Silence: Not Silent Enough (review)

Scorsese’s Silence is a movie naturally within my sphere of interest, so of course I knew I had to see it, but between this and that, it took me over a month before I found time for it. Was it worth it? Weeeell…. kinda.

First, the good bits: the visuals are verging on genius. Rodrigo Prieto fully deserves his second Oscar nomination for cinematography. Japan (or rather, Taiwan playing the part) hasn’t looked that bleak, cold and unwelcoming on screen in a long while. It’s a welcome change from the usual way of portraying its landscape, especially in western cinema. You can feel every lashing of the cruel ocean, every damp waft of fog; the light, the wind, the rain, all play at least as much part in the first half of the movie as the actors themselves (it did help that the weather in London these past few days was the bleakest I remember). Somewhat jarring in all this is the use of sounds associated with Japan’s hot, dry summer – cicadas, summer birds – for the ambience, but I’m guessing it’s not something most viewers would notice.

Speaking of actors: there’s no bad acting in Silence (it is a Scorsese, after all) but of the three Westerners, a woefully underused Adam Driver steals every scene he’s in – I won’t be the first reviewer to note he should’ve gotten the lead; Andrew Garfield is mostly adequate – though he comes into his own the nearer the climax we get – and Liam Neeson plays “Liam Neeson’s priestly figure” – though more Qui-gon Jinn than Father Fielding. The entire middle act of the movie hinges on the performances of the Japanese, and what performances they are! A veteran comedian Issei Ogata is ridiculously brilliant as “Inquisitor” Inoue – easily a role of his life. Tadanobu Asano, here without his trademark goatee, is almost his equal, his polite, disarming smile hiding the cold, ruthless efficiency of a government official; it’s lucky he came in to replace Ken Watanabe, whose overbearing charisma would likely imbalance the scenes with the interpreter. Yosuke Kubozuka‘s Kichijiro is a shining light of the movie, a tragically comic character of which we learn tantalizingly little: a movie with him as the main protagonist would make a much more compelling story, if not exactly the story either Endo or Scorsese wished to tell.

So in terms of pure cinema craftsmanship, from cinematography to acting, Silence is a very good movie. Where it fails is the script – a script which Scorsese and his pet writer Cocks developed for decades, but which nonetheless suffers from several major drawbacks.

The deadliest sin is the use of narration. Ironically for a movie titled “Silence”, there’s barely any silence at all, especially in the first and third act. There were moments where I prayed for Andrew Garfield to just shut up and contemplate his predicament quietly for a while. I haven’t seen a voiceover narration this pointless and distracting since the producer’s cut of Blade Runner. There is virtually nothing that the voiceover adds to what’s already shown on the screen; at times, comically so, when we are literally told what’s happening before our eyes, as in the scene where some prisoners are given sake and the narrator comments: “they were given sake”. Scorsese keeps slavishly to how Endo’s book is written – the narration follows Father Rodrigues’s letters and diaries at first, then the voiceover keeps quiet where the book is written in third person, to return to voiceover at the end, just as Endo returns again to letters. I can’t fathom what made Scorsese film it this way, as if forgetting he was making a movie, not an illustrated audio-book.

The script is too uneven to be fully enjoyed; the movie’s a little bit too long, a little too repetitive at times, and the climax falls flat due to pacing problems. Its treatment of Driver’s Father Garrpe is criminal. A potentially crucial secondary character is reduced to a few bits, and in the end, it’s not even certain why he was there in the first place. I can see why Garrpe is important in the book, but in the adaptation his role fizzles out with barely any consequence to the plot or character development. Again, it seems like a matter of slavishly following the written source: Garrpa’s in the book, so he must be in the movie, even if his presence amounts to almost nothing. (Father Ferreira is similarly underused, though his role in the plot is more clear; Liam Neeson fails to switch between two versions of his character, and if his decision has any negative consequences, they are never clearly shown. He may have wanted to play it subtle, but subtlety at this point was not necessary.)

The one moment where Scorsese decides to modify the story – the final scene – belies both the message of the source material and the movie itself. The ending is far too unambiguous, far too easy, considering the complex and multi-layered psychology of everything told before. And, I feel important to note, it is a false ending, at least as far as the history of Christianity in Japan, and the Far East in general, is concerned. The sapling did not take root in the swamp, other than in the hearts of a tiny minority whom Endo himself represented.

What other problems I have with Silence are problems with both Shusaku Endo’s narrative and Christianity in general, so they don’t belong in this review. Despite these criticisms, it’s still a good movie – and definitely worth seeing on the big screen, if at all; I really can’t praise the visuals enough. It’s just a pity that it falls short of the brilliance it could have been if only Scorsese had more faith in his own skill as a cinematic storyteller (I mean, come on! You’re Martin Fuckin’ Scorsese!) and less devotion to the source material; although judging by that change to the last few seconds of Rodrigues’s story, even that’s not certain.

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