Directed by Martin Scorsese
After it was shut out of nearly all the major film award nominations, besides a deserved cinematography nod from the Academy, I assumed “Silence” had just released too late to gain the necessary momentum. But now, after seeing it, I realize that maybe writer/director Martin Scorsese’s passion project, about Catholic missionaries in 17th century Japan, just isn’t good.
When Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Portuguese priest and missionary, goes missing in Buddhist-led Japan, many in his home country take him for dead. They’ve been told he apostatized, or denounced Jesus, in the face of Japanese torture. But two of his mentees, Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) don’t believe the news. They know he’s still out there somewhere. So ignoring the dangers Christians face in the foreign land, they go out to find their mentor. Along the way, they encounter a community of secret Japanese Christians who are suddenly empowered by the presence of the priests.
When it comes to Portuguese accents, I’ll confess, I’m not sure I could pick one out of a crowd. But I do know when I’m not hearing one. Andrew Garfield, born to a half-British family, utilizes the standard British accent in an effort to convey European-ness. You know the accent. The one used by actors when they want to sound foreign but not so foreign that you can’t understand what they’re saying. Adam Driver seems not to have ever heard a Portuguese person speak before trying on his overly thick accent. And Liam Neeson, Irish born and raised, wasn’t even trying. He sounded like he always sounds. In an era of whitewashing, I’ll admit “Silence” is less offensive than Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson, or the entire cast of “Gods of Egypt,” but to hire three white actors to play men who should look and speak more like Cristiano Ronaldo (but please, dear God, not his bronze bust) and less like…well, themselves…is not great.
Other than that, Neeson performs admirably in a smaller role. Garfield and Driver, though, never miss a chance to drive home the message that Scorsese spent three decades writing and rewriting. There’s no subtlety here. None. Irritating narration from Rodrigues tells us his every thought, sometimes more than once or twice. Nothing is left to the imagination. To be honest, “Silence” is a project which Scorsese probably spent too much time handling. For a movie lasting 140 minutes, there’s surprisingly little going on. There’s not enough meat on the bones for the investment you’re putting in. And what story is there can be hard to relate to. (Next, I’ll be divulging very minor plot details that watching the trailer might have shown you. Anyway, minor spoiler alert.) For any devout enough Catholic, the guilt that comes with properly caring for a religious idol is second to none. But a Catholic I am not, nor am I particularly active in any church, so the “torture” that is felt by many in the film—sometimes physical but much more often spiritual—is not felt by me. Denouncing my faith to save my own life, and the lives of my family and peers, would be an easier choice for me. Not for Garfield’s character. He and his new Japanese Christian friends—well, most of them—have trouble with this. Their internal struggle is much of the film’s story. It led me to wonder what, in that same situation, Garfield’s devoutly Christian character in “Hacksaw Ridge” might have done if he had the opportunity to save his brothers in arms. I have to think it would have been the opposite of what was done by his character here. And for the non-Christian Japanese, the Fathers have little empathy. Their archaic belief and insistence that non-Christians are all doomed to hell, that no other religion is worth anything, and that everyone you meet can and should be converted to “the truth” is annoying. “Silence” drudges up traditional views of the Catholic Church that make me wonder how their God could be so cruel and unsympathetic.
On top of everything, “Silence” is just really, really slow. The character I identified with the most were the ever-present crickets chirping away in the background. I almost fell asleep. I almost left the theater. I could not watch 140 minutes of “Silence” and be happy with it or emotionally moved by it. I haven’t seen his entire catalog, but of the 11 Martin Scorsese-directed pictures I’ve seen, “Silence” is without a doubt the worst. Who knew a movie about suffering could be so insufferable?