silence review part 1

This is going to be a review in three parts. This part will be my naive initial response to the film.

I enjoyed Silence a lot.

It’s a thoughtful, interesting, restrained film. I can see why people might not like it, and I’ll cover the problems I had with it before I get to my reasons for liking it.

But first, absurdity. In the space of about two weeks I saw both Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Silence, and they’re pretty much the same film:

Each is well over two hours: Rogue One is 133 minutes and ends several times; Silence is 161 minutes and has an extended coda that could be cut off at any point.

Each deploys a muted colour palette and often dim lighting.

Each centres on an idealistic young person in search of a father figure. Though that search isn’t central to the plot of Rogue One in the way it is with Silence.

Each is set in a world where citizens are seemingly controlled by fear and military force.

Each has central characters who are difficult to know: in Rogue One we’re never shown actions, interactions or conversations that might tell us anything about these people; in Silence conversations are often abstruse and either encoded or are religious and theological.

In each all of our central characters die; albeit in Silence it’s over a longer timescale, and some of those deaths we simply infer.

Each has scenes where a character repeatedly appeals to something they believe is greater than them: Chirrut Imwe’s ‘I am with the Force, the Force is with me’; Father Rodrigues’ constant prayers to God and Christ.

I’m not trying to make a point here, I just thought it was funny. I didn’t like Rogue One: it’s a fun ride while it’s happening, but it falls apart if you look at it too closely, and for all its ‘darkness’ it doesn’t have a lot of depth. I found Silence more compelling to watch, even as I felt I was missing some of the shared aspects of belief that would truly elevate the film for me.

The respective experiences were, ‘This is fun, but it’s complete shit’, and, ‘This is frustrating, but it’s utterly compelling’.

Let’s get to Silence on its own.

This is going to be disjointed. Although it’s a sensation that fascinates me, there’s no question that incomplete and disconnected thoughts on a piece of art are distracting and irritating. And this wasn’t a film I could get much grip on, or form a clear critical reaction to.

My major issue was a sense of being unmoved, alienated and baffled. Not by the film as a complete entity in itself, nor by the portrayed suffering of various characters, but by the concept of religious faith being such a fundamental part of people’s sense of self that they either feel the need to persecute others for a different faith or to cling to the external manifestations of faith in the face of hostility.

But the fact that the film deals with and takes seriously its characters’ deeply held and genuinely considered beliefs is important. It’s important both in terms of the events of the film, and as a guide for how to approach it.

In terms of the events of the film, not just religious beliefs, but also political power and national self-interests are at stake. But these are primarily manifest in the religious lives and beliefs of the characters. In the focus on their struggles to retain and express faith, and in the debates about the compatibility or otherwise of Christianity with Buddhism, or with ‘the Japanese character’.

As for how to approach the film, as far as I’m concerned it isn’t epic – in the sense of being sweeping and bombastic, and dealing with broad actions and themes. Rather it’s intimate, interior and personal, with much of the nuance and complication is unspoken.

I thought the cinematography was great, especially in scenes in half-light, through steam or mist, or in the few daylight outdoor scenes. There was some editing where there seemed to be a specific intention that I wasn’t quite picking up on, some individual scenes that looked less convincing than others, and what looked like shifts in film stock/changes in colour grading and grain.

The editing that stood out as seeming to have a deliberate purpose was mainly when the two priests are trying to argue that they should be sent to Japan to find their mentor. There are cuts from one almost full face shot of the senior priest with the camera slightly to the right, then to an almost identical shot with the camera slightly to the left.

It’s slightly disconcerting, which may be the intention, and it may also be an attempt to show that Rodrigues and Garrpe have different viewpoints.

The individual scenes that appear less convincing are always when the two priests are being transported over water to the island village, and very strongly give the impression of being studio-bound, even if they aren’t.

I can’t remember the exact moment when the most noticeable shift in film appearance happens, but I think it’s either when Rodrigues is at the second village or earlier when he and Garrpe are making the decision to split up. Either way I think there have been a few nocturnal scenes and a few indoors, then this one is outdoors. The colour and light is harsher, and there seems to be a noticeable grain. There are other shifts in film appearance in the film, but this is easily the most abrupt.

I thought Andrew Garfield’s performance as Rodrigues was good, if perhaps a little too self-confident, buoyant, and on his toes. That works early on, but as he views and experiences persecution and doubt later on begins to seem out of place.

Adam Driver as Garrpe and Liam Neeson as Ferreira are also good, though in the film much less, in Neeson’s case only for three or four scenes. Though those scenes are pivotal.

As I mentioned in my comparison with Rogue One our point-of-view character Rodrigues perhaps isn’t very knowable or sympathetic until later in the film as he begins to be broken-down by the torments placed on others. He is also less developed than the real point of human connection/Judas analog Kichijiro, whose views and actions are more understandable to contemporary audiences.

There are a number of repetitions through the film, particularly the smashing of pots: when Kichijiro drops the bowl of water prior to Rodrigues’ capture, and later when Rodrigues’ Japanese wife smashes a pot at his Buddhist funeral.

There are the two arrivals at Goto: first when Rodrigues and Garrpe are met by delighted villagers; then when Rodrigues arrives at the deserted village alone. There are three occasions when Rodrigues sees Jesus’ face. There is the charcoal burners’ hut where Rodrigues and Garrpe hide, and the prison where Rodrigues is kept later. There are the boat journeys on calm seas. And more beside.

The image of Christ appears early on when Rodrigues is writing a letter, later reflected in the water and superimposed over his reflection, and at another point on the floorboards in front of him.

And there are scenes that are funny. Sometimes obviously intentionally so, at other times less obviously, and occasionally where it seems like it might not be intentional.

An example of the first would be where the priests newly arrived at Tomogi start hungrily eating the food they’re given, then have to stop while the villagers say grace. Less obvious are some aspects of the performance of Ogata Issey playing Inoue, the inquisitor. And finally things like the voice of the Jesus made me laugh, even while I wasn’t sure that was the intention.

There are two more parts to this review to come. Part two will look at some extremes of other reviews and offer responses to them. Part three will be a more considered reflection now I’ve seen the movie twice, and will probably have finished the source novel by then.


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