The heavy weight of expectation surrounding anything labelled as a "passion project" can be pretty intimidating.
Especially when your name happens to be Martin Scorsese, meaning everyone's expecting nothing short of a masterpiece; a sentiment which perfectly encapsulates the current hype surrounding Silence, a film the legendary director has been developing for well over a decade now.
Scorsese had previously been close to launching the project back in 2009 with Daniel Day-Lewis, Benicio del Toro, and Gael García Bernal in the lead roles; though it soon fell into hiatus, with the director instead moving on to work on both Shutter Island and Hugo.
In fact, Silence's endless delays actually saw Scorsese face legal trouble when Cecchi Gori Pictures alleged the director breached a contract agreement which stated he would shoot the film following 1997's Kundun, though he instead chose to make Bringing Out the Dead, Gangs of New York, and The Aviator first.
The finished project, shot in 2014, stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson in the adaptation of Shūsaku Endō's novel of the same name; which sees two 17th century Portuguese priests face persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor, who committed apostasy after being tortured.
Taking on such heavy historical matters, guided by the hands of such an icon of the cinematic arts, does have the makings of the perfect recipe for artistic success. And the first reviews have so far been unanimously positive; though its praise as an "inspiring" and "profound" piece of work has been somewhat tempered by the critique that the film is uneven.
Though undeniably gorgeous, it is punishingly long, frequently boring, and woefully unengaging at some of its most critical moments. Still, viewed through the narrow prism of films about faith, Silence is a remarkable achievement, tackling as it does a number of Big Questions in a medium that, owing to its commercial nature, so often shies away from Christianity altogether.
Ultimately, then, despite the bumpiness of the initial stretch and the intense but narrow conception of the leading roles, Silence gets to where it wants to go, which is to stand as Scorsese's own reckoning with the religion he was raised in and takes seriously, and which has arguably fueled so much of the inner turmoil and angst that has marked much of his work; this can rightly be regarded as a considerable feat.
Silence deals explicitly with the pain of doubt, God’s silence in the face of suffering, and apostasy versus martyrdom; it’s a welcome change of pace, even if it’s not always effectively rendered.
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When Martin Scorsese puts away his strutting cocks—his raging bulls, comedy kings and Wall Street wolves—the results can be astounding. This quieter, lesser-seen director is the one who gave us The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), the exquisite period piece The Age of Innocence (1993) and now Silence, a furiously alive and concentrated parable about faith under fire set in 17th-century Japan that ranks among the greatest achievements of spiritually minded cinema.
The result is one of the most profound films of Martin Scorsese’s career. It conjures a feeling that might be familiar to those who worship or meditate, because Silence is the type of movie that you go to bed respecting but wake up loving. It stirs inside and percolates an intelligent internal conversation.
Some may find Silence’s agonised self-flagellation far too ponderous and tortured. But Ferreira (Liam Neeson)’s appearance elevates the movie beyond matters of Christian doctrine to universal questions about how society should best confront all forms of intolerance — and whether belief in something greater than oneself is sufficient compensation for the cruelty and bigotry of the material world.
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