Monday, 16 January 2017

Silence review

Hailed as a modern masterpiece by some critics, blasted as forgettable and boring by others: hit the jump for my views on Martin Scorcese's latest epic...

'Silence' is around three hours long. But it doesn't feel it. 

It feels more like 5.

Aaand, that's not necessarily a bad thing per-say. If you're looking for an exciting blockbuster experience - dragged into the screening by Scorsese, Neeson, and Garfield - then sure, it's not going to be what you were looking for. If, however, you're up for viewing an epic spanning many years - filled with thought and intelligence - and filmed beautifully, then 'Silence' might just be the film for you.

We begin sometime before the main narrative starts, on the windswept shores of a more primitive Nagasaki. Here, Liam Neeson's Ferreira witnesses the disturbing torture of his fellow Christians by the pouring of boiling water over their skin - a truly brutal sight. He is separated from them: watching as if powerless, and he falls to his knees. 

Many years later, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) come into possession of a smuggled letter from Ferreira himself - and information that he has, indeed, apostatized in the face of torture and death. Being their mentor, the two younger priests cannot believe that this would have happened; and so they vow to venture out into the dangerous wasteland - a swamp as it's later called - of 17th century Japan. A mysterious, violent, and perilous nation for the Kakure Kirishitan - who hide in deserted villages, and hold mass at night to avoid being captured by the dreaded Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) - who has taken on an almost legendary presence for the petrified Jesuits. 

And, indeed, the first Act of the film plays out much like an adventure story. Given the sheer time-span of the picture, the run-time, and the stylistic minimalism, I can't really estimate how long this would be - perhaps an hour, or an hour and a half would be my best guess. Leaving Macau, the two priests are joined by their shoddy guide, Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka); who has a disturbed glimmer in his eyes - and a fervent manner that suggests shady business. In Japan, they take on the priestly duties in Tomogi - a small town reasonably close to Nagasaki, where the highest levels of persecution have been recorded. These scenes are grand and majestic - fog lying over the sea, communities cloaked in darkness, and forbidden faith by candlelight. Scorsese's widescreen vistas inspire awe and wonder - and the spirit of adventure, although dulled, is in the air.
Adam Driver in his stunning role.

Slowly, but surely, we notice signs that the priests are, perhaps, not as pious as they themselves would think. They wolf down their food without saying grace, eating in excess of ten fishes each, whilst their hosts have only three to share between them. They complain in their hiding, bored of being confined to a cabin to avoid detection. They hand out cross-shaped totems, knowing in their hearts that they mean nothing to the faith - but are just toys and gimmicks to provide some physical semblance of a silent God. Although, at first, they feel noble and thrilled by the constant suffering of the hiding Christians, Rodrigues begins to wonder if their lives are really worth it at all. They live empty day-to-day existence, constantly in fear, simply to adhere to faith principles. And they do so without a sign, or any real reason, justifying belief. He clearly feels superior to them, almost as a Christ-like figure (a metaphor that is developed as the film progresses) - an indication that suggests that he may not even be a true Christian. But then again, Scorsese asks us, who is?

Amongst the townspeople, Kichijiro is developed the farthest. He has apostatized previously, but not without reason. We are shown the scene from a haunting distance (a common feature of the torture scenes in this film) as his entire family are rolled in straw mats, stacked; or tied to stakes, and burnt alive. We hear their screams of agony - and there is, undoubtedly, no glory in their death. To us, the viewers, Rodriguez always appeared to hail martyrdom as something honorable. Yet Scorsese shows us it's not - and leaves the question open to be decided whether Kichijiro was wrong or not in sparing himself from such indignity and pain.

The brutal prologue, starring Liam Neeson as Ferreira.
I don't usually like talking so much about plot, but I feel it's important to discuss it here (without revealing any spoilers, if you could say there are any to be spoiled) in order to convey the nuanced skill with which the themes and intelligence of the source are explored visually, and through expert characterization.

Although, by the end of this section of the movie, we're not even half way through, the time felt to me to be around the two hour mark. I wasn't bored by it, but there's some sort of issue with the pacing which really makes it drag in portions of its second and third Acts - one of the few negatives I have to voice in this review.

