Martin Scorsese is no stranger to exploring Christianity in his work. He’s made a career of directing films about the plight of the sinner, from mobsters to a debaucherous Wall Street tycoon, and in between he made the “The Last Temptation of Christ,” an examination of Jesus Christ as he struggles with various unholy desires that was widely protested by religious groups when it was released in 1988.
But no other movie shows his fascination with the Catholic faith as much as his latest, “Silence.” And he has thrown out most of the trademarks he’s leaned on over a 50-year career to create a fascinatingly un-Scorsese movie.
In late-1600s Japan, Jesuit priest Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has been captured by a man known as the Inquisitor for introducing Japanese villages to Christianity, a religion that has been forbidden in the country since the Shimabaa Rebellion. Word has finally gotten back to Portugal 10 years later that Ferreira has committed apostasy, so priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) volunteer to find their mentor.
As in the trailer, the opening of “Silence” feels like akin to the search for Colonel Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now.” But “Silence” is not that at all.
Rodriguez and Garrpe find a Japanese guide named Kichijiro (remarkably played by Yôsuke Kubozuka) who can smuggle them into the country. They then find themselves overcome by Japanese Christians who want them to lend their services (which they must do at night so as not to attract attention) and give confession.
The movie is less a journey to find a man than it is a test of Rodriguez and Garrpe’s faith (along with their sanity).
The Inquisitor soon learns that the priests are in Japan, which leads to the villagers suffering. In one case, three men who would not spit on the crucifixion are tied to crosses in a body of water at low tide and find themselves battling drowning by the time high tide comes and waves crash on them. They eventually die on the crosses.
Throughout all of this, Scorsese tells the story in an extremely intimate tone. Wide shots are sparse, as is music. The performances by his actors drive the story. Garfield in particular commands the screen. With an inner monologue used throughout, his internal conflict and highs and lows open a flood of emotion from Garfield. Though Scorsese has been trying to make this movie for close to 30 years, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the Rodriguez character.
Another triumph for the film is that Scorsese doesn’t try to make it something it’s not. Though this is not the first time he’s made a period film, in “Silence” he doesn’t try to get cute with using music outside of the era, as he did with the Peter Gabriel songs in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” or dazzle us with fancy camerawork as in “Gangs of New York.” Instead he keeps “Silence” solely focused on the story and it enriches the film greatly — even if it won’t be for everyone.
As the Inquisitor and his men’s mind games and torture increase, Garfield’s performance only becomes more remarkable. Though it’s tough to say he will win an Oscar for the role (as Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea” is equally powerful), he should certainly receive a nomination.
Scorsese should also be recognised. At 74, the auteur has proven that he can still surprise audiences with his storytelling.
“Silence” opens in limited release December 23 and nationwide January 6.