Monday, January 16, 2017

'Silence' review

"I pray, but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?"

If you haven't struggled with religion at some point during your life, you probably haven't given it enough thought. That may seem like a hasty generalization and a bizarre way to start this review, but it's the truth. Religion, faith, and the existence of God are three complex issues that have been dissected and debated ever since the beginning of time itself. Whether you consider yourself to be an Atheist or a devout Christian or a member of any other religion, I think there's always a level of doubt and uncertainty over personal views on divinity. I was raised a Catholic- I went to mass on most Sundays as a young kid, spent years in Catechism, and was confirmed as a member of the church in 2013. In recent years, I've slipped away from the church. My own personal struggle with the ideas of God and religion and prayer have incited much discussion in my house, and I still don't have any answers.

The Catholic Church is incredibly complex, and there are things that I can't imagine would make sense to people if they weren't raised in the church. For example, I still struggle with the idea that the Holy Communion is actually the body and blood of Jesus Christ, which is one of the fundamental views of the faith. I don't know if I like the idea of constant confession (parodied brilliantly in Hail, Caesar!) nor do I enjoy the idea of sin being thrust in our faces during every waking moment. And most of all, I don't really know if God is listening. Does he hear any of our prayers? I don't know. He seems to hear some of them, but for every answered prayer, there's another issue that comes up. Faith is an endless series of contradictions and coincidences and unexplained events and in my 18 years on Earth, I still don't know what to make of it. Do I still consider myself to be a Catholic? I guess. I still go to mass occasionally. I'm not arrogant enough to presume that God doesn't exist. But at the same time, is blind faith and religious devotion really the best way to go?

Martin Scorsese is a filmmaker who has delved into the ideas of guilt, faith, and the Catholic religion throughout his entire career. Mean Streets, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas- there seems to be a common religious element in many of the iconic director's films. Silence is his final statement on the idea of religiosity and God (some have stated that it ends a thematic trilogy that includes Last Temptation and 1997's Kundun), a longtime passion project based on the novel by Shusaku Endo. Silence is a disturbing 161 minute film about maintaining faith, while also facing torture, persecution, and misery. Those interested in a film with traditional entertainment value need not apply. This is the total opposite of Scorsese's last two films, 2011's Hugo, a wondrous children's fantasy, and 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street, a raunchy, satirical comedic masterpiece. Silence is meditative, quiet, unflinching, and certainly not something that casual viewers will embrace easily.

But that doesn't mean that it's any less compelling. Silence is an incredible piece of filmmaking, an astonishingly beautiful, painful work of art that will endure, fascinate, and provoke for years to come. If you're looking for a film that gives easy answers or reinforces a specific point of view, you've come to the wrong place. Silence is a film that poses questions that just cannot be answered, questions about the very nature of belief in a higher power. It's a grueling experience punctuated by long stretches of subtle contemplation, and it will swirl in your mind long after the lights go up in the theater. But in addition to its thematic intrigue, Silence is a stunningly brilliant piece of cinema, crafted with care and highlighted by a mesmerizing sense of beauty. Tough, unruly, and simply unforgettable, Silence is a quietly stirring knockout.

Set in Japan in the 17th century, the film begins with a brief prologue involving the famed Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who traveled to the country to spread Christianity. But after a brutal crackdown by the local inquisitors, Ferreira finds himself witnessing the horrific torture and crucifixion of the Christian converts. Ferreira is dejected, terrified, and completely shattered. Back at the Vatican, Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) informs Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garrpe, the students of Ferreira, that their mentor has denounced God and given up the faith. Shocked and disheartened by this revelation, Rodrigues and Garrpe insist that they must go to Japan, find Father Ferreira, carry on his work in the country, and bring the lost priest back home.

Unfortunately for the two eager, optimistic priests, the mission will not be as easy as they once thought. Japan has become a country of great danger, especially for those who practice the Christian faith. With some help from Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a drunken Japanese man living in Korea, the two priests are smuggled into the countryside of Japan and discover a society of underground Christians, who practice the faith with love, fervor, and extreme devotion. Rodrigues and Garrpe initially admire the sheer strength of their passion for God, but as the true extent of their suffering is slowly unveiled over time, their faith is tested in new ways. Under the might of Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), the priests find a world of violence, torture, and sadness inflicted on the helpless Christians of Japan. As they are plunged deeper and deeper into a land of darkness, questions begin to emerge about the nature of their work and their devotion to God.

Great art and great entertainment are not always synonymous. Some of the greatest films ever made do not deliver conventional entertainment value, but they give you a feeling, something that might even be more enduring. I remember first watching 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was 13 years old, and I absolutely hated it. To me, it was some kind of strange endurance test, a movie that was far too esoteric and nonsensical to understand. And then I watched it again. And again. And again. It stuck with me. There was a feeling of mystery, of wonder, of beauty, that I just could not shake. I saw Silence on Friday, and in the subsequent days, I have felt an overwhelming urge to see it again, and I can't exactly explain why. It's a punishing, grisly film, and quite frankly, it will be an endurance test for most audience members. But I like it when I'm unable to entirely crack a film on first viewing, and I definitely don't feel that I have fully grasped Silence. It gives you a feeling that you just can't shake, and it's all the more reason that I consider it to be some kind of mesmerizing masterpiece.

