Writers: Martin Scorsese
Verdict: … Eh?
Y’know, for a film that tries so hard to be though provoking, that tries so hard to talk about weighty issues, the thing that’s most surprising about Silence is that having seen A Monster Calls and La La Land the same day, (AMC review here, LLL review here), I remember the two of those films, especially La La Land which some idiot might call frivolous, a whole lot more than Silence. Silence being a movie that aims for great things.
Silence follows two jesuit priests who hear that their tutor has denounced the faith in public so they go on search for him to find out the truth. This is in the days in which Christians were facing massive pursecution in Japan by the Buddhists there. The trailer makes it look like an exciting thriller that delves into what it means to be Christian. It has exciting music, (seriously could someone tell me what that song is?), it has religios themes and symbolism, it’s quickly cut and features hints of extreme torture. What’s not to love? It’s a shame then that what we’ve gotten is a pretty turgid religious debate.
I have seen some pretty stinky reviews of Silence, not least from my own stable at The Gryphon which really read like a one star review, and it’s also recieved some glowing ones. For me it’s more like a low three star, entertaining as that The Gryphon review is. When it ended I left feeling pretty good but on reflection that might just be because it’s punishing 2 hour and 39 minute running time had finished. I have a policy that no film needs to be 3 hours long – Magnolia always being the film that made me thing twice about that but it still doesn’t really need to be that length. Films like Fight Club and Pulp Fiction are long films but what they do is they fill their running time with stuff, with new things, with new acts and plot points and things happening. Silence on the other hand, seems to stay for a really long time in it’s most uninteresting scenarios, go over the same conversations again and again, and could really do with being produced by Roger Corman, (The Little Shop of Horrors, The Fall of the House of Usher). Matin Scorcese, incedentally, started out under Roger Corman making those quick, cheap, exploitation films like Boxcar Bertha, but my God he’s lost his way making incredibly bloated films like this. The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorcese’s last film is actually three hours long but that film has a bit more of an excuse to be that long, there’s stuff you can cut out, but if you cut it out you’d probably end up with a film about the length of Silence which is already too long, because there’s a lot of stuff and plot in The Wolf of Wall Street. There really, really isn’t in Silence.
Now that doesn’t mean that there isn’t good stuff in Silence. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, (The Wolf of Wall Street, Argo, Brokeback Mountain), is maybe Scorcese’s best. The performances are almost universally really good; Liam Neeson, (Schindler’s List, Taken), for one, this came out the same day as A Monster Calls and he is really spectacular in both of them. His character is somewhat reminiscent of the Kurtz character in Apocalypse Now, (more on that later), and his performance has something of the Brandos in Apocalypse Now in Silence. Adam Driver, (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Paterson, Girls) is quickly becoming a household name and quite right too because he is a very, very good actor with a lot of range. If Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote gets off the ground with Driver that’s something I want to see. Andrew Garfield, (The Social Network, Hacksaw Ridge, The Amazing Spider-Man), on the other hand does what he can bless him, and he’s a great actor, he just can’t do the Portugese accent, (which really isn’t that necessary anyway, Liam Neeson doesn’t do it), and he’s just incredibly hammy. The real stars of the show though are the Japanese actors. Issei Ogata, (Tony Takitani), Tadanobu Asano, (Thor, Ichi the Killer), Shin’ya Tsukamoto, (Tetsuo, the Iron Man), (I’m so glad this is a written blog because don’t ask me to pronounce their names I’ll make a right fool of myself), are all really, really good. A film about them would have been top notch. In terms of other good stuff in the film, the scenes of torture are horrible, and viceral, and deeply troubling, as they should be, and they work within the emotional arcs of the film really, really well.
In the end Silence has a deeper trouble than length and repetativeness. The film plays out like a religious debate, and Martin Scorcese is just not an independant adjudicator, so it feels like all the best points are either being lost, blown over, or just not brought up at all. Scorcese being the devout Catholic he is; he reportedly came across this book just after he’d made The Last Temptation of Christ, which famously strips away the divinity of Jesus, and you can’t help but feel like Scorcese felt he owed a debt, like he had to atone for his sins but couldn’t, like the oppressed Japanese villagers. Also, it has problems with casting American and Irish actors to play portugese people. There are good Portugese or at least Hispanic actors out there give them a chance y’know. Also, you can’t help but feel like Mance Rayder has sent out Spiderman and Kylo Ren to track down the guy from Taken. It’s all a bit silly to be honest.
Also, the film is essentially Heart of Darkness again, just in Japan with Christians, and I’m sorry but that’s never a good sign. I could have been proved wrong on that point; Apocalypse Now is a great film, but like Silence, it’s a bit long. There’s a perfectly good 100 minute, religiously themed thriller in here I’d be perfectly happy to watch. I mean christ, The Witch is nearly half the length, and it touches on so many of the same points and themes a whole lot better, and with a really compelling narrative to boot. Silence is not bad, but it’s not a whole lot of good either. The headline of the aformentioned The Gryphon article, scathing as the review is, “3 hours of listening to Martin Scorcese’s ego”, isn’t as far wrong as some might think.