Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, Yosuke Kubozuka, Shin’ya Tsukamoto
Running Time: 161 minutes
Considering Silence, the new film from Martin Scorsese, with Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, is much harder due to the time of year. As we inch closer to the Baftas and Oscars, movies aren’t allowed to just be good- they have to be considered as possible Best Movies of The Year. The funny thing about awards, though, is that they often aren’t won by the best films, or even the most influential. It takes a while for that stuff to be worked out, forgettable context to become clear. That’s why you get so many forgettable winners. The safest route to grabbing an Oscar is to be a relatively okay film made by someone who has done great work in the past which the Academy ignored, and to be released in a year where the fellow drama contenders are weak. Which brings us to Silence, the new film from Martin Scorsese.
The film follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests- Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver- journey to Japan in the 17th Century, where Christianity is illegal and punishable through torture and execution. They are looking for Liam Neeson, their mentor, who has renounced his faith after torture. The film follows the two men’s journey and their changing understanding of faith in difficult times. Scorsese has been developing the film for years, and has come close to filming multiple times only for circumstances to change, so it’s fair to say this is a sort of passion project for him. And Silence ticks a lot of boxes that Scorsese fans will recognise- faith, isolated men railing against systems, the brutality of man against man- so it’ll satisfying to watch for lots of viewers. But this is dangerous territory: watching the film, you can’t help but feel that Scorsese believes that he is making his masterpiece, and that means it’s a very self-indulgent movie.
The film has an incredibly heavy-handed script, in particular leaning on voiceover cribbed from the diaries of Garfield’s character. Scorsese and Jay Cocks, his consistent collaborator, use the voiceover to tell us everything about the character and how he is feeling, without leaving the audience time to wrestle with the theological quandaries the priest is experiencing. Instead of quiet reflection, the word ‘faith’ is repeated constantly, probably making up about 40% of Andrew Garfield’s dialogue. The direction isn’t much better, often lingering on static shots and slowly developing imagery for aching minutes. But it’s not artful- it’s full of obvious imagery, in a boring way. Every time someone bad shows up, fog or smoke or mist surrounds the scene, in what can only be considered a contender for ‘most obvious visual metaphor of the year’. Oh, yeah, Scorsese, I guess you’re right; I guess the characters are in a sort of fog of belief, and I guess the grey is sort of like the blurring of their moral boundaries. I don’t need it shoved down my throat.
Jokes aside, those are legitimate decisions, not mistakes, and I can respect that, but I never saw Scorsese’s strength laying in static shots or quiet scenes. For me, Scorsese soars when he throws the camera around, when operatic movement matches with energetic performances and explicit use of colour. So for him to sit still- for the camera to remain static for so long that it looks like the projector has broken- is not a good thing. For the Scorsese fans, let me put it like this: it’s like the worst parts of The Last Temptation of Christ, made by an older man. For the rest of us: it’s a passion project turned turgid with the indulgent hand of an auteur who enjoys protection from criticism.
But this is sort of academic. Silence will do very good business and will be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It may even win- that wouldn’t surprise me at all. And that is nothing to do with the quality of the picture, but a product of the peculiar machinery that surrounds awards.
SILENCE is in UK cinemas now and is currently on a limited release in the US before going nationwide on January 13th.