Silence (2016)

Directed by Martin Scorsese


Martin Scorsese wanted to make Silence as far back as 1990.  It’s his passion project, one that really dives into a lot of the Catholicism that colors many of his other films, all the way back to Mean Streets and more overtly in The Last Temptation of Christ.

Scorsese’s films are violent, full of fast-talkers and characters who I suppose follow a sort of code, not unlike with religion.  His gangsters in Goodfellas and Casino have their own ideological beliefs to some extent, and Travis Bickle creates his own guidelines that he follows militantly in Taxi Driver.  Even a film like The Wolf of Wall Street follows a bunch of characters whose devotion to money isn’t unlike a religious faith.

Maybe I’m stretching here.  Many of Scorsese’s characters follow a code that they live by or which they live in contradiction to.  They are in many ways villains or anti-heroes, and there is a sense that something is weighing them down.  Some of them have a conscience, and some of them seem to live without one, freed to become that much more insane by a devotion to nothing other than their own wellbeing.

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” says Ray Liotta’s character to kickstart Goodfellas, and the same sentiment might as well apply to Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) in Silence.

Set in the 17th century, this 2 hour and 40 min epic follows Rodrigues and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), two Jesuit priests, as they track down their mentor who is believed to have committed apostasy and forsaken the church.  That mentor, Father Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson who just seems like the mentor type) is shown in a brief flashback, apparently in the process of losing his faith, and we’re clued into his mindset through a letter he sends home.

Rodrigues and Driver cannot believe that their mentor would turn his back on everything they taught him, and so they make it their mission to track him down, setting in motion an Apocalypse Now-like plot.

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a Jesuit priest.” – Father Rodrigues

Rodrigues’ devotion to the church is absolute, and his faith will be tested over and over again.  In some ways there is no plot beyond Rodrigues watching other Christians suffer for the crime of simply being Christians in a land that doesn’t support it.  They are murdered, butchered and their bodies used as a warning to others who would worship Jesus Christ.

There is plenty of voiceover as Rodrigues explains this struggle, and in other moments another character will describe to them what exactly is happening if it isn’t already clear.    Though a few of these moments are engaging, the spectacle often quickly wears away, and the film suffers for it.  The success of Silence seems to be in how effectively it shocks you like it does Rodrigues.  He is tormented by what he sees, believing it to be unavoidable, but we have a different perspective.

Rodrigues insists that the villagers spread word of the priests’ arrival, believing it will offer hope to so many of the Christians currently in hiding.  News of their arrival does indeed spread, and soon the ‘Inquisitor’ hunts them down, killing Christians who do not apostatize along the way.

As a person whose life isn’t guided wholly by religion (or wholly by any one thing), to me it seems an obvious choice to step on the religious image of Jesus, appearing to apostatize and thus saving your life.  Then you go home and continue praying to Jesus.

The people who do this get to live, and the others die.  Of course, the point is to show their absolute devotion to God and the degree to which they will suffer for their faith.  But again, for your average audience member, Rodrigues’ faith is only getting in the way.  We see his faith as something like hubris, particularly as people are killed because of him.  Sure, we know it’s the Inquisitor who is the true villain, but Rodrigues could do partially do something to fix this situation.

Later we will watch as Father Garupe refuses to apostatize and must watch four innocent people drown because of it.  He tries to save them by swimming in after them, but he dies in the process as well.  The point is made very clear to Rodrigues that his offers of prayer are doing absolutely nothing.

The film does become more engaging as Rodrigues deals with the possible loss of this faith.  The “silence” of the title refers to Rodrigues receiving no word, no indication from God.  All he has is his faith, and we see how long that can last.

On one hand, I feel like Scorsese is taking a very analytical look at this man’s faith, but is he celebrating it or portraying it as foolish?  To me, it’s foolish, but to a more religious man such as Martin Scorsese, it might be honorable.

Eventually Rodrigues will apostatize in order to save the lives of an innocent few, something Garupe did not do, and this moment is effectively portrayed in excruciating detail.  Soon we move quickly through time and witness the ramifications of this moment.

Rodrigues works alongside his one time mentor, Ferreira, and continues a life devoid of Christianity.  He even works in a role like DiCaprio at the end of Catch Me If You Can, inspecting clothing and artifacts for hidden Christian images, essentially working against his own cause.

Later he is an old man, and soon after that he is dead.  The final image of the film, one I admit is oddly effective though simultaneously confounding, features a fire engulfing Rodrigues’ body as the camera zooms in, revealing that he has a small crucifix in his hand, given to him originally by a man near the start of the film.

So the point is that he never truly lost his faith, but… that’s the point?  I mean, I get that it is, and good for him, but he did act in opposition to his faith for what must have been about half his life (depending on how long he lived), and I found the more horrifying component of the film to be all the people who died partially as a result of his stubbornness.

In Silence, faith is a strength, and yet it fails so many people.  Wouldn’t it be practical to just do what the evil man wants in order to spare your own life?  You can do more in life than in death… but their deaths are both made grotesque and in a way glorified, making up the spectacle that carries the first half of the film.

There are a few technical issues with this film as well, but my main complaint might be the ambiguity in the message here.  Or it’s just that I don’t agree with the message which I suppose colors how I see the film.

Silence takes itself very seriously, but there is some shoddy use of CGI along with the rough accents employed by Garfield and Driver.  It’s a movie that wants to be something mighty but which never quite gets there, in part thanks to these superficial limitations, always keeping you at arm’s length.  I had a hard time looking past the fact that this is just a movie to fully immerse myself in the story, something that doesn’t usually get in the way, even when I watch a movie much more dependent on computer effects.

There’s also an awkward use of plot to keep bringing back a particular character who doesn’t feel all that necessary to the story, at least not in how he’s portrayed.  The film is clunky, and the story is both wandering and somehow indebted to its own forward momentum.  I guess a lot of the story just feels misguided.

There’s a moment in which a man appears to be pardoned, but he’s held back from the rest of the prisoners by the Inquisitor.  Rodrigues expresses relief, believing him to be saved, but we can tell very clearly that this man is about to be killed, and then he is.  Yet we have to understand Rodrigues’ absolute shock even though none of this is surprising given what we’ve seen over the course of the scene.  Maybe this scene is meant to further alienate us from Rodrigues, allowing us to better understand the flaws in his way of thinking, but again the end asks for our compassion.  We’re meant to understand and empathize with this character’s struggle, but he’s a hard guy to really get behind.

I’m not sure if Silence was a good movie.  I had the same feeling after I had watched A.I. Artificial Intelligence.  Is it amazing or horrible?  It’s at least a little frustrating.  Parts of the movie are very affecting, but as a whole it feels to be too much of whatever it wants to be.  It certainly shouldn’t be 160 minutes long, and it’s likely a case of an accomplished director facing little to no resistance in making the film he wants to make.  In doing so he makes the film he wants to see.  And I think a film can be great if it’s the vision of one person, but this feels less like a film Scorsese needed to make and more like one he just wanted to watch.

Up Next: The Band Wagon (1953), Going the Distance (2010), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

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