In 'Silence', Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play two Portuguese priests, sent to 16th century Japan to find their mentor, played by Liam Neeson.
Japan at the time was purging itself of Christians in horrific, torturous ways, and Neeson’s character was rumoured to have publicly denounced his faith to escape a painful, violent death. This renunciation placed him outside of God’s grace, so Garfield and Driver are smuggled into the Nagasaki area to track him down and save his soul from damnation.
The film is a ponderous two-and-a-half hours. 'Silence' refers to God’s non-response to man’s pleas, and the film cannot decide if it’s a love letter to Catholicism, a historic adventure tale, or a depiction of descent into madness. There are a lot of wonderful ideas, but they aren’t explored with any nuance.
All the Japanese are caricatures, either destitute and naïve but heroically faithful, or barbarous. While the Anglo actors hold their Portuguese accent for five minutes, the Japanese are forced to continue with their cartoon pronunciations for the entire film.
There is little discussion of the merits of Christian missionary work, or Euro-centric depiction of history. Why did the Japanese state revile the priests so much? This was barely touched on. Garfield toys with insanity, but not enough for it to be an interesting desperate-fish-out-water character study.
God eventually does speak in a jarring voice-over. The themes of betrayal and redemption are explored, but in very obvious, twee ways that are grimace-worthy. Of course [spoiler], in the end, the love of Christ conquers all.
This is a Scorsese film, and it is beautifully shot. Frustratingly, the actors are all gifted and very watchable, but their skill didn’t elevate the material. Neeson has a minimal role.
Despite a lot of potential to be a more interesting, conflicted film that transcends the religious themes of the story, it remains one strictly for the faithful, whether that faith be in God or in the director’s brilliance.
'Silence' is in cinemas 16 February.