Here's a slightly exaggerated version of the scene at my house this past Saturday morning:
Me: Hey, I'm going to see the new movie Silence this afternoon.
Everyone Else: What's that?
Me: The new Martin Scorsese movie.
Everyone Else: [Blank stares]
Me: Seriously? Martin Scorsese! Only one of the best directors of our times [Side note: Did that make me sound positively insufferable? Probably. But, seriously, it's Scorsese! Side note to my side note: Wow. I just can't help myself, huh.]
Everyone Else: You don't say. What's he made?
Me: Um, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, a bunch of Leonardo Dicaprio movies I know you've seen, a couple of HBO shows I know you haven't.
Everyone Else: Wait. Isn't Scorsese the one with the big eyebrows, the guy who was in those commercials?
Me: Yes, the one with the big eyebrows. I don't know which commercials you're talking about, though, because he's done a lot of 'em.
Everyone Else: What's this Silence movie about?
Me: [Blank stare followed by hemming and hawing]
Everyone Else: Do you not know what it's about?
Me: Okay. Not really. I haven't read any reviews nor have I seen any of the trailers. I want to say two Jesuit priests travel to 19 th century Japan to spread Christianity but end up having their own crisis of faith in the process. [Yeah. I was wrong. 17 th century Japan, not 19 th]. Andrew Garfield is the young priest, and Liam Neeson is around as an older priest [Actually, Adam Driver is the second priest with Garfield, and they are only in Japan to find Neeson]. It's based on an old Japanese novel [Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel of the same name to be exact]. Oh, also, it's nearly 3 hours long.
Everyone Else: Why are you going?
Me: Because people on the internet said it was brilliant. Not just any people, though. People I talk to on Twitter. Blogger people. So, to quote Jerry Maguire, "Who's coming with me?"
Everyone Else: [Silence, appropriately enough]
And then, I swear to God, an actual tumbleweed floated by, all gentle like on the breeze. Wait. How are tumbleweeds getting into the house? Wow. I should really stop writing this right now and get that checked out. That's not normal.
To put all of that another way, Silence is a tough sell. Scorsese spent a quarter of a century trying to get this movie made, and with good reason. The money people simply didn't love their chances of getting a solid return on investment with a movie about faith, spirituality and the nature of human existence. After all, Scorsese's other two films about religion - 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ and 1997's Kundun - didn't even clear $20 million domestic combined.
Truthfully, Silence only exists because Mexican producer Gaston Pavlovich (A Hologram for the King ) eventually agreed to fully finance the budget , thought to be $50 million. Based on Silence 's current dim box office prospects, Pavlovich essentially flushed that $50m down the toilet, but he is the true patron saint of this movie, stepping in to allow Scorsese to create what is a very challenging, yet ultimately rewarding work of art.
The challenging part is most obviously the 161-minute length, which features multiple dragged out sequences and is in no way lessened by any levity (I laughed twice because there are but the two jokes in the whole film) or even an orchestral score (the only song I remember hearing is the one sung by a persecuted Christian as he rejoices about getting to go to paradise moments before dying).
However, beyond the length the true challenge lies in the subject matter and what the film asks of its viewer. As Josh Tarpley laid out in his review for KeithLovesMovies, Silence ponders multiple big "what does it all mean, man?" ideas:
Do our actions matter as long as we have the right beliefs?
Do we worship the idea of being "correct" at the expense of real human connection/experience?
Who are the "bad guys?" Those using their religion to torture others for believing differently? Or those bringing a foreign lifestyle to indigenous people, thus bringing torture and death to the innocent?
Moreover, as per the title of the film, how do the faithful cope with God's persistent silence, a question, incidentally, currently being explored in a very different way on HBO's The Young Pope. No mysterious kangaroos pop up in Silence, I can tell you that.
Posing these questions does not alone make Silence a work of art; it's the way the film maturely and sympathetically explores these ideas through the journey of Andrew Garfield's character that does that.
