The start of the year is always a time of rich cinematic treats as we enter award season. It brings powerful dramas (Manchester by the Sea), evocative musicals (La La Land), potent true stories (Hidden Figures), and fascinating biopics (Jackie). This is also a time of the returning cinematic beasts, auteurs whose every film has the potential to be a classic. This year it is Martin Scorsese who returns to cinemas, following the fantastic The Wolf of Wall Street with a rather different affair, one that taps into the strain of Catholicism that runs through much of the director's work.
Silence, a passion project of over twenty years for Scorsese, tells the story of two 17th century Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan to locate their missing mentor (Liam Neeson). In Japan, they face oppression and the prospect of death, as well as pockets of hope-filled resistance from followers of the Catholic faith. It is a dialogue-heavy drama of big ideas, quite in contrast to the crime epics that Scorsese has made his name with. Certainly Silence is rather different from Goodfellas.
The film starts well and promises a powerful exploration of faith. Visually the film is sumptuous, the Japanese locations stunningly rendered. The cast are uniformly strong, with the film focusing on Garfield's character, Rodrigues. It is refreshing to see the actor finally free himself of the shackles of the lacklustre Spider-man films of recent years, and is more than capable in the role of a troubled priest coming undone by the persecution he receives. Silence, coupled with Hacksaw Ridge and a starring role in the National Theatre's Angels in America, should revitalise his career. He is ably supported by the ever capable Driver, and Neeson who, along with A Monster Calls, is reminding everyone this January of the great actor he was before Taken came along.
There is no denying that the film is a gruelling experience, and yet once our priests are separated proceedings falls flat. After an hour and a half of watching the priests be tormented, with nearly an hour left, it becomes apparent that Scorsese hasn't found anything particularly interesting to say with Silence. In his pursuit to offer a refined drama, he has lost his ability to show his distinctive voice. The best films in his career are those where the director's voice breeds controversy. Scorsese's first foray into religion was The Last Temptation of Christ, a film that provoked such a reaction that it was banned in several countries. It is this rebellious streak that is notably absent in Silence, and the director hasn't found anything to replace this with.
As a viewer I would have preferred the film to have focused, in greater detail, on the Japanese culture of the period. Silence crafts a haunting vision of Japan, and fills its world with great performances from the Japanese members of the cast. In particular, Tadanobu Asano is magnetic in the role of the interpreter. When Silence focuses on its setting, it hints at the possibility of evolving into a much more interesting film, and this feels like a missed opportunity.
After over forty years of cinema, Scorsese has earned the right to make any film he chooses and even a middling affair from him is worth a watch. Silence offers a quartet of powerful performances and has a sumptuous look, but seems incapable of finding something notable to say with the bleak story it is telling.