Silence  follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests as they journey through seventeenth-century Japan to spread their religious message and locate their missing mentor. With Christians living in fear of persecution and torture at the hands of the Japanese government, the missionaries risk death if discovered. Adapted from Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, Silence has remained a long-time passion project for director Martin Scorsese.
The Two of Us: Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver steer the first third of the film as a duo, their onscreen dynamic as the two conflicting Jesuit priests particularly convincing. While Garfield’s Father Rodriguez carries an optimistic view of their missionary work and quest, Driver’s Father Garupe balances out their relationship as the voice of realism and caution. Driver is regrettably quickly whisked away from the main plot, leaving Garfield to step into a real leading role for the remainder of the film. Garfield’s work in Silence is one of his better dramatic achievements but is unlikely to stand out amongst the other strong leading male performances in the winter release period.
Lord Above: Silence has a high-quality aesthetic look – something viewers can expect from a director of Scorsese’s caliber. The beauty of the Japanese coast is displayed in full glory; from the crashing waves that push the priests ashore to the traditional remote villages hidden under a silver fog that snakes around corners above heads. Religious themes are something Scorsese has explored throughout his career, and nothing captures this religious examination better than his use of overhead camera shots. Often referred to as Scorsese’s “Eye of God” or “God’s Point of View,” these shots are featured in many of his classic films, with the subject being examined through a seemingly omnipresent view from above. When these overhead angles appear in Silence, they carry an even more powerful purpose. As the closeness of God is verbally debated by the characters, the camera signals the existence of a God-like presence.
Heads Will (Occasionally) Roll: For an adaptation that depicts one of the most violent periods in Japanese history, the inclusion of such brutality is carefully balanced throughout. Scorsese does not take the opportunity to shock the audience through excessive scenes of bloodshed. There are elements of violence and scenes that highlight the torture of Christians, but each instance exists to enhance the spiritual themes of the film and its depiction of religious martyrdom. When brutality does occur on screen, it is then even more shocking and effective.
The Long Haul: At a runtime of just under 3 hours, Silence can often drag on. While this is certainly not Scorsese’s longest film – see Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – its spiritual themes weigh heavy on the brain and can make the film tedious viewing at times. Drawn out monologues are spoken over composed shots of Garfield’s Father Rodrigues being forced into solitude, experiencing great anguish over his deeply rooted beliefs and the absence of God in troubled times. Scorsese is clearly indulging himself with this project, exploring every thematic angle and carefully dissecting each central character no matter how long it takes. Is this level of detail worth it? The answer probably depends on the individual viewer’s interest in the film’s subject.