Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” (2016)

Notable Festivals: Cannes

The “passion project” is a common trope in the film industry– every director has a story he or she feels innately compelled to make for any variety of artistic reasons.  In the context of director Martin Scorsese’s filmography, this idea takes on a higher, reinforced meaning.  He is an inherently religious director, but rather than preach to the pews, he brings his Roman Catholic heritage and identity to bear in films that actively explore what it means to be faithful.  Best known for his bloody gangland epics, Scorsese has repeatedly tackled highly-personal projects about the interior conflict of faith and belief, laboring for years to get these films out of the hangar, let alone off the ground.  The most famous example of this is 1988’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, which dared to examine Jesus Christ’s inherent humanity during his last, agonizing days on Earth.  Scorsese found himself confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles at every step of the way, only for the finished film to be met with widespread controversy and the condemnation of his own people.  He would follow that film up with 1997’s KUNDUN, which tackled similar ideas from an Eastern viewpoint as it followed the Dalai Llama’s exile from his homeland.  During this time, Scorsese began developing another project that would serve as the capper to an informal trilogy about faith under fire– a story called SILENCE, about a pair of Jesuit missionaries struggling to keep their faith while contending with the persecutions of a hostile Japanese government.  

Adapted from the eponymous novel by Shusaku Endo, which was given to Scorsese in 1988 by the Episcopal priest Reverend Moore (who would later serve as the Bishop of the Diocese of New York (1)), SILENCE would follow the long-gestating template of its spiritual predecessors and take nearly two decades before it would reach the screen in 2016.  The earliest draft, by Scorsese and his longtime colleague, Jay Cocks, dates back to the 1990’s, and initial plans to make SILENCE following their 2002 collaboration GANGS OF NEW YORK fell apart due to their inability to obtain financing (1).  While Scorsese moved onto other projects with more momentum, he continued softly packaging SILENCE, attaching his GANGS OF NEW YORK star Daniel Day-Lewis, Gael-Garcia Bernal and Benicio Del Toro to play the film’s three key roles (1).  One by one, all three dropped out in the aftermath of repeated delays.  Even his Oscar win for directing 2006’s THE DEPARTED wasn’t enough for Scorsese to generate the necessary financing for SILENCE.  All the while, he was facing legal problems with his production team– producer Vittorio Cecchi Gori filed suit against Scorsese for not making SILENCE in a satisfactorily-timely manner per a previous agreement.  Following THE WOLF OF WALL STREET’s widespread success in 2013, Scorsese declared enough was enough: he would not make another narrative feature until he made SILENCE (2).  If this weren’t difficult enough, Scorsese had decided to finally make the film during the current Hollywood climate, where mainstream studios only greenlit superhero tentpoles and endless franchise installments and the independent route offered only a complicated maze of shady foreign financiers.  Nevertheless, Scorsese would persevere, aided by his longtime producer partner Barbara De Fina and a deep production bench that included Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Randall Emmett, David Lee, and Gaston Pavlovich.  SILENCE would finally go before cameras in 2016 with minimal funds, forcing everyone (including Scorsese himself) to work for scale during a grueling, weather-plagued shoot in Taiwan (3)(1).  Despite its overlong gestation period and the numerous difficulties in getting the film made, the finished product stands as a gripping, profoundly powerful film and the latest beacon of excellence in Scorsese’s celebrated career.  


