faithful, Rodrigues and Garrpe have snuck into Japan to seek out their former mentor, who has been rumored to have renounced the faith and taken up life as an ordinary member of Japanese society. Ferreira's eventual return to the narrative (best left unsaid) gives Silence a final headbutt of ambiguity, heightening the specificity of the film's conflicts, while simultaneously making them all the more universal. Neeson, in his all-too-brief screen time, is nothing short of mesmerizing. In such quick moments, he conveys Ferreira's decades of work in Japan, and the toll it took on him. Ferreira's exploits could have easily been their own film, and the way Neeson takes the bones of Scorsese and Jay Cocks' script and turns it into its own meal is nothing short of astonishing. It's a masterful moment of teaching both for Rodrigues and the viewer, the complexity of which has stayed with me long after the lights went up in the theater.

In my four years at a Jesuit-led high school, one of the theological ideas that I remember most is that faith without room for doubt is not really faith, but merely blind obedience. That remarkably nuanced notion, standing in such stark contrast to the right wing extremists now posturing as 21st century moralists, has stayed with me even as whatever religion I had slipped away. And, whatever my personal beliefs now, that Catholic and Jesuit identity (hello, Catholic guilt, you old bastard) is still etched, however faintly, in my being. To see that same sort of depth is a monumental intellectual achievement, one that overrides the vagueries that somewhat plague the central role of Rodrigues (he is both an individual and a representative of the faith as a whole, though not quite to the degree where it feels possible to empathize with him enough). With such a long wait, it would be tempting to hold Silence to the standard that anything less than a masterpiece would be a letdown. To do so, I think, would be to dismiss the tremendous accomplishments on display. Rodrigues and Garrpe may find themselves starving, but their story is veritable feast of ideas, the strengths of which are made all the more powerful by their existence alongside the flaws. 

Grade: B+

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