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Movie Review: SILENCE (2016)

Article by: Josh Bradley


A couple years ago, after watching Mark Cousins’ exhaustive 15-part documentary The Story of Film, I decided to dive headfirst into my blossoming cinephilia and begin exploring some of the titans of world cinema. At first, I mostly stuck to the handful of directors most-heavily featured over the documentary’s 15 hours (Godard, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, etc), and I’ve since started to work my way through Sight & Sounds’ decennial lists of “Greatest Films of All Time”.

This is how I arrived at Andrei Rublev (1966). If you’ve ever seen Andrei Rublev, you’re probably a cinephile yourself (let’s hang out!) and therefore you probably liked it. Personally, I struggled with it. I didn’t mind that it was in Russian; I watch plenty of foreign films. I didn’t mind at all that it was in black-and-white; I’m confused as to why that bothers some people. I didn’t mind that it was made before 1970; once you’ve seen enough older movies, the stylistic divergences from modern movies stop bothering you. I didn’t really mind that the story centers around a medieval monk/painter (a life not exactly dripping with excitement); I’m fine with stately character pieces. But compound all those things over a deliberately paced three-and-a-half-hour run time? It begins to feel like a chore.

I don’t have enough of an ego to conclude that the vast majority of the film world is wrong about Andrei Rublev. While I may not have had a transcendent emotional response to the film, many people with more distinguished tastes have had such a response, and maybe if I gave it a second chance, I would be dazzled by things that I overlooked in my first viewing. When dealing with a renowned film like Andrei Rublev, the benefit of the doubt must be given (a topic I wrote 1,300 words on a few years ago).

Marty Scorsese’s long-awaited passion project, Silence, is similarly long and arduous; it’s similarly about a man of the cloth having his faith tested by the cruelty he sees in others; and I was similarly dissatisfied by it while recognizing that others may find it decidedly effective and powerful.

Adapted from the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo, Silence follows two 17th century Jesuit priests, Fathers Rorigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), as they travel to Japan in search of their former mentor, Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who had reportedly abandoned his Christian mission there and had apostatized (renounced Christianity). Despite Ferreira’s efforts (and, eventually, Rodrigues’ and Garupe’s), Christianity remains outlawed in Japan, and the Christians who assist the priests must do so under the cover of darkness and face imprisonment and torturous death for their faith. Rodrigues and Garupe, who initially refused to believe the reports that Ferreira had apostatized, begin to reconsider the possibility once they see the horrors that the Christians suffer.

I realize it’s a bit strange to claim “I didn’t particularly love this, but it’s certainly a great movie”. I suppose most people use their personal response to a movie as proof of its greatness or its shortcomings, no buts required. While my personal tastes may not be refined enough for me to really enjoy every great movie I see, I still recognize greatness when I see it. I didn’t care much for Catcher in the Rye the first time I read that either.

First of all, I haven’t been able to get the movie and the characters’ journeys out of my head in the days since seeing it. Even as someone who doesn’t exactly prioritize spirituality, I’ve still found myself thinking in depth about Fr. Rodrigues’ faith, how he views God, how he believes God views us, about symbolic gestures of faith versus internal belief, sacrifice, the role of religion and missionary work in a civilized society. Even though I was checking my watch for a lot of Silence, even though the movie’s length is difficult for me to overlook, I can’t deny how much the enormous questions have stayed with me, and that in itself is proof of the movie’s power. Secondly, if anyone has earned the same benefit of the doubt that I was willing to give Tarkovsky for Andrei Rublev, it’s Marty Scorsese.*

*This will likely strike a lot of people as self-evident. To you young kids who have somehow avoided Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Mean Streets, his RottenTomatoes average for his twenty-four movies is 82%. That’s staggering consistency. His only “rotten” movie was 45 years ago. Forty. Five. Years ago.

It’s as beautifully shot as we’ve come to expect from Scorsese, just don’t come looking for the frenetic, spirited camerawork of Goodfellas, as it is (appropriately) much more restrained and measured. As much as I can appreciate the splendor of Scorsese’s camerawork — and the performances from Garfield, Driver, and Neeson (in his limited role) — I still struggled with the long run time and glacial pacing. But that may be the part of the point; Rodrigues spends much of the run time in prison, psychologically tortured by his inability to help the people being physically tortured for their Christianity just beyond his reach from behind bars — maybe being frustrated with how long things are taking is exactly how Scorsese meant for me to feel.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning my hypothesize that my (lack of) personal faith diminished my enjoyment of the film, at least a little. Some of the impossible choices the characters are forced to make become very simple choices if you don’t have enormous respect for religious idols, or if you personally believe that internal faith is more important than (literally) symbolic gestures. Scorsese himself nearly entered the priesthood before becoming a filmmaker; it makes sense his movie and his characters are reverently devout (perhaps to a fault, ultimately). Scorsese has always been good at turning a character’s strengths against them.

If you’re not turned off by an unhurried pace on a long, taxing journey (or by anything else I’ve said here), Silence may be your favorite movie of the year. As much as I’m in no hurry to sit down with it again, I have no doubts others will see immediate greatness.

Even as I struggled through Andrei Rublev, I was glad I was seeing it. I was eating my vegetables, in that I may not have enjoyed it but it was good for me, good for my film education. While I’m sure Silence will not ultimately be as revered as Rublev, I think it similarly falls into vegetable territory.

And hey, a lot of people love vegetables.

Josh Bradley
Josh Bradley was once literally a rocket scientist, and now splits his time between the Criterion Collection, his YouTube channel, and a blank CeltX document. He has trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Los Angeles and recently learned how to use a coffee maker.

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