SILENCE is set in 17th century Japan, a time when the country’s Roman Catholic population went into hiding to escape religious persecution following the Shimabara Rebellion against the Tokugawa shogunate.  Two young Jesuits, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), are sent from their native Portugal into this treacherous climate– not to spread the Gospel, however, but to find and recover their fellow missionary Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is thought to have “apostasized” (renounced his faith) after his capture and subsequent torture by the Japanese government.  Summoning up all their courage, the two priests venture deep into the heart of Japan in hopes of retrieving him, knowing full well that they too will face a harrowing crucible of faith that will test their beliefs to their very core.  In casting SILENCE, Scorsese places a great emotional burden on the two young leads, demanding performances that require a total investment of mind, body, and soul.  Many young actors simply do not possess this depth by virtue of their relative inexperience or still-embryonic artistic development, but fortunately, Garfield and Driver prove far more than capable of the challenge.  As the quietly passionate and conflicted Father Rodrigues, Garfield demonstrates how his natural talents have grown since his breakout performance in David Fincher’s THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010).  He reportedly prepared for an entire year, and it shows– Garfield reaches deep down into himself, pulling out a heart wrenching performance that ably conveys the magnitude of Rodrigues’ crisis of faith.  Likewise, Driver continues to bolster his reputation as a serious thespian, losing a sum total of seventy pounds over the course of preparation and production to play Rodrigues’ tempestuous counterpart, Father Garupe (1).  Neeson, who last worked with Scorsese on GANGS OF NEW YORK, completes SILENCE’s trio of compelling performances as Ferreira, the apostatized priest at the center of the story’s drama.  The film begins with the moment of his spiritual breaking, unable to no longer cope with the persecution and torture of his fellow Christians.  When he’s finally located in SILENCE’s second half, Ferreira is living in a tenuous peace with the Japanese and is no longer conflicted about his apostasy.  He’s used his intellect to rationalize his abandonment of faith, and subsequently presents to Rodrigues SILENCE’s central moral quandary: is it more Christ-like to hold strong to your faith, or to sacrifice your spiritual being so that others don’t suffer?  Indeed, SILENCE posits that, sometimes, the most sacred show of faith is one that’s done in secret.  

SILENCE follows KUNDUN’s visual template as a spiritual epic, presenting itself as a prime example of lush production value despite its limited funds.  Working with returning cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Scorsese captures SILENCE primarily on 35mm film, supplemented by digital Arri Alexa footage for candlelit nighttime shots and other select scenes.  The 2.35:1 aspect ratio provides Scorsese with an appropriate canvas for epic, atmospheric compositions with a sprawling sense of depth.  A desaturated color palette renders 17th-century Japan as a cold, wet land with a stark beauty all its own, and hinges on the orange/teal chromatic dichotomy that has become fashionable in regards to contemporary color grading practices.  A heavy blue cast coasts exterior sequences, while interior nighttime scenes lean heavily into the orange glow of their practical candle light sources.  Scorsese forgoes his usual “rock n’ roll” style of movement, opting instead for the austere sobriety of classical, formalist camerawork.  That said, SILENCE does bear subdued variations on some of Scorsese’s technical signatures, like whip-pans, expressionistic slow motion, compositions that employ a split-focus diopter, and even his trademark “scream-in” move (which reverses itself here to move away from Garfield at breakneck speed during a climactic moment of despair).  Like much of the director’s work as of late, SILENCE employs a fair amount of CGI to help him recreate the period– while these moments tend to stick out like a sore thumb (perhaps by virtue of a meager special effects budget), Scorsese never sacrifices character or story to the altar of artificial visual grandeur.  Scorsese’s longtime production designer Dante Ferretti returns for their first collaboration since 2011’s HUGO, as does editor Thelma Schoonmaker– arguably the director’s closest technical collaborator.  While SILENCE is presented in a relatively straightforward, linear fashion, Scorsese and Schoonmaker pepper the story with moments of Malickian voiceover that convey Rodrigues’ interior monologue.  Much like fellow director Terrence Malick’s signature technique, Garfield’s voiceover takes on a quiet, searching energy– becoming something more like a prayer than a narrative device.  There’s even echoes of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, in a climactic scene that finds Rodrigues forced with a devastating choice: condemn himself to horrific religious persecution, or renounce his faith by stepping on a metal plate bearing Christ’s visage.  At this moment, he hears the voice of God in his head, letting him know it’s okay to apostatize– but is it really God?  Or, like Jesus’ visions in the desert in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, is it actually the voice of Satan, tempting him with comfort in a moment of crisis?

