Like many long-term passion projects, Martin Scorsese’s Silence has the exceedingly pained-over, cloistered, professional vibe of a film where every decision has been manipulated to death and planned to oblivion. It’s extraordinarily perfectionist, a formalist’s dream, yet it has the grinding vibe of a work that thinks it’s an art film but doesn’t realize that all so-called art cinema thinks of calcified compositions as a perennial plague. Even the most notionally static images of an Antonioni film brim with the conflicted energy of contradiction and minute and unsettling disturbances of mood and attitude as well as a disfiguring sense of uncertainty and the impermanence of every image, every character, every life. Comparatively, Silence is too upright to reverberate with indecision and irresolution, and its bold stretches of occasionally feel like moments of strained constipation rather than thoughtful instances of hesitancy. It could use a walk on the wild side.
Not that it’s bad. Any filmically minded viewer can’t but be drawn to the sometimes-spellbinding elegance of Rodrigo Pietro’s painstakingly emptied-out (in a good way) cinematography, Thelma Schoonmaker’s knife-edge editing, and especially Philip Stockton’s best-of-2016 sound design, emphasizing bold gaps and untenanted aural spaces to evoke both a sense of overpowering loneliness and a quality of directionless wandering that befits the main narrative. That narrative, adapted by Jay Cocks and Scorsese from Shusako Endo’s book of the same name, is the story of two Jesuit priests (Father Rodrigues played by Andrew Garfield and Father Garrupe played by Adam Driver) recently travelled from Portugal to Japan in search of the older Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who most in the church believe to have apostacized, or renounced his faith. Rodrigues, a ward of his, absolutely refuses to believe that.
What begins is a quasi-episodic, intentionally formless venture through Japan – and, naturally, a descent into the mind of Rodrigues and his quest to retain his faith amidst impenetrable odds – that is equally foreboding and forbidding. It’s not really a surprise that Silence has been in Scorsese’s hopper of dreams for decades, since it is the fullest and most explicit flowering of his career-long pet theme of Catholic guilt and his long-term and ever-unstable relationship with males whose belief systems are perennially in crisis. Scorsese’s men are wayward souls whose beliefs are both prisms through which they refract the world and prisons through which the world confines them, trapping them in vises that are frighteningly incorporeal and not visualizable in locations, walls, or torture-devices. In a Scorsese film, the spurts of bodily violence, the overt torture in Casino for instance, are almost reprieves from a less cognizant form of mental violence with no clear oppressor.
So Scorsese certainly hasn’t apostacized from his mental concerns himself, but Silence is less overtly confrontational and panicked than the usual Scorsese film, less restive and, I suspect, more willful an attempt on Scorsese’s behalf to prove that he isn’t just the bloodletting devil on your shoulder. Scorsese’s other films have a primordial, punchy vibe, but Silence exists not at street level but lost in thought. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, except that it isn’t Scorsese’s ideal mode. It’s an extremely interiorized film, almost Bressonian, a strain of style that has almost always fluttered around Scorsese’s sighing soul but seldom erupted as the central driving mechanism of the film. Typically in a Scorsese film, it boils down beneath, threatening to erupt like scalding hot magma, but in Silence, everything is clothed in a wilting, dispossessed air of extreme repression, as though nothing can escape the exhausting heaviness of the world..
Again though, the vigorously limited, interiorized view of the film isn’t intrinsically troubling so much as it is a specious fit. Several of the greatest directors in film history have made careers out of Scorsese’s gambit here, with directors like Bresson and Bergman discharging a sense of mortal tiredness, a kind of lively and lived-in lifelessness. Scorsese’s film, though, is too grand to radiate this kind of exhaustion, implying an ornamented sense of a film showing off its wares without really feeling them out. There’s too much pageantry, too much pictorial beauty, sometimes evoking not patience and meditative remoteness but forced pristineness.