In the story, Portuguese Fathers Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garupe (Driver) travel to Japan to investigate a rumor about their former mentor Father Ferreira (Neeson) having renounced his faith after being tortured during the Shimabara Rebellion (brief history lesson: Christian peasants briefly rebelled against unfair taxation, but were crushed and forced into hiding as Japan began aggressively persecuting Christians and continued doing so for the next two centuries). Rodrigues and Garupe are both told of the martyrdom which might await them in Japan, but they are all too eager to embrace that fate, should it be what God wills for them. If Ferreira is still alive they can assist him in administering to the area's Christians and convert even more, and if he has indeed committed heresy they can attempt to save his soul.
Is that naiveté on their part? Or arrogance? Is God's will working through them, or are they simply two ambitious men blinded by the Earthly glory which would await them if they succeeded in bringing Christianity back to Japan?
Upon arrival in the outer villages of Japan, they are greeted by the hiding Christians living lives of painfully quiet desperation. It becomes obvious how ill-prepared Rodrigues and Galupe were for the degree of suffering and outpouring of emotion they'd encounter. Rodrigues, whose journal entries serve as the voice-over narration device for the majority of the film, essentially opines at one point [if you'll allow me to paraphrase], "I know God wants some of us to suffer, but does the suffering always have to be so, I don't know, bad?" He goes back and forth between questioning himself and his faith in God and succumbing to the inevitable ego stroke of administering the faith to those who have been starved for religious figures for too long and thus treat priests like royalty.
Then, spoiler alert, all of the villagers are killed or taken away by Japanese government officials enforcing Buddhism as the one religion of the land, and Rodrigues (who eventually starts to resemble a Jedi or Jesus or both) and Galupe separate and flee for their lives while also grappling with survivor's guilt.
This is when the film becomes something far more interesting than it had been, but it takes an hour to get there and over another hour for Garfield and Neeson to share the screen together. The length need not necessarily be an inherently bad thing, but there are several sequences which are arguably longer and/or more drawn out than they needed to be, such as when Rodrigues watches prisoners refusing one-by-one to renounce their faith by stepping on a stone tablet etching of Jesus. Scorsese films the entire thing in real time from Rodrigues' point of view before abruptly cutting at the very end to skip over the fourth prisoner to reach the last one, drawing into question why we just had to watch the drawn out process (get up, dragged by guard to the tablet, ordered to step on tablet, refuse to step on tablet, taken by guard back to their seat, repeat process with next prisoner) for the first three prisoners if we could skip the fourth to get to the one who truly mattered.
To those who think the film a masterpiece I must seem beyond unenlightened right now (it's crucial to see all of that in real time to enhance Rodrigues' suffering and raise tension!), and to those who think it a good film in need of a more thorough edit I must seem sorely lacking in only highlighting this one scene and not the various others which could have been trimmed (what about all those random, prolonged shots of fog!). However, any film nerd arguments which might break out over Silence pale in comparison to the theological debate it will inspire, particularly its ending.
Perhaps its the lapsed Catholic in me, but what interests more than the potential theological debate is the compelling journey Rodrigues takes in the story, which Garfield summarized perfectly in his recent Vulture interview:
Rodrigues is a man of deep faith and longing to serve ... but there's something else going on, which I think is evident in the book and the script that I read and, ultimately, the film: There's a lot of ego there, a lot of ambition and personal glory that he's after. I don't think he's all that aware of it when he first sets foot in this foreign territory of Japan, and I believe that is what is really, truly tested, this strong-willed and forceful ego. He had a very clear idea of what his life was supposed to look and feel like: He was going to be martyred, he was going to be sainted, he was going to have all the glory of one of the great men of the faith ... but the thing that he was actually called to Japan for was to have his ego totally pulverized so that he could actually begin truly serving God and his fellow man in the most humble and sincere way.
Mic drop. Review over.ROTTENTOMATOES CONSENSUS