A real psychological endurance test of biblical proportions. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are two Christian missionaries who feel led by God to find their missing mentor, Liam Neeson, who was last known to be preaching their religion in Japan. The country is shown to be hostile to Christianity through scenes of torture and by showing how difficult it is to find someone who will transport two missionaries with a supposed death wish.
It has been said Martin Scorsese had this film in mind for a long while, and it raises the question of what story was he determined to tell? The missionaries have their faith tested not through their questioning of God but by what practices must they follow to show their devotion. Japan’s violent rejection of Christianity is relatively unexplored for a film around 160 minutes long, often giving the impression of an Eli Roth cannibal film where the ‘natives’ are simply savage. Is the incompatibility between faiths across cultures the point, alluding to constant-yet-ignorant preaching of those unshakable in their beliefs? Or is the devotion shown by the missionaries a love letter to Christianity in the face of unspeakable horror?
Its plodding pace may be a nod to the barriers Garfield keeps coming up against in his search for their missing mentor, or even the lengthy trials of Jesus himself, but oftentimes we are shown scenes of traveling in the fog, sweeping panoramas of villages surrounded by trees by the sea, and intimidating Japanese guards observing just out of view. A torture scene by the sea feels particularly long, disturbing in its realism but bothersome in its length. For an epic which has lots to say about culture, religion, faith, and tolerance, a lot of time is given to showing visceral violence and atmospheric wonder, conceding time either better spent elsewhere or not needed at all.
Silence is an easy film to respect and appreciate, but more difficult to love. Everyone does a great job – though Neeson’s Irish accent is not even slightly hidden – and no one can accuse it of not attempting to be a lofty epic. Maybe it is the amount of silence in the film itself, or how the film seems to lack empathy at times, or perhaps films are better when Liam Neeson is not the one who has been taken. It is a hell of an endurance test both for its characters and its audience, with just enough to make it feel worth its run time. It is not Scorsese’s best, but it does show he has no intention of scaling back as he enters his fifth decade as a film maker.