Indeed, in the middle parts of the movie, the Inquisitor invades the village - causing various men to apostatize - and others to drown, crucified, in the furious ocean. Scorsese films this scene with a harrowing honesty - focusing on the writhing and gasping of the men as the water sweeps over their faces again and again for days until their bodies finally give up. When they are burned to avoid a Christian burial, thick plumes of steam rise from the fire - they are too waterlogged to be cremated.

A meeting by candlelight.
This chaos sets into motion the chain of events that leads to the denouement of 'Silence'. Rodrigues and Garrpe part ways (marking a sidelining of Adam Driver despite his beautiful performance: wracked with emotion and a bubbling discontent); Rodrigues is betrayed and imprisoned in Nagasaki in the most distressing and surprising of ways (Jesus, anyone?); and the big questions that this film wants to ask us are finally allowed to rise to the surface.

The core scenes of 'Silence' focus on the inquisitor and the devilish interpreter (Tadanobu Asano playing perhaps the only outright villain of the film) trying to make Rodrigues apostatize himself. Torture doesn't work, as these missionaries see glory in their own deaths. But what about the torture of the poor and miserable? The Christians who these priests should surely exist to serve? As the body count rises, and the pressure increases, Scorsese explodes the thematic material, unleashing a series of unanswerable questions that, religious or not, audiences are going to find it hard to reconcile. Why is God silent (the meaning of the title)? Is it justified to deny your faith in the face of great pain or death? After doing so, can one still be a true Christian? If not, what about denying your faith to save others? Is the most Christian option really to continue to affirm your faith, as you watch your companions die slow, painful deaths for your decisions?

Rodrigues begins to gather the appearance of a Christ figure, and sees the reflection of Jesus in a pool. He even hears the voice of Christ, or God, in his head. Are these real or just delusions? By refusing to apostatize is he selfish? And is he truly pious, given his feelings of superiority and unwillingness to sacrifice for the lives of others? Can his apostatizing be considered a sacrifice? What would Christ do had he been put into the same position?

Misty and mysterious...
Perhaps, if I were to believe in the Bible, and follow the teachings of Christ, I would believe that he would sacrifice himself by apostatizing, in order to save all the people that Rodrigues has effectively had killed by his reluctance. But, A) that's a very reformist Christian view; and B) it cases some difficulty - as it renders the apostate an inherent contradiction. One cannot be truly pious, and yet wholly selfish - yet an apostate can surely not be truly pious either? You get my point, it's a hard line of questioning.

This is a film blog, and I tend not to comment on ethics, but I've read a lot of the Christian response to the film. Being an atheist, I wanted to see what faith-holders had to say on the topic of these questions. And, as per, the result has been rather dismissive and angry (sorry majority of Christians, but your religion has an arrogant, annoying-ass online presence). And, surprisingly (or not, depending how much faith you have in the moral compasses of humanity). the overwhelming verdict from the tinternet seems to be that Rodrigues could not be religious if he apostatized. I'm not sure how this fits in with the ethics of love etc. etc. especially when even the Inquisitor himself acknowledged that trampling on the fumie was only symbolic - and need not show his true intentions. Surely being cruel and selfish is not a Christian principle (it is, after all, highly possible that thes e viewers have misinterpreted the reasoning). But, hey, this kind of tension just goes to show how excellent the novel and the film have been in encouraging discussion.
Just one of the horrifically disturbing and beautifully shot scenes of
persecution of the Kakure Kirishitan. 

Scorsese is beautifully tacit in his cultural nuances. Although, at times, he appears to suggest that the European missionaries are all-around hero figures to the Japanese; it's hard to decipher whether this is a deliberate act, a consequence of veering too close to the source novel, or the simple fact that this film takes place at a moment in which the missionaries were already adored by their followers - and, thus, their savagery is irrelevant. For that purpose, I believe 'Embrace of the Serpent' does a better job. But, the way in which he refuses to dismiss the Japanese Inquisitor as an evil presence (in purity, of course, because he is still an antagonist) is incredibly admirable. In one or two scenes, he explains (at length) his reasons why he feels Christianity should be expelled from Japan - and it's up to the viewer to decide whether these are justified or not. I suspect most will disagree, but, although misguided, I understood these meditations to be valuable cause for thought. The battle of religions is, after all, not a one-sided story.

