Silence is a long musing on the nature of faith. Is faith what you do or only what you believe? And I do mean a long musing (closing in on 3 hours). But, to Scorsese’s (Hugo) credit as a director, it only feels like 2 hours. Yes, this is a slow musing, but it is so by necessity and theme. It is also visually beautiful and well edited.
Up front(ish), I don’t think this is a good movie; it is an OK one. Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge) and Adam Driver (Midnight Special) can’t agree on or hold an accent in this piece. And neither are their motivations particularly believable. Frankly, they come off more like they are in a High School production than a major picture. Faith is notoriously hard to express as an actor because it is such an internal thing, but Garfield did a much better job of it in Hacksaw, so I know he is capable of it. Liam Neeson (A Monster Calls) provides a better performance than his younger colleagues, but he is a minor part of the screen time of the tale.
More importantly, I couldn’t really sympathize with the plot, however true. Those under threat in this film are part of the same belief system, if not the same sect, who brought us the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition that forced Jews to hide like these Japanese faithful do in Spain for 100s of years… and yet they seem surprised that not everyone loves them and they make no mention of the parallel. I’m not implying that religious persecution is OK; it isn’t. However telling this story in the vacuum of its time only diminishes it and is disingenuous to my mind. Perhaps, again, this is because the acting didn’t grab me so I was looking for something deeper. There is also the challenge that it often appears that ideology is more important than the people, their comfort, or even their lives. The truth is that on both sides it was more about power than beliefs, but that isn’t the story that Scorsese wanted to discuss.
Where the movie is interesting is in the verbal debates, particularly with Issei Ogata’s Inquisitor, of what faith is and whether different people and religions are exportable across cultures; essentially, what is truth. The film has its opinion, of course, but you are free to come to your own conclusions. And Scorsese gives us a character, through Yôsuke Kubozuka, who is either craven or a victim of all the potentially misguided efforts of the priests to consider on these points.
This was a passion project, no pun intended, for Scorsese. He clearly loved the subject and recreated an interesting time to help us understand it. Whether it is effective on that last point is going to have to be up to you. It wasn’t for me. Were it not for his considerable talent as a director, the movie would be a complete failure. As it stands it is simply a pretty film with middling effect and a nebulous message.