Silence Review: Did Scorsese Just Make His Most Challenging Film?

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There’s no hyperbole in stating that Martin Scorsese is one of the finest, most celebrated directors of the 20th and 21st centuries. His previous film, The Wolf of Wall Street, felt like Scorsese by the numbers, even if the gangster skin got a fresh, Wall Street-tinted coat of paint. The director was executing his usual tricks very well there, to the point where it almost felt like he was on autopilot. Silence doesn’t have that problem. This is a film where one of the greatest living directors is digging his claws into issues of faith and duty we haven’t seen since he made the bombastic The Last Temptation of Christ. The result here is a quieter, but no less ruthless, character study of a man pushed to the brink of his own moral destruction.

We follow Father Sebastião Rodrigues (a career-best Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garpe (Adam Driver) in the 17th century as they embark on a mission to Japan to recover Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson, reminding us he’s more than his character from Taken), who they fear has defected from the Catholic Church in the face of violence from those who would reject Christianity in their part of the world. After a slow first act, Rodrigues and Garpe are separated, with the action on screen remaining focused on the former. Rodrigues is then captured by Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata, delivering one of 2016’s most sinister on-screen villains), an inquisitor for Japan hellbent on eradicating Christianity from his country.

From there, Rodrigues’ faith is tested as God remains silent throughout the torture of his followers. Garfield really digs into the material here, showing Rodrigues’ struggle to remain a servant of his God while every fiber of his being is ripped apart before his eyes. It’s hands-down one of the best performances of the year simply for how many complicated emotions and thought processes we watch this character go through. In many ways, Silence is a war film. The war for Christianity. The war for one’s own self. Scorsese’s gorgeous old-school cinematography here puts battles on display in Rodrigues’ mind. Though much quieter, the film hits the same sort of disturbing ethics examination that haunts the third act of Apocalypse Now. The fact that Silence achieves this without all the flash of an actual war film, or a scenery-chewing performance from someone like Marlon Brando, is a miracle of cinema, proving that Scorsese is every bit as relevant now as when he made Taxi Driver.

If anything, Silence proves that, with age, Scorsese’s interests are diversifying and that he wants to challenge his audience. This is one of his most deeply personal works, yet also entirely different from everything else on his resume. There are definitely moments where he bit off more than he can chew, particularly in the unruly first act and some aspects of the resolution. But for all its thought-provoking questions of faith and morals, not to mention stellar performances and stunning photography, Silence is top-shelf Scorsese. It’s a master of his craft at his most complex and confident. For a legend of cinema to put out what is perhaps his most interesting, difficult film to date this late in his career is another miracle of cinema. It’s not perfect, but it’s as powerful and unforgettable as the very best of Scorsese’s catalogue. After decades of greatness, we should hardly be surprised, but I’m more than happy to be. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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