Some have reckoned that 'Silence' veers to hard into torture porn territory - with it's burnings, beheadings, drownings, and horrific anazuri (Google it) taking up much of the run time. But, in essence, perhaps it makes more sense to include such brutality to be rendered in such detail. When the whole nexus of a picture revolves around the question of suffering; if said suffering is portrayed in weaker or perhaps more conventionally cinematic terms; then surely it detracts from the audience's realization of the thematic verves of the piece, no? In line with this, the intriguing distance and striking quietness with which Scorsese imbues these scenes leave us wanting for some music, or perhaps some additional cinematic haze (slow motion, blur, whatever (hey, what would Tarantino do?)). But, alas, it never comes - much to the directors credit. His point, essentially, is that there is no point in the sacrifice in these men - a sharp beheading serves to show this. Filmic treatments of death have never been so realistically rough.
A prison scene in which Rodrigues administers advice.

In fact, come to speak of it, this film has (to all intents and purposes) no soundtrack. There is an OST album, consisting of ambient sounds and gentle melodies - but these all come through as diegetic in the finished picture. Indeed, this has three effects. Firstly, it renders the landscapes and dialogue incredibly serious (more on that later) - evoking an air of misty mysticism around the contours of the screen. Secondly, it makes the scenes of pain and agony borderline unwatchable; to the point where you really wish there was more than silence (perhaps echoing Rodrigues's frustrations at the lack of signs he receives from God). But, thirdly, and unfortunately, it really makes the running narrative drag. The soundtrack of a movie is a vital component of it's success: both epitomizing the moment, and adding a crucial layer of style to the overall soundscape employed throughout. In the case of 'Silence', although the ambient soundscape is gorgeous; the non-diegetic one (or at least the overtly non-diegetic one) could really do with some work. Maybe in a similar vein to the trailer music? In any case, it's a stylistic touch that oozes uniqueness, and doesn't warrant outright condemnation.

The acting standards are indeed incredibly high - as perhaps you would expect from my explanation so far. Garfield, in particular, marks the transition between naivety and realisation at roughly the same pace of the audience - engendering an altogether symbiotic relationship with the viewer. There are a lot of nuances to carry forward in this portrayal, and he does so incredibly well, accentuating the positive and negative attributes of an increasingly complex person. Driver, likewise, in his screen-time, oozes a tangible stream of emotion. He seems to lack the brainwashed devotion of Rodrigues, and, as such, begins to break the earliest. Yet, from a surface reading of the material, he doesn't have as much to lose - and, thus, when we next meet him, he is entirely disheveled and broken. Supporting characters also put in a good shout; despite the heavily accented English proving hard to understand at points. To that effect, one wonders why Scorsese insisted on the missionaries speaking in Portuguese accents. I'm not too good at deciphering dialect, but from what I understand, the result hasn't been entirely accurate.
Beautiful vistas fill the widescreen ratio.

Now onto my few actual criticisms of the film, some of which aren't Scorsese's fault persay, but hark back to Shusaku Endo's original work. Kichijiro, I feel, is an annoying presence. In his first few appearances, and in a very central scene, he serves the film in positive ways you wouldn't believe. But, after this, he repeatedly jumps into the action without additional purpose; and undermines a lot of the work that has been put in creating a serious and believable tone. On top of this, Scorsese's tonal watermark never really deviates from deadly serious - which isn't appropriate for a three-hour magnum opus. A much shorter film this month, 'Manchester by the Sea', punctuated its immense sadness with bursts of cathartically black humor. 'Silence' is entirely melodramatic and self-serious, and so, at times, becomes inadvertently funny. Perhaps on four or five occasions, various members of the audience laughed out loud at some ridiculously overwrought scene... The structure feels a little messy - such that I anticipated a conclusion after what must have been just over an hour, only to have another two hours of footage to watch - which contributed to the second act dragging. And, as I mentioned, I think a soundtrack would be beneficial.

Discounting those things, what we're left with is a very singular experience. A haunting, moving, and intriguing picture coated in mists and mystery. A brutal, ambiguous, and overall challenging meditation on faith  that'll reward active viewers. It may feel twice its length; but that's just part of it's aura. Highly recommended.

'Silence' gets 4 stars!

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