Friday, January 13, 2017

OVP: Silence (2016)

Film: Silence (2016)
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Issey Ogata, Yosuke Kubozuka, Liam Neeson
Director: Martin Scorsese
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Cinematography)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

Martin Scorsese has had a long enough career that his filmography means many things to many people.  To most of his present-day fans, he is a filmmaker associated with mob movies, crime films with strong male leads like Robert de Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio.  GoodFellas, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street-films filled with machismo, winking dark comedy, and strong acting and editing.  For older film fans, he was the provocateur behind such groundbreaking works as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, classics in every sense of the word.  But there is a third batch of under-sung cinema from Scorsese-those based so deeply in the world of faith.  This makes sense, particularly for a man who once aspired to become a priest, and Silence is the latest installment in Scorsese's grappling with his religious beliefs.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film, set during the 17th Century, follows two Spanish priests, Father Rodrigues (Garfield) and Father Garupe (Driver) as they set out on a mission into Japan, where Christianity will frequently be punished with death, in order to find their mentor Father Ferreira (Neeson).  The film follows them as they begin a very dangerous mission, meeting with Christians in hiding all across Japan, all afraid of being put to death for their beliefs or being forced to commit apostasy in order to survive.

The movie largely focuses on two aspects of this story, one where we see a relatively routine set of circumstances executed over-and-over (the priests making some progress in pushing Christianity, then to be forced to test their faith and likely die in the process), with Garupe and Rodrigues (later just Rodrigues as Garupe drowns trying to save someone being killed as a test of faith against him), serving as witnesses, until Rodrigues finally meets Father Ferreira, who has assimilated to the culture of Japan, and is convinced that he must apostatize as it's the only way to end the heinous violence in Japan, and that Christianity cannot take hold on the island.  This is a compelling story, one that has a number of interesting characters, including a Toshiro Mifune-like figure in Kichijiro (Kubozuka), frequently finding himself at odds with his alcoholism, weak spine, but devout (if perhaps less-than-pious) faith.  I liked the way that it always felt like we were at the edges of danger until we sort of plunge into the "heart of darkness" (it's impossible not to feel the weight of Apocalypse Now! on the movie) aspects of the film.

More compelling still, though, is the way that Scorsese doesn't shy away from very heavy-handed questions of faith and humanity.  While the repetitive story is happening, we see a contrast in our central protagonist of Rodrigues, who is continually struggling with his devout nature.  The movie ends with him sticking to Christianity, as he is holding a cross as he's cremated, but we also see him wonder what sacrifices god is expecting of man.  The question of Christ, for example, is frequently ascertained but Christ is a god, while Rodrigues a mere mortal man-can he be expected to fulfill the same sort of sacrifice without doubt?  It's a fascinating set of questions posed by Scorsese, ones that he can't answer (really, truly, no one can), but ones that he poses in a complex and fascinating way.  This is a film that will have you reexamining and recalling for weeks after viewing.

Silence is not an easy film to love-this isn't a film like Carol or Gravity that needs to be seen many times over because you love it so much, but it's a challenging and remarkable masterpiece.  It's staggering to me that at such a late stage in his career Scorsese is still surprising us with a movie like this, breeding together Coppola and Bergman and a touch of Malick for a provocative film, arguably the most complicated movie I saw in 2016.  I would encourage anyone who likes him or doesn't to check it out-you might not like it (and it's a long sit), but it feels like the sort of movie that becomes essential because it's too good not to be.

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