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Silence – Film Review

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Silence – Film Review by Pat V.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Jay Cocks (screenplay), Martin Scorsese (screenplay)
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson

Based on the prize winning novel by the Catholic Japanese writer, Shusaku Endo, Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence, shows the dangers and persecution faced by two young Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in 1633 to try to discover what had happened to their religious mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira, who disappeared there some years previously. With a mix of stunning cinematography, rich religious imagery and visceral tension, Scorsese tells their story as the two men struggle not only with the alien world they must navigate but also with their personal doubts about the religious faith which should sustain them.

Christianity had come to Japan in the 1540s when St. Francis Xavier landed near Kagoshima with three other Catholic priests. Initially, though their preaching was viewed with suspicion by the ruling powers, there were a number of converts. However, in the 1630s this foreign religion, which was seen as undermining true Japanese values, was declared illegal and the persecution of its believers started. Christians were forced to renounce their faith by stepping on a clay image of Christ and those who refused were tortured and killed.

Scorsese’s film is set in this background and begins with scenes of gruesome torture. Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), is forced to watch as his fellow priests are tied to poles and scalded with water from boiling springs. The camera focuses on his terrified expression and then cuts abruptly to a monastery in Portugal where two young priests who had been his students, Fr. Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) and Fr. Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) are pleading with their superior to be allowed to go to Japan to investigate the fate of Fr. Ferreira. Rumours had reached the West that he had renounced his faith in the face of torture but the two priests refuse to believe these stories.

What follows is the story of their journey to Japan and their search for news but it will be two hours into the film (it lasts for 159 mins) before Ferreira appears again on the screen. Instead, Scorsese focuses on the extreme hardship the priests, and the Christians they encounter on their journey, are forced to endure and we see, in gut-wrenching detail, the fate of those captured by the authorities (I counted at least half a dozen different ways captives are tortured and executed….none of them pleasant).

Though it is inevitable that this film will be compared with Roland Joffé’s 1986 film, The Mission, the story of an expedition of Jesuits to convert natives in South America, the mood of the two films is very different. Scorsese uses a less colourful palate and his focus is as much on the inner turmoil of the priests, expressed though a voice-over narration of their letters and prayers, as on the dangers they face. They come to question their faith and their role in this foreign land and they rail against the “Silence of God”, who seems to have forsaken them as he did Christ on the cross.

This is a totally engaging film, superbly acted and beautifully crafted, with the sole criticism that it is too long. The repeated dangers and discomforts the priests experience in the early part of the film could have been edited without affecting the film in any negative way and, in fact, would have enhanced the impact of the confrontations in the later sequences. Apart from the excellent performances of the three actors already mentioned, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, in the role of a Judas-like convert, is riveting and most impressive of all is Issei Ogata’s smiling, sinister Inquisitor.

Silence will rank along with Scorsese’s more important films and though some of the scenes are not for the faint-hearted, it is an impressive and moving experience.

 

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