Let’s start with a confession: forgive me father, but I couldn’t stand Silence.
Martin Scorsese is one of the Gods of modern film making and, at his best, one of my idols, of course. But sacreligious as it may seem, I found his latest epic Silence unbearable.
I also get that was partly the point. It’s a tale of 17th century Jesuit priests taking their fervour to the Shoguns of Japan who, for their part, are pretty keen on stamping out Christianity in as brutal a way as possible.
What draws our priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) to Japan is the story that one of their number, a fearsome devout played by Liam Neeson, has gone native and not only renounced his religion but has taken up living in the countryside outside Nagasaki.
Amid scenes of torture, burning, crucifixion and beheading, the film plays out in a series of grim tableaux, mainly focusing on Garfield’s attempts to remain faithful to his God and not tread on an image of him or the Virgin, an act which would mark his apostasy.
Scorsese has of course always dripped his films with religious imagery and symbolism, guilt and redemption being major themes for this one-time seminary student, elements that make his gangster films all the more stylish and resonant, his characters all the more conflicted. However, here, he struggles with the “Silence” itself. It’s practically deafening.
I found the Portuguese accents grating, tho not half as awkward as the Japanese actors speaking English, which is nigh on ridiculous at times. Everyone on screen looks convinced of the absolute seriousness of it all, but this failed to translate to me. I didn’t admire the many priests who suffered outrageous cruelties to prove their faith, as the waters rise to drown them on their crosses, or they let molten spring water burn their flesh to cinders.
While I was mainly reminded of Bridge on the River Kwai or Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, I find this sort of allegorical cinema an ordeal, a very Catholic ordeal. I have the same issue with Mel Gibson, to be honest, and Pasolini, and even Dreyer. I can’t be this morose, this tortured, this committed to God, for two and half hours. I”m sure there’s something in there very relevant to our current ideological wars, about religious intolerance or something, but it failed to hit me.
Plus I thought the thing looked dreadful, stony, parched and dusty. I missed the suits, the food, the music of Scorsese, I missed the wit, the excess, the debauchery, all the things people have to atone for eventually, which all proves that sin makes for better movies than piety.