Martin Scorsese has wanted to make Silence for over 25 years and it’s easy to see why — set against the beautiful backdrop of 1600s Japan, the film tackles the issue of colonialism and complex ideas within theology. Unfortunately, it is also clear why it took 26 years for Silence to actually get made—it’s a woefully unengaging tale with alienating lead characters and a self-obsessed narrative that has more questions than answers.
Silence tells the tale of three Portuguese Jesuits, played by Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson, attempting to maintain and expand Japan’s Christian community in the face of violent government persecution. Upon arrival, the film’s protagonist Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) is stricken by the plight of the Japanese peasants, who have been forced to practice their banned religion in the dead of night. Through Rodrigues’ eyes and journal entries, we witness the self-doubt of a Jesuit in search of his own spiritual awakening. Rodrigues wants to bring his teachings to these ailing people but soon discovers that he might be bringing more pain than hope.
It takes all of thirty minutes for Silence to set up its grand dilemma: Would a good Christian renounce his faith to save his life, or the lives of others? Scorsese proposes his film’s question confidently–and repetitively–but doesn’t seem to know how to answer it, or seem all that interested in trying. Silence’s problem, however, is not that it doesn’t have answers. Like the Portuguese Jesuits, Silence is blinded by pride, thoroughly convinced of its own importance. Perhaps, this is why Silence has been described as a Scorsese “passion project.” But watching Silence because you’re a Scorsese fan is like going to three-hour communion because you think the wafers taste good.
By the time the ending credits roll, the only question the audience is left pondering is, “Who thought Spider Man would make a good Portuguese Jesuit priest?” Garfield struggles through an unconvincing and wholly distracting Portuguese accent, while creating a character that is about as multilayered and emotionally dynamic as a WWJD bumper sticker. Because the story itself offers little in terms of character development until the third act, the majority of the film relies heavily on Garfield’s narration and at times even narration from Jesus himself—which is about as hokey as it sounds.
When the film was first cast in 2013, it featured a heavily Hispanic cast with Benicio del Toro and Gael García Bernal. Surely these actors would have tackled their accents with more ease but at least Scorsese decided against his initial plans to use 3D.
Despite its failings, Silence is not without its bright spots. Yōsuke Kubozuka’s performance as Kichijiro, the Jesuit’s pathetic Japanese guide is both heartbreaking and comedic, making Kichijiro one the film’s few relatable characters. Silence’s other Japanese performances by Tadonobu Asano and Issey Ogata are also excellent, but ultimately their successes only highlight the failings of the film’s leads.
Visually, the film is undoubtedly striking, crafting a dark, intoxicating vision of middle-ages Japan. Poignant images of crucifixions in the ocean, a pillaged village overrun by feral cats, and a beheaded body dragged through the sand, stay with you long after the film has ended. It is these aesthetic moments where Silence is at its best–when the film drifts away from its reliance on Garfield’s narration and angst, deciding instead to show pain rather than just describe it.
Silence offers glimpses of the Scorsese genius that got us in the doors, yet for a director who has brought such creative visions to crime sagas, music documentaries, and boxing epics, this work generally lacks an insightful core. Think of it this way: How fresh of a take on Christianity can a film have if it premiered in Vatican City? Ultimately, Silence seems to be an allegory for Scorsese himself. It’s a story of a man that has grown so obsessed with trying to get a story told, he forgot why this was an important story in the first place.