For my review of Hugo last Monday, I began by saying that we form our expectations of what a film will feel like primarily based upon who’s attached to direct. Many of the best directors have a discernible style with which they’ve built their reputation, and it’s that formula they employ behind the lens that makes every new project announced feel exciting, at least if you’re a fan. And when we finally sit down to watch what we’ve so anxiously anticipated, scene by scene, we make comparisons to their previous work; defining shots and camera movements, style of dialogue – in essence, it’s a bit like a scavenger hunt.
Though I am a big fan of Martin Scorsese and his work, I haven’t seen every one of his films, and I say that to preface this statement: there is nothing to which I can accurately compare Silence. Yes, many of the same religious themes, or variations of the themes explored in films like Mean Streets, The Departed and certainly The Last Temptation of Christ are present here, but there’s something inherently different about how Scorsese approached Shūsaku Endō’s historical fiction novel of the same name. But for directors with a particular style, any major deviations from that identity must be done with purpose, and Silence has enough of it to keep even the most ardent Scorsese fanatic satisfied.
Like many an auteur, Scorsese is primarily defined by his visual sense. Highly kinetic cinematography, slow motion and quick fire editing are just a few of his most notable traits, and yet, Silence is perhaps one of his most restrained works in this case. Most of the trademark shots you could pick out from any or all of his films are saved for the film’s latter half, and even then they’re done sparingly. For the most part, what we see are these picturesque master shots that emphasize how dwarfed man is by nature and the needlessness of vanity, as well as compact still frame shots that underscore the significance of every player and detail in the scene.
The professionalism Scorsese shows behind the camera – as if that were ever a concern – is equaled in his depiction of both Portuguese Catholic and Japanese Buddhist characters. From the beginning, we’re brought into the traditional good guy-bad guy dichotomy with the Japanese Buddhists, often represented by the ruling shogunate, being the ‘obvious’ antagonists. But despite the hostile feelings and actions displayed by these characters, little to nothing in the cinematography suggests we should ultimately regard these characters negatively, as they are often photographed on an equal level with their Christian counterparts. That sentiment further reveals itself in Padre Rodrigues’s (Andrew Garfield) vainglory and the screenplay’s criticism of Western Christian imperialism in the East.
As if the more philosophical means of discussing religion wasn’t any indication, not only was Scorsese’s Silence atypical so that he could properly pay the source material respect, but also because it seems Silence might have been something of a passion project. Scorsese has described himself in recent years as a lapsed Catholic, and though he may not be practicing, it’s clear that it still has some influence on his life and his filmmaking. Though it takes the length of the film for Rodrigues to recognize his arrogance, never once does Scorsese tell us this behavior is worthy of condemnation; judge not, lest you be judged yourself, so to say. Not only that, but it must be, for a filmmaker, that only a project which was special, and even quite personal would be enough to break from the traditional M.O.
For those of you who probably won’t be as big on Silence as some of Scorsese’s other films, don’t worry; Scorsese’s adaptation of The Irishman is lined up for release next year – and it features a lot of Scorsese’s old collaborators (De Niro, Pesci, Keitel). For those who will embrace it just as lovingly, Silence will intrigue you, perplex you and maybe even frustrate you to a degree, but it is still the beautiful product of one of American cinema’s finest storytellers, and certainly one of his finer moments.