Friday 6 January 2017

True faith: "Silence"

After the excess, some sobriety. It isn't just that Martin Scorsese's ascetic epic Silence emerges into UK cinemas in the cold light of New Year; it's that it marks Scorsese's return, after 2013's thoroughly profane The Wolf of Wall Street, to that devout strand in his filmography that previously begat The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, and which arguably began the minute Harvey Keitel passed his hand through hellfire in Mean Streets. By all accounts, the director has wrestled long and hard with the idea of bringing Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel to the screen, and that seriousness and sincerity of purpose sits behind the resultant film's every graven image. Here is a test or leap of faith, sent forth in the belief a work this out of time - one that goes stubbornly against the flow of images coming out of the dream factory nowadays, which cares not a jot for easy sentiment, spectacle or snark - might still connect with a largely secular audience of consumers who've spent the past decade being mollycoddled by the Marvel corporation, or re-registering as Jedis.

Endo gave Scorsese and his regular co-writer Jay Cocks one compelling hook to work with: this is, on its most basic, narrative level, a clergymen-on-a-mission tale, dispatching earnest 17th century Jesuits Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) to Japan - site of a bloody Buddhist purge of all things Christian - to rescue their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a dog-collared Kurtz reported to have renounced his beliefs and gone native. The stakes are established in the course of a prologue that locates Ferreira on a blasted hellscape, surrounded by severed heads on pikes and fellow priests being put to the cross - another Last Temptation; obliged to operate deep under cover, within clandestine Christian communities riven with their own doubts, suspicions and tensions, the two priests will be forced to pursue very different paths.

The most immediate reference point for UK audiences would be The Mission, that grandiose Goldcrest-era prizewinner that deployed Scorsese's chosen lonely man Robert de Niro and a soaring Ennio Morricone score among its barrage of effects. Yet where that film was the very model of mid-Eighties, British-are-coming screen confidence, Silence - as signalled by that title, and the casting of professional shyboys Garfield and Driver - proves a far more introverted and hushed venture. For Scorsese, clearly, faith is a deeply personal, internalised matter: we get not a single note of non-diegetic music here, while the narrative is nudged along by Garfield's pored-over, ruminative voiceover. (The cicadas of the Japanese countryside fill in any gaps on the soundtrack.)

Even if you don't or can't share these beliefs - if you remain firmly Team Dawkins, and somewhat bemused as to why there should be so much sturm und drang on Earth over our imaginary friends in the sky - there remains plenty in Silence to affirm one's faith in cinema as religion, and in Scorsese as one of that cinema's most passionate and persuasive proselytisers. His overhead shots provide a dramatic shift in perspective that make their own case for the presence of some all-seeing deity; a pivotal digital transition - which is to say, a genuinely special effect - allows Rodrigues, lost in the wilderness, to see Christ in his own reflection. (There is a later moment, involving the voice of Christ, that a filmmaker raised in our culture of irony couldn't even begin to conceive of.) 

Then there is the heightened attention to meticulously researched, attentively rendered ritual, not least the stomp on a copper engraving of Jesus that puts the seal on the act of apostasy: no-one in cinema, not even the grand fetishist Tarantino, has made feet so expressive. You don't have to look too far towards the edges of each frame to catch Scorsese carefully weighing his own steps. Silence is undeniably a deliberate work, so far removed from Wolf's freewheeling carnival of bad taste as to seem like an act of penance. Where its predecessor rubbed our faces in fake tits and blow, Silence insistently retreats from the action, holding the burning, crucifixions and beheadings in extended longshots, the effect of which is to make the agonised close-ups and conflicted two-shots all the more impactful.

Some may mourn - several have mourned - the absence of spontaneity. The middle hour locks us up with Rodrigues as he suffers at length under Japanese lock and key, and held in such tight, demanding focus, Garfield - whose affecting impersonation of blood-spattered American virtue bolsters Mel Gibson's forthcoming Hacksaw Ridge - starts to seem like a placeholder for an actor better suited to incarnating a fervent Portuguese Jesuit: he can only furrow his brow so far, and so often. Yet the unplaceable Driver, with his saintly mien and natural, unforced air of intensity, appears entirely of this landscape, and Neeson commits in a way he hasn't seemed to for a good few years: apparently thankful for the opportunity to attempt something thoughtful, reborn in a fashion that suits Ferreira's character.

It is Scorsese's own conviction, his determination to pin these images, and the ideas behind them, to the multiplex doors, which finally elevates Silence to the very forefront of the director's recent output: from first frame to last, you can feel him wrestling, still, with the nature of faith, how it changes with time, age and place, and what good it might do a man to long for salvation in the next life when doing so can cause so much hurt and grief in this one. Even with Marty's name attached, a sombre interrogation of what lies deep down in the hearts and souls of humankind probably isn't likely to shift a whole lot of popcorn in the present marketplace - but Silence passes into the light as a major statement from a filmmaker finally living up to his billing as a hallowed modern master.

Silence is now showing in cinemas nationwide.   

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