Wednesday, 21 December 2016
It's 1640 (the year, not the time), and respected Jesuit priest Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson, making good use of his old Jedi robes) has done a bunk from his business of promoting Catholicism in Japan. Nobody knows what's happened to him, but rumours that he's gone native and apostatised - i.e. renounced Christianity, as Ciarán Hinds helpfully clarifies in an early scene - are causing consternation back in his Portuguese church: Christians in Japan were suffering appalling persecution from the shogunate at the time, with priests and followers tortured and murdered for their beliefs. And so it is that two young, naïve priests, played by Andrew Garfield's enormous hair and Adam Driver's unfathomably peculiar face, set off to find Ferreira like two Martin Sheens on the hunt for a shaggy-haired Marlon Brando. Why Scorsese didn't just call it 'Apostatise Now' remains unclear.
Along the way, Scorsese steadfastly refuses to employ any of his trademark visual whizzpoppery or breakneck editing; there are a couple of dramatic, high angle, God's POV shots sprinkled throughout, but stylistically this is as far removed from The Wolf Of Wall Street as Kundun was from the preceding Casino. That Scorsese can still surprise you with these gear changes at 74 years old is just one reason why it's a privilege to be alive while he's making movies. As expected, Silence is an utter joy to look at too: the Japanese scenery is mysterious, timeless and decidedly Kurosawan (despite being shot in Taiwan), while cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto studies the creases in the Japanese cast's faces in conspiratorial close-up.
Thematically, and for obvious reasons, Silence hews closer to Kundun and The Last Temptation Of Christ before it than Scorsese's more popular fare. But there are shared elements to be found in unlikely places: informants, inquisitors and a woozy sense of paranoia are common to both this and GoodFellas, for example, and Rodrigues' spiritual sense of belonging to a flawed collective that gives his life meaning isn't a million miles away from Henry Hill's calling to the mob. There isn't a single scene in which you doubt that as far back as Rodrigues can remember, he always wanted to be a minister.
Silence is a film of serene power, and should be approached accordingly. It's long, it's talky and it's light on heavy drug use and face-pulping violence, but crucially it's never dull. Its zen-like atmosphere belies its tortuous production history, but it's a thing of great beauty to behold, and if you ever doubted that Martin Scorsese would pull off something so good at this late stage in his career, then shame on you. You should have more faith.