A film that’s been carefully designed and developed over a span of 25 years, Martin Scorsese has displayed great patience in creating a passion project that will ultimately test our own. Silence is a steely, brutal slog, an extreme departure from Scorsese’s recent filmography, deprived of Wolf of Wall Street’s manic energy and Hugo’s warmth and wonder. This abrupt change isn’t necessarily disappointing, and may indeed be welcoming, but the problem lies with the fact that Silence adopts the blunt manner of imparting its central message in a way that may be more suited to those films.
The film, a faithful adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, follows Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), two Jesuit priests willingly sent to Japan to spread their faith and find their captured mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who’s believed to have renounced and reformed as a Japanese Buddhist. It’s a premise poised with potential, yet Silence endeavours to sap any intrigue built up by the promise of danger. Rodrigues and Garupe are joined by the historical drama’s most complex and interesting character, Kichijiro, a Japanese Catholic who has no reservations about renouncing his faith in order to protect his life. He’s a tragic figure, beautifully portrayed by Yôsuke Kubozuka’s and his suitably exaggerated expressions, each delivery layered with desperation. His plight, a repetitive cycle of renouncing and pleading for forgiveness, is harrowing, and gives the film its greatest, and, really, only impact.
Less impactful is the narrative thrust as a whole, where the character arc of Rodrigues, and his tangling with faith, is designed with little consideration of subtlety or range. Over the lengthy running time, he’s worn out and grinded down by Japanese enforcement and the horrific torture of those around him, and the audience share his discomfort. Yet discomfort is the only emotion these scenes can manage to muster up. That a film is intentionally unenjoyable to watch shouldn’t be seen as a problem, but when it can only incite a reaction similar to a mother looking at her son’s grazed knee, there’s the problem. We feel sorry for the victims of the on-screen torture, not because we care enough, but because we’re meant to. Their scenes are achingly slow, intended to draw out the pain felt by the victims, yet they are just faces, barely fleshed out identities to which Scorsese can exact his punishment. The use of clumsy narration, coupled with some outrageously shoddy sound mixing, where waves mesh jarringly with dialogue, transform what could’ve been an impactful event of victims strapped to crosses and drowned against the waves, to a disappointingly soggy affair.
And let’s talk more about that sound design. Throughout Silence, characters’ dialogue between cuts change in volume, are dubbed over with imprecision, or combine with the background so that both noises are incoherent. It’s astonishing that a film, carefully constructed over 25 years, with a director infamous for his perfectionism, can be swamped with multiple instances of technical faults. And if these decisions were made intentional by Scorsese, it’s only as a detriment to the film, taking the audience out of scenes where the whole point is to suck you in and leave you as helpless and agonized as the film’s protagonist.
The protagonist himself is indeed both helpless and agonized, sure, but Garfield can’t summon the complexity needed for a character that’s intended to carry the film’s lofty theme of faith in the face of silence. He manically overacts in the first half, his agitated expressions betraying any notions of nuance, before calming down when the script dictates a simplified, worn-down performance in the protracted transition from second to third act. It doesn’t help that Scorsese has decided that English marked with the rough fragments of a Portuguese accent is the best method of delivering dialogue, a choice that functions much worse on camera than it does in text; neither Garfield nor Driver have the voicework necessary to pull off the task convincingly.
Liam Neeson, thankfully, doesn’t even bother. His introduction and following speeches on Japanese tradition and religion, while blatantly expositional, provide the profundity that’s otherwise lacking throughout Garfield’s narrative. His presence adds intrigue, if only momentarily, but then directorial decisions made in the third act serve to either undercut the idea of maintaining faith in spite of the absence of a spiritual response, or to lay on the ham, dragging towards an obvious conclusion, in a film beset with obviousness. The characters are categorised by a strict separation of good and evil, Kubozuka’s Kichijiro the only anomaly, where context is wastefully neglected to characters starved of depth. It’s a pretty film, fog rolling across villages, representative of Garfield’s clouded state of mind, and the narrative is appropriately drawn out and met with the required level of torment and discomfort, so it’s difficult to argue that the 25 years taken to finally release Silence were for nought. Yet the inconsiderate approach to both character and sound design, and the absence of a deep emotional core, suggests that 25 more years of development may do the film some good.