Sunday, January 22, 2017

Brief thoughts on Silence.

Martin Scorsese sure likes to take his dear sweet time inbetween passion projects. Silence, based on the novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, has been slowly gestating for well over 25 years, and in fact was even prepped before Scorsese had taken on Shutter Island and Hugo. Through delay after delay, and project after project, his dream film finally arrives, a deeply haunting examination of spirituality versus human nature, but does the end product make the long wait worth it?

In my opinion, it absolutely does. While a clear step outside of his usual wheelhouse, and very unlike the brutal gangster films that have made him a household name, it's quite easy to see why Scorsese would be so drawn to the project. Given his own history with Roman Catholicism, as well as taking cues from The Last Temptation of Christ, the project feels very personal in allowing the man to confront his own feelings on religion. Most notably, he spends a great deal of time meditating on the compromise of that religion, the compassion and the cruelty of human nature, and learning to live with the tough choices made, even if done for noble reasons.

Set in the violent scene of 1630's Japan, in which the nation purges Christian symbolism and regularly demands frightened townsfolk to renounce God, Scorsese sets a very grim and brutal portrait of persecution and oppression. There's much power behind the decisions of what Scorsese decides to show, and what to obscure, often casting graphic and cruel shadows of humans reverting back to their primitive nature, at a time where rational discussion feels very discarded. What could have played as a glorified exploitation film, or a stereotypical representation of good vs evil feels much more complex, with much debate brought up concerning personal interpretation of Catholic teachings, with the Japanese captors (led by a sadistic Issey Ogata) lining philosophy closer to nature than supernatural forces. In a way, it even further lines up with the regression into violent animalistic nature, with the violence often rendering the film to be horrifying, and utterly intense to witness.

But the faith based elements is the area where Scorsese is taking on his most powerful demons, with the meditation on personal belief and compromise played in a far more layered and observational fashion than any PureFlix Propaganda piece. It's especially the most powerful from the point of view of Father Rodrigues. Powerfully played by Andrew Garfield, much of its strength is owed to the fact that his character is based as more than just a Catholic, or a torture victim, or a martyr. Rodrigues is simply an idealistic human being, with his unshakable faith being the only thing he really cherishes, and as the methods of his captors grow more extreme, the film becomes an agonizing tragedy as he is forced to either renounce his faith, or watch in helplessness as his inaction results in the prolonged and aggressive torture of innocents.

On the surface, it may seem easy to perform the symbolic gesture, to put aside personal pride and go through these things to save lives, as other Fathers of his faith seem perfectly accepting to do. But noble as the intentions may be, prideful it does not feel for Rodrigues to cling to these laurels. Even if for the most noble of intentions, to go against those ideals almost feels like an utter betrayal, not merely to his creator, but to a massive shard of his own identity. Whether you're religious or not, we are always able to understand the clear agony of watching the situation play out, and watching the character ponder if any consolation, redemption, or plea for forgiveness will ever truly be enough to earn back salvation after defiling that image, yet at the same time struggling with the moral guilt of allowing good people to die slowly.

It's definitely not a cheery central theme, and completely drains you as it moves, but it's never anything less than compelling. It's not a perfect film, with Scorsese deliberately over-extending scenes, and his closing stretches start to pull a Return of the King, but it's still a fantastic movie that will linger and stick with you for a long time.

****1/2 / *****

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