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Silence Movie Review

Silence: Blu-ray + Digital HD cover art
Silence is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray.

Silence (2016) movie poster Silence

Theatrical Release: December 23, 2016 / Running Time: 161 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Martin Scorsese / Writers: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese (screenplay); Shűsaku Endô (novel)

Cast: Andrew Garfield (Father Sebastian Rodrigues), Adam Driver (Father Francisco Garupe), Liam Neeson (Father Ferreira), Tadanobu Asano (Interpreter), Ciarán Hinds (Valignano), Yôsuke Kubozuka (Kichijiro), Yoshi Oida (Ichizo), Shinya Tsukamoto (Mokichi), Issey Ogata (Old Samurai/Inoue), Nana Komatsu (Monica), Ryo Kase (Juan)

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There are a handful of filmmakers who can grab the movie world's attention with everything they direct. Martin Scorsese is certainly one of them. Scorsese has been making films for well over half of his life and at 74,
he shows no sign of slowing down or losing his touch. Five of his last six narrative theatrical films have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and the sixth was Shutter Island, an acclaimed and commercially potent February release that is firmly situated on IMDb's Top 250 list.

In light of that streak, the past four months of the industry's half-year awards season have had one big wild card hanging in the distance: Silence, a film that Scorsese had been developing for a quarter-century. Originally pegged for a late 2015 release, Silence took longer to complete and whether it would even make it out by the end of 2016 remained a real question until just weeks ago. The same questions hung over Scorsese's previous effort, The Wolf of Wall Street, which snuck into the 2013 Oscar race and wound up doing well despite not being completed or seen by anyone far in advance. Of course, Scorsese doesn't make movies to win Oscars, but it makes sense for his films to be released at year's end, when serious and artistic cinema briefly comes into fashion. Silence is about as serious and artistic as any 2016 release and it is also one of the year's better films, even if it seems extremely unlikely to do the big business that Scorsese's collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio have.

Father Sebastiăo Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Jesuit missionary from Portugal, hears the confession of his tormented guide Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) in Martin Scorsese's "Silence."

Adapted from the 1966 Japanese novel by Shusaku Endo, Silence is set in 17th century Japan. There, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) have been challenged by religious persecution. Christianity is outlawed in the nation and recently that law has been enforced, with believers forced to either apostate (renounce their faith) or suffer punishment, from torture to death. The mentor of our two lead priests, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has gone missing and word is that he has committed apostasy to save his life.

Not believing the reports, Rodrigues and Garupe have a guilt-ridden, seemingly unreliable guide Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) bring them to Nagasaki, where they find small villages of devout locals who practice their Catholic faith in secrecy. The priests' arrival fills the faithful with hope, but also brings danger to them, as Japan's inquisitor cracks down on the worshippers, making examples of some and pushing Rodrigues to abandon his calling.

Scorsese has often spoken about his Catholic faith and his beliefs have sometimes played a role in the stories he's told, most obviously his controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. Nearly thirty years after that, Scorsese commits to exploring the nature of faith and what happens when religious convictions collide with firm state persecution. It's a fascinating story based on real events that takes advantage of Scorsese's copious filmmaking gifts. In tone, setting, characterization, and composition, Silence couldn't be much further from Wolf of Wall Street. But, as in that nearly contemporary tale of white collar crime, Scorsese opts for an epic runtime and some deep reflections on morality and human nature.

Resembling Jesus, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) is captured along with Christian followers in Japan and asked to apostate.

Between this and Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge released in September and seemingly a safer bet for Oscar nominations, Andrew Garfield has cemented himself as a highly compelling leading man.
The promise of Garfield's supporting role in The Social Network has come to fruition the past couple of years since he shed the baggage of playing Spider-Man in Sony's hasty and underappreciated reboots. While good in Hacksaw Ridge, Garfield is great here, convincing you as a man of the cloth with unshakable faith who holds great love for believers while clinging to the hope that Japan can accept Christianity. Neeson is solid in limited screentime, though he makes no attempt to transform his Irish brogue into a Portuguese accent. Driver is not so focal, which surprises given that he shockingly lost 50 pounds for his role, a very apparent transformation. But the film belongs to Garfield, who physically and emotionally turns this persecuted protagonist into a Christ-like figure.

Silence is shot almost entirely on 35mm film and you can tell that. Scorsese, who embraced 3D technology on 2011's enchanting Hugo, opts for an old school aesthetic that suits the material perfectly. Silence kind of looks like a film from the late '80s or early '90s, but it also has a modern mindset and relevance about it. As the title suggests, this is a movie that favors quiet; the rustling of popcorn bags is an unusually genuine distraction here. It also takes its time, allowing you to soak in atmosphere and appreciate the length of the pressure that both Rodrigues and his followers are asked to endure once imprisoned.

Scorsese's film has extremely different expectations for moviegoers' patience levels than his contemporaries do. Some may grow bored or restless. I believe I spotted one or two walkouts, which are rare occurrences at free advance screenings. Many others will not at all be intrigued by this period story, performed by a largely Japanese and unknown cast and the star of The Amazing Spider-Man. But Silence is full of rewards. It is a powerful and moving tale, with beautiful cinematography, a knockout closing shot, and a rich lead performance.

Had I been able to see this before voting in the Online Film Critics Society's annual awards, I very likely would have included Garfield as one of my three Best Actor nominees. Having strong performances in two contenders may create a vote split that stands in the way of him earning his first Oscar nomination. But the film may have more than just its late screening dates and lack of screener mailings to explain why it might not feature in the biggest awards show, no matter how cinematically deserving it may be. Thick accents, regular subtitles, a cast with few white faces, the religious content, and the nearly three-hour runtime all may prove a tough combination for the typical Academy member, or the average moviegoer for that matter, to embrace.

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Reviewed January 6, 2017.

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