Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 22, 2017)
When we last saw Martin Scorsese in the director’s chair, he created 2013’s Wolf Of Wall Street, a brash, profane tale of greed and lust. With 2016’s Silence, Scorsese returns to films with a wholly different kind of story.
Set in 17th century Japan, Portuguese priest Cristovão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) suddenly goes missing. Concerned about their older compatriot, fellow priests Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) head east to find him.
This journey comes with significant danger, however, as Japan strictly bans Christianity and treats its practitioners with brutal punishment. Into this setting, the priests risk their lives to locate Ferreira and also to assist the oppressed Japanese who continue to pursue Christianity.
Scorsese’s fascination with faith-related topics isn’t new, with 1988’s Last Temptation of Christ as the most notable example. Silence lacks the controversy that came with the 1980s film, but it takes a similar path, as it shows those who sacrifice themselves to follow their religious destinies.
While Temptation delivered a rich, faith-affirming journey, Silence seems much less involving. For a tale of devotion and passion, the film seems awfully free from emotion. In the face of suffering, the movie doesn’t provide much real emotional impact.
Which makes Silence closer to Passion of the Christ than to Last Temptation. While I felt Scorsese’s Temptation invested in its themes and characters well, Passion felt more superficial, as it emphasized suffering over meaning.
I think Silence strikes more of a balance between the two poles, but I still feel it hews closer to Passion than Temptation, largely because it never connects in an emotional way. In Silence, we see a lot of pain and conflict but we don’t truly feel much of it. Intellectually, I recognized the sacrifices, but these never hit me in a compelling way.
Some of this comes from the fact Silence doesn’t give its leads much to do, though to refer to Rodrigues and Garupe both as “leads” stretches reality. In truth, the film tells Rodrigues’s journey – Garupe enjoys little screen time and plays a surprisingly small role in the proceedings.
That leaves Rodrigues as the major focal point, and this becomes a liability because he remains pretty dull much of the time. Silence gives the character few actions to perform, as it turns him into a passive personality who observes more than he acts.
Rodrigues does go through a crisis of faith, and his path takes twists one may not expect. These intend ultimately to convey his devotion, but again, his essential passivity makes it difficult to connect with him. We don’t truly feel the passion of his beliefs so we don’t fret over his various conflicts.
I simply don’t sense a lot of depth or meaning from Silence. While the film tosses out sacrificial ideas of faith, it tends to feel contrived and not especially convincing, like the characters spout beliefs out of obligation and not emotion.
Much of the movie comes across as a series of lectures. Characters discuss religion and related notions, but they do so in a pedantic manner that doesn’t let these topics ignite. Instead, we tend to get a bland recitation of ideas brought to us with little feeling.
All of this turns Silence into a fairly slow, dull journey. When the movie concentrates on the Japanese Christians, it shows promise, but since it sticks with its lackluster Portuguese lead character so much of the time, the end result turns into a flat, bland tale.