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Reviewing Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a challenge on par with enduring the film itself. I’d go as far as arguing that this is the biggest compliment I can pay this film.Silence is a feature that thrives on challenging its audience. The film wants us to suffer through lengthy patches of nothingness. It craves our undivided attention but almost dares us to feel uninterested or distanced. This is far from Scorsese’s usual style, but the conviction he tackles this unusual quietness with is fascinating. Clocking in at 161 minutes, the film can feel more like an endurance test than a Scorsese feature, but Silence is the rare film that pushes its audience to dedicate them self to it. If you do, it’s undeniably rewarding. You might find yourself checking the time on more than one occasion. Yet, by the time the credits roll, you’ll be glad you stuck with it.

In the 1600’s two Jesuit priests named Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) learn that their former mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has travelled to Japan and been tortured into apostasy, abandoning his faith. They believe they should venture from Portugal (their home) to Japan to return him to the correct culture. However, they struggle to bring themselves through the violence and trauma they experience while they are persecuted on their journey.

As you can tell, Silence isn’t a very cheerful film, but its unrelenting grimness is one of its defining traits. This is a film that will batter you into submission with its pessimism and visceral scenes of torture. Yet, at the same time its a film that feels absolutely necessary in everything it does. If you’re religious and you see this in a cinema, you’ll likely suffer cardiac arrest by the midpoint. If you’re an Atheist then, well, this will pretty much confirm everything you believe. Silence is unafraid to tackle big questions about religion. This is primarily where the film lands on its strongest material. Watching two priests journey to find their apostatised mentor is a solid story, but watching one of those men slowly begin to question their own faith along the way? Now that is interesting.

Andrew Garfield plays that man, and he plays him with a career best performance. The bulk of the film lies on Garfield’s shoulders once Rodrigues and Garupe are separated. Some of the sequences he has to carry require a staggering level of commitment. And yet, he pulls it off. The way Garfield’s performance and the film’s script compliment each other is fascinating to experience. As Rodrigues starts to doubt his faith, he does so during moments of Prayer. The film depicts these as pieces of dialogue that remain locked away in his mind but are audibly presented to the audience, giving us an almost Godlike positioning in that we are able to hear unspoken words and desires. The film nudges Rodrigues down this path fantastically gently. It never gives him an all out rage moment but keeps this constant doubt noticeable whenever necessary. Garfield nails this arc in his performance.

Driver and Neeson are on top form too, making the most out of their elongated dialogue pieces but holding back enough to prohibit their atypical characters slipping into sillier territory. It’s Tadanobu Asano who claims Supporting Performance victory here, though. The performance he gives as a Japanese interpreter is brilliantly controlled. Watch as he navigates languages on screen like a maze, and still nails the emotional beats necessary and demonstrates impeccable comic timing during the film’s few laughs. It’s likely to go unrecognised during Award season, but it’s a sensational performance nonetheless.

Silence also has a superb hold on its visual symbolism. Early in the film Scorsese resorts to gigantic overhead shots, angles that only seem possible as if the camera represents God, staring down upon his followers. Once Rodrigues begins to question his faith, these shots just disappear. It’s something that goes unnoticed in the moment, but when you discuss the film’s cinematography post-viewing (which you likely will, it’s breathtaking), you begin to notice the way Scorsese is making use of bizarre but endlessly fascinating camera tricks.

Repeatedly, he favours swinging the camera back to its starting point and finding a new focus rather than simply cutting away to the next shot. The sudden camera pulls are jarring, but in a brilliantly effective way. It pulls you out of the moment and then plunges you straight back in again within a matter of seconds. More immediately noticeable is the way the film treats its more violent sequences. After an unexpected beheading, the camera positions itself inside Rodrigues’ current prison cell. It uses one of the prisons bars to separate the body from its decapitated head within the frame. It might not sound like much, but when coupled with other characters’ beliefs that Rodrigues is becoming the cause for unnecessary pain to those around him, it becomes a stark and powerful image.

To a more subtle degree, candles will flicker wildly in the background while Rodrigues is on screen. Yet, they remain perfectly calm to those who stay entirely dedicated to their faith. It’s this range of complex symbolism that pushes Silence into something great. It’s unafraid to look at big questions about religion, and it’s not scared of depicting torture in the harshest way. People are suspended on crucifixes and left in the sea to drown. Others are hung upside down for days on end with a small cut in their throats to stop their heads filling with blood and leading to an earlier, quicker death. The torture scenes are brutal, but they hit so hard because the rest of Silence is so calm.

While the film arguably could do with a bit of a trimming, and the tedious pacing begins to grate, Scorsese manages to turn even these issues into something you appreciate when you look back on the film. A tighter edit and quicker narrative might make for a more enjoyable film, but this isn’t Scorsese wanting us to have a good time. This is Scorsese wanting us to try hard and push ourselves, and he has succeeded. You’ll probably struggle with Silence while you watch it, but that struggle is a big part in the whole experience. It’s what makes this film special.

Verdict

Working its slow pace and excessive runtime into something intentionally challenging, Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a deeply thoughtful take on religious history that benefits from exceptional performances, beautiful cinematography and powerful visual symbolism.

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