SILENCE met itself in hushed theaters with a self-condemned gross of $7,100,000. An average ticket price of $8.65 indicates perhaps 821,000 people saw it in the United States, one filled seat surrounded by 392 empty. Foreign tallies added another $8,900,000. The 2016 souls-in-suffering saga director Martin Scorsese had wrestled with for 26 years cost $46,000,000 in order to turn Shûsako Endô’s 1966 novel’s 256 pages into two hours and forty-one minutes of film. Torment enough for all.
Surreptitious spiritual quest…brutal, impoverished rural Japan…ragged, starving, arguing Jesuits…ghastly prolonged torture…choking, whispered prayers…..hmm, is that why theaters were so vacant you could hear the air? Of those faithful 821,000, how many stayed until the end? How many were deeply moved? How many were ejected for snoring? Oh, the impiety. Sorry, Marty, but JHC!,already: this whole endless Grapple With Faith deal makes Michael Corleone’s “Sicilian thing” look reasonable.
Japan in the 1630’s. Wholesale persecution of Christians (as in, “who asked you here, anyway”?) has devolved into mass slaughter. Braving hideous death, two Portuguese Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) journey there to determine the fate of their mentor (Liam Neeson) who it is said renounced the faith, apostatized. Greeted by desperate, secretive converts, they are betrayed to the shogunate, and witness assorted fiendish punishments visited on their helpless followers. Will they summon the courage to cling to their faith? What’s the point of the suffering? More to the point in this instance, why watch it?
Rodrigo Prieto’s Oscar-nominated cinematography is sensational throughout, and Scorsese stages individual scenes masterfully. Some of the shots are breathtaking. But after the communion wafer-thin story sets down its markers, it basically just hits ‘repeat’, a sermon of misery to the point of numbness, and does it as slowly as candle wax. Garfield and Driver are good with what they’re given, but their characters aren’t developed or compelling enough to care about. Neeson is always worth watching; he lends gravitas by simply being present, but he has little screen time. The Japanese actors are all effective, with the film’s standout performance coming from Issey Ogata as the unnervingly cheerful governor of Nagasaki. His voice, gestures and all round studied weirdness gives his scenes some real flair and the sluggish story a few badly needed jolts of pep.
Inner torment over outer issues has instigated and tripped-up works from any number of gifted film-makers, their proven talent and track records affording them the luxury of working out their soulful visions and aching psyches in passion/ vanity projects that would have never been green-lit were it not for the names attached to them: Selznick, Ford, Hitchcock, Huston, Peckinpah, Gibson—just a mere handful from a long and distinguished list. Scorsese adds this to The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun; maybe now he’s worked through enough of his cross bearing. Religion brings up devotion, worship summons deification, and many of the critical write-ups of this good-looking snail of a film are blinded by what often seems nearly indoctrination— paying homage at the altar of Marty. Back on Earth, is it apostasy to cut to the chase and say this is simply not an entertaining way to spend three hours? And if you do, you won’t know anything more about God than you did when you sat down—surrounded by empty seats, searching for something in the Silence.
Filmed in Taiwan, with Yôsuke Kubozuka, Tadanobu Asano, Shin’ya Tsukamato, Yoshi Oida, Kaoru Endô and Ciarán Hinds. Written by Scorsese and Jay Cocks.