Sunday, January 15, 2017

Review: "Silence" is a Powerful Yet Challenging Look at Faith

Scene from Silence
In a recent interview, director Martin Scorsese claimed that he doesn't see new movies because "The images don't mean anything." This statement has likely been said by many elder statesman of the arts, but few have the continuing reputation of the 74-year-old acclaimed filmmaker whose work continues to be provocative and inspiring. In his latest Silence, he takes a passion project that he's been working on for 28 years and turns to story of Portuguese Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan into one of his most personal, wrenching, and challenging films to date. It may isolate those expecting films like The Aviator or more recently with The Wolf of Wall Street; but for those willing to give Scorsese's most artful film to date a chance, it may end up being one of the most rewarding, frustrating masterworks he's ever created where almost every frame is rich with detail and meaning that makes Scorsese's disinterest in modern cinema not a moment of delusion, but a call for everyone to try harder.

It isn't tough to point out Scorsese's fascination with his Catholic faith. The story goes that he almost became a priest before turning to film where even early hits such as Mean Streets focused around the struggle of the individual. His body of work can even be summarized as sharing the theme of "No man is without sin," as he explores often without judgment the evil in the world and the temptation to not fall victim to it. Silence is the most literal interpretation of the themes he's been building on for half a century now. The only difference is that the film doesn't culminate in a clash of themes both visual in literal. Instead, Scorsese's most personal film is among his slowest, quietest films that he's ever made. It's a test of faith that both resonates in story and the long gestating production to get the film made; and it captures the essence perfectly from the very beginning.

The story follows Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) as they journey to find the fallen priest Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson); who is seen at the start of the film staring at the hatred of his Japanese captors, who wish for him not to spread their faith in a Buddhist land. The myth is that Japan is a swamp, and that nothing new grows there. Despite this, Rodrigues and Garrpe take on the arduous task of finding Ferreira to restore his faith as well as deal with the people of Japan who cite Jesus as their savior, but who become banished and tortured for their beliefs. It's a hostile journey, and one that comes sparingly but effectively with violence. Most of the moments are spent in quiet meditation, praying that God will save them from the peril at hand.

Garfield continues his exceptional 2016 run of films with a performance that is gripping as it is quiet. He is a man of faith who does his best to believe that God will guide him. Scorsese's slow direction effectively shows the decline into disbelief and worry that God isn't speaking to Rodrigues. The atmosphere becomes intense, leaving him in the face of danger without any protection. He watches the tragedy fall, which becomes harder to hold as the choice to disown his beliefs can keep him alive against the nefarious, overpowering leaders who behead the opposition. Silence doesn't make the threat immediate, instead leaving strands of hope that this nightmare will be resolved by a last minute save, that prayer will do the trick.

Scorsese isn't judgmental of either side, never demeaning Rodrigues' captors, instead allowing them to explain their own problems with other faiths. It may seem blasphemous to the deeply religious audience members, but it creates parallels that raise tougher questions. Is it right to spread faith to those who don't want it? Is it right to torture in the name of religion? None of it is clear, but like Scorsese himself, he finds a way to hold faith amid the ambiguity. The film's title even applies to over a quarter of the running time, which chooses to allow silence for the characters to self-reflect in their actions. What should be forgiven? Are they doing the right thing? What does any of this mean? Much like how The Wolf of Wall Street received controversy for not demeaning the debauchery, Silence doesn't want to give a convenient answer, choosing to create challenging cinema.

What is probably the film's strongest suit is that it is one of the most visually stunning movies of the decade. Cinematographer Rodigo Prieto does an amazing job of capturing the landscapes of Japan by creating a natural landscape that feels hostile as well as earthy. There are countless shots of silent actions that will scar the audience, leaving a sense of awe of what the visual medium can do. The moments are unrelenting and help to make this Scorsese's biggest step into world cinema that he has ever created. Never before has he found the beauty of landscapes before quite like this. He doesn't even fall back on the stereotypical 70's rock soundtrack. This is as pure of form as he'll ever get, and it only seems right that it will provoke audiences based on their own spirituality. For those with deeper beliefs, it will resonate in ways that more atheistic viewers will just see as nonsensical struggles. With all of this said, it defines Scorsese better than his most revered films, and its challenging nature is essential. It may be an outlier of sorts for him stylistically, but he has never been clearer as an artist.

Silence is a film of awe-inspiring power, choosing to explore faith in ways that aren't convenient but remain deeply personal. Garfield solidifies himself as an actor worthy of more praise, giving what is likely to be one of the most understated performances of the year. Not a shot goes by in this film that doesn't have a deeper meaning. Everything in this, ironically, speaks volumes of the film's central themes as well as the artist making it. Scorsese has proven yet again that when he criticizes modern culture, it isn't because he's irrelevant. It's because he wants movies to matter the way that he feels about Silence. It should be a labor of love instead of paychecks. Maybe that more than the deeper themes is what should be taken away from Silence's powerful execution. Cinema just needs to try harder to resonate and mean something.

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