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New Release Review - SILENCE

A pair of 17th century Jesuit priests risk their lives in a search for their mentor, who disappeared in Japan.






Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Adam Driver, Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson, Yosuke Kubozuka, Issei Ogata, Ciaran Hinds, Tadanobu Asano



As I watched Japanese Christians subjected to torture after torture, I found myself asking what they were getting from Christianity that Buddhism failed to offer, but the film never contemplates this question, unfairly pitting Christianity at its best against Buddhism at its worst.



Christian themed movies have been big business for a few years now, at least where the US box office is concerned. But aside from Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, Christian cinema has consisted of shoddy low budget productions with zero appeal beyond church groups bussed in to screenings. That all changed in 2016, with mainstream directors like Kevin Reynolds (Risen), Timur Bekmambetov (Ben-Hur) and now American cinema's most revered living filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, with his adaptation of Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel, Silence, offering us big budget religious spectacles.

The recurring theme in Christian cinema is one of persecution. In contemporary set dramas it's laughable, as particularly in the US, Christians are the dominant cultural force, far from the suppressed minority films like God's Not Dead and its sequel would have you believe. Scorsese's film is set in a time and place where Christians genuinely were persecuted - 17th century Japan.



With the European colonial powers moving into Asia, Japan has outlawed Christianity, enacting brutal torture on those found to be followers of Christ rather than Buddha. Silence opens with Liam Neeson's Jesuit priest, Father Ferrerra, looking on as members of his flock are subjected to immense cruelty by 'inquisitors', Buddhist Japan's equivalent of the Christian Witchfinder Generals of Europe.

A pair of young Jesuit priests and former pupils of Ferrerra's, Father Rodriguez (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) arrive in Japan in search of their mentor, a quest that sees them risk not only their own lives, but those of the Japanese Christians who aid them along the way.

Scorsese made an enemy of the Christian community with 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ, banned in many countries for its perceived blasphemy, but Christians should be content with Silence, as one-sided a piece of religious propaganda as any of those low budget productions the American faithful love so much. Though the protagonists are Jesuits, there's little in their actions to distinguish them as Catholics, meaning Christians of all denominations should be able to get behind their quest.

For those of us who aren't members of the JC fan club, it's not so easy. Silence arrogantly assumes its audience accepts Christianity as the one true faith, failing to provide any evidence to support the film's stance that it's preferrable to Buddhism. As I watched Japanese Christians subjected to torture after torture, I found myself asking what they were getting from Christianity that Buddhism failed to offer; it must be something pretty euphoric for them to risk their lives and those of their families, but the film never answers or contemplates this question, unfairly pitting Christianity at its best against Buddhism at its worst.



With Scorsese at the helm, Silence will draw in as many cinephiles as Christians, but the former group will no doubt find more issues with the film than the latter. At times its tacky approach to portraying its protagonists' beliefs veers close to unintentional humour, with Rodriguez seeing the face of Jesus in everything bar a slice of toast, cringe-inducingly on-the-nose dialogue and voiceover narration, and the most unconvincing rubber severed head since David Warner's in The Omen.

Most baffling is the film's handling of language. It would be naive to expect Scorsese to deliver a subtitled movie on a $50 million budget, so it's understandable that English takes the place of Portuguese here, but this results in head-scratching moments that simply don't make linguistic sense. At one point the phrase "Son of God" is misheard by Japanese Christians as "Sun of God", but while the two phrases sound alike in English, when translated to Portuguese or Japanese, there simply isn't any room for confusion. There's an extended dialogue between Rodriguez and the film's main antagonist, Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata, delivering the film's standout performance), which takes place in English, so we assume both are conversing in Portuguese, but in the following scene an interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) informs the priest that Inoue is incapable of speaking Portuguese. Confused? You will be.



The approach to accents here is just as muddled. Driver commits to maintaining a Portuguese accent throughout, Garfield slips between his Peter Parker New York drawl and a Tony Montana impression, while Neeson makes no effort to disguise his Irish brogue. This is an all too common issue in Hollywood movies set outside the US. Why can't filmmakers ensure their actors are all on the same page in this regard?

Silence has long been a passion project for its director, which makes its general mediocrity all the more difficult to digest. As a Catholic, it's easy to see why Scorsese would be attracted to this narrative - which boils down to an extended torture scene as the Inquisitors attempt to coerce Rodriguez into renouncing his faith, his arrogance resulting in dozens of deaths along the way - but as a visionary filmmaker, Silence's story appears to offer him scant inspiration. Here, Scorsese works in mysterious ways. Will he ever reach the heights of Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy again? Well, we've got to have faith. 

Silence is in cinemas January 1st 2017.





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