Religious films often get a bad rap (and when a film like God's Not Dead becomes a breakout hit, it's easy to understand why), but when you put the topic in the hands of someone like Scorsese, the possibilities are limitless. Some have lambasted this film for asking questions that it can't answer, but that's really the point. Scorsese is posing timeless questions that cannot be answered by one historical epic. Was anyone really expecting the filmmaker to give us a definitive answer on the silent emptiness of prayer? I certainly didn't. But what's more impressive to me is that Scorsese never seems to take a firm position on either side. He understands the inherent appeal of devotion and faith without end, but he sees the suffering, the doubt, the descent into madness that the silence of God can create. Silence is neither anti-religion or pro-religion. It doesn't take sides. It simply presents its graphic, harsh tale, and lets the audience decide.

And with that in mind, it actually made me rethink some views that I previously held. Silence both reinforces and challenges, which is something that not many films do these days. In a modern society where ideological rigidity is favored, Silence dares you to question. If you're a firm person of faith (or especially if you consider yourself to be an Evangelist), the torture of the Japanese Christians will certainly make you re-examine some ideas. Is spreading the faith necessary? Does Evangelism bring about suffering? Alternatively, if you're an avowed atheist or a person unsure about their relationship with organized religion, Silence will give you some reasons to believe. No, this film did not completely erase all of my problems with Catholicism and religion- but it gave me some possible answers that I hadn't thought of in the past. It would be absolutely fascinating to form a panel of both agnostics and Catholics to discuss this film, simply because it sparks so much discussion and poses so many ambiguous questions. Silence does not deal in absolutes, and that is quite possibly its greatest asset.

But in reality, the examination of the religious themes comes later. The ideas of Silence will be rattling around in your head well after the final credits roll, but I don't necessarily see many audience members dissecting the film's philosophy while it unfolds. That's because Scorsese draws you in with such stunning, meticulous filmmaking, punctuated by dazzling cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto and beautiful locations that contrast the stark brutality of the subject matter. Silence is a film that exhausts you both mentally and physically. Much like the trials of the characters, it tests your strength, your patience, your will. By the end of Silence, you will have either given everything to this movie or you will have fallen asleep. Those are pretty much the only two options. Audience members that commit to the ride will be treated to a film that is as painful and harrowing as it is gorgeous. Unlike some of Scorsese's other masterpieces (Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street, etc.), there is nothing flashy about Silence. It is blunt, it is careful, and it is effective.

Silence also features some of the best performances of the year, even if a bit of the emotional gravity is lost in the phony accents and theological ambiguity. Andrew Garfield played a man of staunch, committed faith in the visceral Hacksaw Ridge, and in Silence, it's interesting to see him play a character who is almost the exact opposite of that. Rodrigues is probably the most compelling individual in the movie, a man who falls into a state of furious madness as he witnesses his fellow Christians murdered around him. It's interesting to watch the film's Apocalypse Now-like progression, all before a kind of third act twist that leaves Rodrigues in a weird state of dejection. Garfield is consistently brilliant, and while he'll probably receive his Oscar nomination for Hacksaw, I'll consider it to be a recognition of his great work here as well.

In addition, Garfield has excellent chemistry with Adam Driver, who delivers an equally impressive turn as Garrpe. Driver is more like Hacksaw's Desmond Doss- loving, unwavering, firmly committed. When a Japanese man asks Rodrigues what to do if asked to step on the picture of Jesus (the sign for rejecting the Church), Sebastiao tells him that he must save his own life. Garrpe stands back, stunned in disbelief. He tells the man the exact opposite, affirming that faith is more important than mortality. It provides an interesting contrast, but the men remain closely bonded throughout their entire relationship. Liam Neeson is the final member of the main trio of stars, and he is terrific. He isn't in the movie as much as you'd expect, but when he does appear, he knocks it out of the park. Finally, many have noted the performance of Issei Ogata, who plays the main villain. I'm not of the belief that Ogata is on the level of Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa (a frequent comparison for the Inquisitor), but I do think that Inoue provides a fascinating ideological foil for Rodrigues, which makes for some dynamite scenes.

Silence needs time to simmer. In all likelihood, when the credits roll, you'll be beyond exhausted and ready for a break from such heavy, dour material. Scorsese knows that. He knows what kind of film he has made. This is more of an art house film than any other Scorsese film I've ever seen (not an expert on the director, but I've seen most of his major works), and audiences expecting a conventional story will likely be disappointed. But if you give Silence time to breathe, time for it to sink into your soul and grip you, the rewards are plentiful. It's a phenomenal, punishing visual experience and a jaw-dropping exercise in theological and narrative precision. It's a hard film to shake, providing so much food for thought in an overwhelming, breathtaking package. Silence doesn't give easy answers to its questions, but there's no doubt in my mind that this is a towering achievement from Scorsese, a film about essential ideas that manages to be powerful, intense, epic, and masterful.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.1/10)

Image Credits: IMDB/Paramount

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