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Review: Silence

Last night, I finally got to see Martin Scorsese’s long overdue adaptation of Silence—though it’s hard to say whether or not I enjoyed the experience considering the intensity of the subject matter (the persecution of Christians in feudal Japan, which I had the opportunity to learn a bit about when I visited the country in 2015).

Nearly all of Scorsese’s films reflect his Catholicism to some degree—from the quiet prayer that opens Mean Streets to Henry Hill’s self-imposed suburban Hell at the end of Goodfellas—but like The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence is a more explicit meditation on the themes of religion and belief, and its central character, a Jesuit priest played by Andrew Garfield, must confront some difficult and deeply troubling questions. Ministering in secret to Japanese converts, he witnesses real suffering for the first time. Those who refuse to renounce God are subjected to sadistic tortures and grisly executions (including, in one harrowing sequence, being crucified on a rocky shoreline and pummeled by a relentless barrage of waves), so unnerving our devout protagonist that he increasingly urges his followers to comply with the inquisitors’ demands, at least in their words, if not in their hearts. But his pride in his conviction prevents him from following his own advice, even when it would save others from the shogun’s wrath, and discovering this deeply-buried hypocrisy forces him to reassess the true meaning of faith.

I’m not a religious person, but I can still appreciate a religious film if its story is well told. In Silence, Andrew Garfield’s internal conflict is so compelling (a good antidote for his borderline insufferable aw-shucks righteousness in Hacksaw Ridge), and the cinematography so beautiful and haunting (in the very first frame, the thick, rolling fog dissipates to reveal a soldier standing guard over a row of severed heads), that it’s difficult to resist Scorsese’s spell, even when I don’t completely agree with his intended message. I doubt I’ll revisit this one as frequently as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, but I’ll certainly continue to chew on its subtleties for a long time.

[Originally written January 15, 2017.]

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