Silence (2016)

Viewed January 18th

In this Martin Scorsese film, a 17th century Jesuit priest travels from Portugal to Japan in order to track down a fellow priest rumored to have denounced Christ.

Beautiful, emotional, serious, tedious, ritualistic, old-fashioned, and intellectually challenging, Silence can feel like attending a Catholic mass. Its style is gorgeous but a bit of a throwback. It hearkens less to Apocalypse Now (which follows a similar Heart of Darkness story template) than to John Ford. You can imagine Scorsese on the set referring to it as his "picture". Or maybe it's Kurosawa's adaptation of John Ford. Either way, as much as Scorsese is exhibiting a reverence for his spiritual subject matter, he's doing the same for the tradition of classic films.

At first, the film wrestles with its being an adventure story or an artful meditation on faith. But after things settle in and the focus definitively shifts to the character played by Andrew Garfield (in a performance that might convince some who are skeptical of his depth), it becomes clear: Silence is unapologetically dealing with issues inherent to the Christian faith, namely an ethical dilemma around how the faith should be announced by the faithful, particularly when doing so in public may lead to the suffering of others. And suffer they do. The thing in some Christian, specifically Catholic films (I'm thinking first and foremost of The Passion of the Christ) where torture scenes cribbed from horror films are meant to both titillate and demonstrate the seriousness of a character's spiritual convictions always seems a teensy bit suspicious in terms of what's actually happening psychologically for the average audience member. But Silence, to its credit, is more than that. In almost the opposite direction, it spends a lot of time working through the same didactic points about faith and it can get a bit dry. And, finally, there are these other scenes, particularly toward the end, that land in-between, neither sensational or didactic, but just...quiet. And it's these scenes and the incredible use of the soundtrack (something worth more analysis) that reach farthest into the film's core questions about the possibility of a silent faith.    

The result of all this is a curious, clearly very personal film from an undoubted master of the filmmaking medium. How you respond may ultimately depend on your feelings about Christianity.