SILENCE naturally presents itself as a blend of Eastern and Western philosophies and iconography.  The influence of master Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa has always been felt throughout Scorsese’s filmography, but it is particularly palpable here– indeed, Kurosawa was the context in which Scorsese first read the source novel, having traveled to to Japan to play the part of Vincent Van Gogh in the director’s 1990 feature, DREAMS (4).  That same spirit extends to SILENCE’s compelling compositions and dramaturgy, while also reflecting the core thematic conceits of Scorsese’s artistic identity.  The iconography and dogmas of Catholicism inform many characters throughout his body of work, but none have been called to test their faith as SILENCE does of its two leads (well, with the exception of Jesus himself in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST).  Whereas early films like WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1967), and MEAN STREETS (1973), and even newer works like GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE DEPARTED, used Scorsese’s familiarity with Catholicism to shade out their respective characters’ backstories or provide blooms of regional color, SILENCE serves as the rare occasion in which spiritual belief becomes the conflict itself.  In his own words, Scorsese has said SILENCE is about “the necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience” (1), and Rodrigues and Garupe cling fast to their beliefs in the face of unthinkable experience in the form of violent religious persecution.  The Christians of 1600s-era Japan are forced to endure horrible torture simply for believing, with their only reward being an unceremonious and unexpected beheading or being strung up on a cross themselves and slowly beaten to death by the ocean’s endless onslaught of vicious tidal waves.  Scorsese stages these moments of visceral carnage much like he does in his previous work, depicting the horror of violence by virtue of its chaotic, unpredictable messiness.  In both form and content, Scorsese crafts SILENCE as the third part of his loose trilogy about religious persecution and the spiritual battle for the soul.  It’s fitting that SILENCE blends the core thematic conceits of its two predecessors, allowing ideas, imagery and even characters to overlap– one of the film’s chief antagonists, The Inquisitor, is personified in a particular manner so similar to the characterization of Mao Zedong in KUNDUN that I was initially convinced the two parts were played by the same actor (they aren’t).  While these three films are separated by the passing of a decade (two in the case of KUNDUN and SILENCE), they are unified by Scorsese’s thoughtful, passionate approach to his own spirituality– one that doesn’t deal in trite platitudes or preaches to the choir like so many cynically-crafted, cringe-inducing “religious” films, but instead chooses to actively explore and challenge what it means to be faithful, and in the process creates a living, breathing covenant far more relevant to today’s world than the stubborn faux piety that often characterizes modern religion.  

The initial rollout of SILENCE proved promising enough– following its world premiere at a venue no less than The Vatican, the film screened at Cannes and then received a wide release by Paramount timed for prime awards season visibility.  Whatever momentum it had was stopped short by that all-powerful arbiter of a film’s “worth” — box office performance — and was summarily dismissed as a financial failure whose worldwide sales could only recoup half of what the filmmakers spent.  As unfortunate as this is, it’s hard to see Scorsese and company envisioning a different outcome– passion projects hardly ever set the box office on fire, especially ones with an overtly religious affectation.  That being said, no one makes a passion project so the studios can cut fat holiday bonus checks for its executive.  These kinds of films have a place in our culture, and they shouldn’t be devalued simply because they didn’t meet Viacom or General Electric’s bottom line.  Thankfully, the critics immediately recognized the power of Scorsese’s monumental accomplishment– many were quick to praise SILENCE’s complex, nuanced depiction of faith in action, and some went even further to call it an outright masterpiece.  Naturally, the film has its usual share of detractors, but barely a year on from its release, a consensus has already emerged that SILENCE is a truly important film in Scorsese’s body of work, standing confidently amongst his best.  Sure, it doesn’t have the sexiness of his drug-fueled crime capers or the “must-see” controversy surrounding other religious pictures like THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, but SILENCE is nonetheless a profound statement on one of the key pillars of Scorsese’s identity.  It provides unimaginably intimate insights into the faith system of its creator, but more importantly, SILENCE serves as a challenge to all of us: no matter our creed, no matter our God/s, we must all strive towards a higher ideal if we are to realize our full potential.  

SILENCE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Paramount.


Produced by: Martin Scorsese, Randall Emmett, David Lee, Irwin Winkle, Gaston Pavlovich, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Barbara De Fina, and Vittorio Cecchi Gori

Written by: Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks

Director of Photography: Rodrigo Prieto

Production Design by: Dante Ferretti

Editing by: Thelma Schoonmaker

Music by: Kathryn and Kim Allen Kluge


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