Saturday, April 22, 2017

Silence (2016)

rating: *****

the story: Two Jesuit priests investigate the disappearance of their mentor in 17th century Japan.

what it's all about: I almost regretted having read the book before watching the movie, this time.  Usually, I can't abide people who suggest such things, because the two mediums are two very different creative expressions, and there's no reason to split hairs between them.  They have their different strengths.  But Silence is a particular story, in both prose and film form, where the same thing seems so similar in both forms, you begin to wonder what's lost in translation.  In the book, it's very important what Andrew Garfield's character thinks, and not so much only what he does or says.  Martin Scorsese, surely now and forever a master of filmmaking, knows this, and so there are a few voiceovers meant to fill the void a little, but he also knows that the story means the same thing, in the end, regardless of what is lost along the way.

That's what's truly remarkable about Silence, that it tells such an unexpected story, one that seems totally contrary to established narratives.  It seems to be a rebuke of criticisms on two scores, both in the context of the story, and what commentators today have attempted to say about the Christian faith, too.  It runs counter to everything Hollywood has been attempting to do in recent years.  Scorsese is a famously pragmatic Catholic, and that makes him the ideal adapter of such material.  It abhors mindless reverence, but it also embraces a level of faith totally unknown to most adherents.  How's that for a paradox?

Garfield, whom I know from a few movies (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the two Amazing Spider-Man films), emerges as a new breed of lead actor in it.  At first he seems like the last actor capable of pulling off the "Jesus look," the long hair and beard.  He's made a career of looking young, right?  He doesn't seem to possess the right amount of gravitas.  Yet he and Scorsese use these apparent limitations to their advantage.  His character is meant to be totally self-assured and yet na├»ve at the same time.  After watching Silence, you'll be convinced that Garfield has found a new archetype.  He seems to have played something similar in Hacksaw Ridge, also released last year, but the results couldn't seem to be more different.  Mel Gibson's movie (it's funny, Garfield starring in the films of two Catholics) is pretty straightforward, when it comes down to it.  Silence is anything but.

Adam Driver continues to be a fascinating discovery in his own right.  My personal experience with him had previously been limited to The Force Awakens and Midnight Special.  Almost more than Garfield, he manages to bring a mature presence to his role, so effortlessly that again you aren't surprised in the least that he and Garfield are leading a new generation of actors.  Liam Neeson, meanwhile, in a supporting role again confirms that he's capable of anything.  Here he seems to contradict everything you might have seen him do previously, in a long series of mentor roles he's done over the years, and no doubt that was a deliberate casting effect. 

Even if you don't care for the religious elements, Scorsese still presents a look at life in Japan in the century before the world had finished expanding.  Japan, in fact, was in the midst of shrinking back, headed toward a period of isolation that would have a perilous effect not just on itself but many other countries besides.  Silence becomes a story of self-justification, the things we tell ourselves to try and make sense of the irreconcilable.  If you find yourself siding with the Japanese over the priests, which is valid, you may still end up wondering if you were right, knowing what was to come.  This doesn't even mean the priests were right, either, but that this was an untenable situation, which Scorsese no doubt meant to parallel secular matters in today's world, too, of Muslims and the West and where things continue to stand between them.

I chose Arrival as my favorite movie of 2016 before having seen Silence, but I'll still stand by that now.  The two movies, however, stand together as among the smartest filmmaking I've ever seen, and that's extremely good company.  Both came from books.  What does that matter?  The story resonates.  That is all.