Many of the films directed by Martin Scorsese have a common element: The protagonist is both the good guy and the bad guy. Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver has a skewed sense of justice that almost makes him seem like the Punisher. Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull has a massive temper problem. From the gangsters in Goodfellas to the cunning, deceiving stockbroker in The Wolf of Wall Street, many of Scorsese's films are known for their grey characters.
But perhaps this moral ambiguity is depicted in the subtlest way in Silence, the historical drama directed by Scorsese and starring Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson, Adam Driver and Tadanobu Asano.
The film is based on the 1966 novel of the same name and is set in 17th century Japan. It depicts the journey of two Jesuit priests who travel from Portugal to Japan to find their missing mentor at a time when Christianity was banned in Japan. The priests then witness the kind of horror and violence Christians are subjected to in Japan and have to face the oppression themselves.
What makes Silence a special Scorsese film is the fact that despite the reverence shown for faith and Christianity in the movie, the film never shies away from depicting some of the horrible consequences of faith and religion.
This is not one of those propaganda films which is trying to convince you to believe in God or follow some religion. On the contrary, Silence tells its viewers that bad things can happen to good, God-loving people and all will not necessarily be well if you just trust in God.
But the best part about Silence is undoubtedly the questions it asks: What is the point of unyielding faith? How much of a difference does religion make to faith? And most importantly, how does one find God in a world which is unjust and cruel and where God is seemingly silent?
Different people will come up with different answers after watching the movie. What really matters is that the characters in Silence are actually as clueless about the answers to these crucial questions as the audience.
This is where the moral ambiguity of protagonist Sebastião Rodrigues, played by Garfield, comes into play. Rodrigues often finds himself in many situations in which he, a devoted Catholic priest, is genuinely confused about whether there truly is a God listening to his prayers. He has to take many decisions which determine whether people will survive or be killed.
And Andrew Garfield's performance perfectly displays this conflict. Garfield portrays the intensity (and sheepishness) of his character's firm and innocent faith as effortlessly as the desperation of a man just trying to survive. The best moments in the film are when Garfield is expressing the character's helpless disgust or confusion about his faith and the times when his mask of faith falls to reveal a man who is tempted to do anything to avoid a doomed fate.
Silence also never portrays the Japanese rulers who are torturing Christians as some blindly evil monsters. In fact, there are no villains in the movie. The characters played by Tadanobu Asano and Issey Ogata offer their own well-thought-out reasons for their actions.
The extremes of Rodrigues' determination to spread Christianity and the Japanese rulers' desire for complete sovereignty is balanced by Cristóvão Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson.
Even though Neeson does not have a lot of screen time in the movie, it is his character which asks the toughest questions and even answers some of them. We can't talk a lot about Neeson's character without spoiling the movie but let's just say that Neeson probably understood the importance of comprehensively depicting his character's thoughts and feelings.
It is really not surprising that Silence has been nominated for Best Cinematography at this year's Academy Awards. Apart from the great historical detail which the film has to immerse the audience in the world of 17th century Japan, it also uses colour in such a diverse way that it makes something as common as sunshine look exceptionally beautiful in a scene and imposing mountains and heavy mist look glum in another one.
There are, however, times when the pace of the movie becomes a bit too slow and it is easy to get bored, especially in the first half. The scenes in which the Christians in Japan are marveling at how the priests conduct prayers or baptisms should have been shorter and fewer in number.
But despite the occasional slow pace, Silence is a great film and a must-watch for those interested in the dynamics of faith.
Reports have said that Scorsese had been developing this film for 25 years. With the excellent production quality, grand and stunning scenes due to skilled camera work, and — most importantly — the ideas and questions about faith, religion, survival and morality, it is not difficult to believe that.
Published Date: Feb 18, 2017 11:03 am | Updated Date: Feb 18, 2017 11:03 am