Passion projects are almost always interesting, especially if they come from the mind of an acclaimed auteur like Martin Scorsese. Mr. Scorsese has been working on adapting the novel Silence on and off for as long as I’ve been alive—that’s since 1990, for those keeping score at home—so it’s quite frankly amazing that he finally got this project off the ground, shot, edited, and into theaters after 26 years mired in the creative process. But the other thing to keep in mind about passion projects is that sometimes a person can become too invested in their work to the point where the end product suffers as a result. I think that’s largely where Silence the movie ends up going wrong, despite being a perfectly fine movie in its own right.
Set in the mid-1600s, two Catholic missionaries, Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, respectively), receive word that their mentor, Father Farreira (Liam Neeson) has gone missing in Japan, with reports stating that he has abandoned the faith and begun living as a Japanese. The two priests travel to Japan to resume Farreira’s work, only to discover an underground network of Christians who desperately crave the priests’ guidance under the oppressive rule of the local inquisitor (Issei Ogata). What follows is a tortuous journey that will test Father Rodrigues’ faith as he is forced to watch Japanese Christians suffer in the name of their lord.
In spite of how unsettling it is to view Catholic missionaries as the heroes of any story—read your history, kids—for the story the film is trying to tell it is executed admirably well. A cold, dispassionate camera captures both the beauty of the Japanese countryside as well as the violent spectacle of persecution and torture, all of which is further emphasized by the almost complete absence of a musical score to accompany the images on screen. Scorsese is no slouch when it comes to visual storytelling, and what he has crafted here is a tale that is at once harrowing in its implications toward the nature of blind faith and empowering in its portrayal of passive resistance.
Unfortunately, the film does drag on a little long at two hours and 41 minutes, which wouldn’t be as much of a detriment if it didn’t feel like it were hammering home the same points repeatedly. Whether because the film needed more time in the editing bay before being rushed to release or because Scorsese is practicing self-indulgence, the points the film hammers home continue to be hammered long after the proverbial nail is all the way in. The epilogue in particular drags on interminably with at least two false climaxes. It also doesn’t help that Andrew Garfield is the actor tasked with carrying the film for most of the runtime; he’s not bad by any measure, but he doesn’t quite have the gravitas necessary to carry a film of this dramatic magnitude, which only becomes more apparent in the latter half when he is continually upstaged by Neeson and Ogata, the latter of which easily deserves a Best Supporting Actor nod this year.
Still, Scorsese has been writing and directing long enough where these complaints aren’t enough to diminish the intended impact of his pet project to an insurmountable degree. As an examination of faith and the limits of human physical and emotional endurance, Silence is a damn fine film, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to the highest tiers of Scorsese’s catalog. If you don’t find the runtime intimidating, this is one to check out in the theater. Otherwise, maybe hold out for a director’s cut that doesn’t quite feel so rushed.