Silence’s individualist streak – its rapturous concern for Rodrigues and the attendant assumption that the world around him is only viable insofar as it effects or reflects his crisis – also hems in the exploratory periphery vision of Scorsese’s vision. Bresson, for instance, took this interiorization to the extreme, while Scorsese isn’t quite capable of pushing such ascetic heights. In the end, his work is stately without ever making a radical jump into the revelatory, phantom-like austerity of Bresson or the ethereal Japanese masters like Mizoguchi Scorsese is obviously paying homage too. Silence is slow and painterly not so much because it is deeply inquisitive or interested in radically reorienting our sensibilities like those masters by completing severing us from our understandings of the world and disavowing compositional rules. Instead, Scorsese ‘s style here can seem poetic not as a moral quotient or a personal quandary but as an art-film check-box on a career or a glistening but fabricated centerpiece in a ballroom.
But again, it’s an extraordinary, unfathomably skilled centerpiece when everything is clicking, which happens intermittently throughout the piece, and its list of admirable aspects are arguably longer than any other film released in 2016. Neeson sells a bodily exhausted, mentally emptied man more fiercely than Garfield’s mannered, cultivated, professional performance can, and whenever Neeson is around everything lights up with darkness. And the cinematography truly is a thing of wonder – even if it wants for madness – and it at times trembles with the sepulchral, funereal gloom of a true mood piece, corporealizing the search for sanity and moral stability with a violent sense of inhospitable nature. Furthermore, while the excessive silences can sometimes seem more arbitrary than evocative, the film’s commitment to avoiding the white noise of dialogue or soundtrack is often entirely capable of examining the moral gaps and silences in the characters themselves.
Silence largely exists away from the brutal jitteriness and nervous jugular-punches of Scorsese’s usual style and his typical subjects, which is always appreciated, especially because of the film’s willingness to explore reticent, painfully reflective men who bottle up emotions rather than lashing out at the world. The languorous style of the film can work as an extraordinary appreciation for and critique of the characters, suggesting that the torturous way they cling to preconceived ideologies and mental apprehensions is an ineffective and violently self-destructive way of connecting to the world around them, as though the stateliness of the film is a mimetic for the characters’ failure to breath real life into experience, for their self-imposed mental traps.
Perhaps Silence is un-distillable. And perhaps it is more handsome than truly evocative, but the emotionally tormented and languid tone does frequently approximate that most over-used (especially by me) of critical words: haunting. It isn’t obstreperous enough for a work so terminally conflicted, but its inability to revolt and attack us with Scorsese’s usual manic desperation, the kind only a perennially young filmmaker can beget, may be precisely the point. Nothing in Silence is as vivacious and spring-loaded as his thirty years old The Last Temptation as Christ, nor is it as wound-up as Scorsese’s real masterpieces, but it is certainly superior to many films of his which have received adoration in recent decades, the milquetoast The Departed chief among them. (Silence is also the diametrical opposition of Scorsese’s previous film, The Wolf of Wall Street, for what its worth).
Above all, it is a placid and mournful film, alternately reticent to express its themes with any viscera and too willing to embody its feelings in cloying visual gestures, such as when a man sees himself as a Christ idol in a stream). The latter is oblique, and it can be seen alternately as an arbitrary and too-easy symbol or a critique of men who frame the world only in terms of too-easy, prefigured symbols of Christ. The film creates a hollowed-out world that means nothing and, simultaneously, embodies everything brewing and cascading within Rodrigeus’ uncertain mind. It’s a glacial film about glacial men. But Scorsese feels like he is staring at them from an ice-cold distance rather than channeling their agony, resulting in a slightly schematic film, even one that is a little impersonal for such an inward-looking work. It demands a little friction, a little of Scorsese’s usual freak flag left to fly. Even as a cold and standoffish film, it lacks a certain reptilian calculatedness or an ethereal transcendence to levitate the coldness into an aesthetic all its own, or a moral viewpoint. But it is essential cinema. Perhaps it is divine providence, but Silence is imperfect because it is so perfect and picked-over and manicured, and simultaneously worthwhile for all the same reasons.
Score: I feel like I just wrote a 6/10 review but my heart says 7/10. You should see it.