SILENCE, drama, rated R; Regal Stadium 14, Violet Crown; 2.5 chiles
Martin Scorsese’s Silence, like the subject it tackles, is a movie best approached with an abundance of faith. It’s a bloated, unwieldy labor of love, blessed with some magnificent cinematography (by Rodrigo Prieto), a few good performances, and plenty of anguished religious philosophy to provide food for thought and discussion. But you might be better off spending two hours and 41 minutes with a Jesuit priest.
Scorsese’s movie is adapted from the 1966 novel of the same name by Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo. In basic structure, it’s a Heart of Darkness story, a perilous journey into the unknown in search of a mythic figure who may have gone native. It follows two 17th-century Jesuits, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), who learn that their former teacher Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) is missing in Japan and presumed apostate.
The two young priests cannot believe that their mentor could have renounced his faith. They petition their superior (Ciarán Hinds) to let them journey to Japan to find the man and discover the truth. They are warned that their mission will be fraught with peril, and is it ever. Japan in those days was hostile to the efforts of Catholic missionaries to plant their foreign religion in traditional Buddhist soil, and religious authorities employed methods we do not traditionally associate with Buddhism to root out the invader.
The chief nemesis of the Catholics is the Inquisitor, Inoue, a ruthless defender of the Buddhist faith played with smiling, sneering gusto by Issey Ogata, the only person in the movie who seems to be having a good time. He and his minions slice, dice, burn, and drown Japanese converts to the Church of Rome in wholesale numbers.
The movie opens with a beautifully filmed scene of torture by scalding water, as Father Ferreira watches in horror through swirling mists of steam. Scenes of mist and fog persist through much of the film’s first half, reflecting the difficulty faith faces in finding its way. Rodrigues and Garrpe, strangers in a strange land, grope their way along together for a while. When they separate, the jug-eared Driver disappears from the story and we follow the less interesting Garfield. We glance occasionally at our watches, wondering how long we will have to endure before Liam Neeson shows up again.
Too long. But his arrival, when it comes, is a breath of air. Ferreira makes a powerful case against the kind of rigid fundamentalist doctrine Rodrigues has been clinging to. For the true believer, his arguments are an insidious test of faith, a last temptation of the Christ-like Rodrigues. For the rationalist, they seem like plain good sense.
Do cultures so vastly foreign to one another even understand the same concepts from the words and symbols used to represent them? Scorsese wrestles with some powerful religious demons in this heartfelt epic of faith. But great passion, even in the hands of a great filmmaker, doesn’t necessarily make a great movie. — Jonathan Richards
All agony, no ecstasy: Liam Neeson