Passion projects are dangerous; because filmmakers can often lose the objective lens that they might have carried out successfully in other films. This seems to be the problem with Martin Scorcese and his decades in the making Silence.
Silence takes place in 17th century Japan where the country had rigorously closed borders. Christian missionaries venture bravely into the country preaching their religion, and in turn are forced to deny their faith or face torture and death. One such priest is Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who disappears, with rumors saying he has settled down with a Japanese family. Two young priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), whom where taught under Ferreira in Portugal, go into Japan in search of their mentor. The first half of the film shows their encounter with Japanese Christians living in hiding, whilst the second is the trek Father Rodrigues (Garfield) across Japan as his faith and loyalty are tested.
Scorcese loves making long films, and this generally pays off with incredible character arcs and a depth and familiarity with the stories. But in Silence there seems to be a lack of this incredible character development and it’s mostly due to a certain individuality focusing on Rodrigues and his journey alone. Another better film about missionaries was the 1986 The Mission, which dealt with the journey as one of values and emotion rather than stubbornness of one single man. Scorcese’s slow pacing and redundant scenes make the first half of the film feel like an eternity, and all for some minimal character development. Towards the end, as we get into much more exciting aspects of the film, suddenly everything is given to us in a voice-over by a completely random narrator. You almost feel as if the production costs had dried up and the filmmakers had to improvise on the spot.
Another essential problem with the film is Garfield in the title role. The actor is almost in every single scene and he struggles with the complexity and internal battle of his character, in fact he barely pulls off the Portuguese accent. Instead he is livened with small supporting cameos from Neeson, Driver, and Yosuke Kubozuka who plays the young priests’ guide.
But Scorcese still manages to bring about a great technical and visual artistry that make this film all the more watchable. If any benefit is to come from the slow pace is that Scorcese manages to make 17th century Japan seem all the more familiar to Western audiences; but unfortunately, a muddled narrative and a weak lead performance make this Scorcese picture a big disappointment.