[Screen It]


(2016) (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) (R)

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Drama: Two 17th century Portuguese missionaries travel to Japan in hopes of finding an older priest who's reportedly renounced his religion in the face of Japan's persecution of missionaries and Christians in their country.
It's the 1600s and Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (ANDREW GARFIELD) and Father Francisco Garupe (ADAM DRIVER) are two Portuguese priests who've been tasked with finding out what happened to Father Cristovao Ferreira (LIAM NEESON), a Christian missionary in Japan. Despite there once being several hundred thousand Christian converts in that country due to the work of Ferreira and others like him, the past several decades have featured a brutal crackdown there on the religion and those who openly practice and preach for it.

From letters now several years old, it's been learned that Ferreira faced such persecution himself and reportedly abandoned his faith, took a Japanese wife, and is living among the locals of Nagasaki as a fallen priest. Sebastiao and Francisco refuse to believe this and thus convince their superior, despite the very real dangers, to allow them to travel to Japan and find out what's really happened.

They get there by way of China and with a disgraced Japanese man, Kichijiro (YOSUKE KUBOZUKA) -- whose family refused to renounce Christianity like he did and thus were put to death -- as their guide and translator. After landing onshore in secret, Kichijiro seemingly abandons them, but really has brought back a secret group of practicing Japanese Christians -- lead by Ichizo (YOSHI OIDA) and Mokichi (SHIN'YA TSUKAMOTO) -- who gratefully welcome the two priests with open arms.

They begin preaching the gospel to that group and then others, but word eventually gets out about the missionaries and that draws the attention of an inquisitor, Inoue Masashige (ISSEY OGATA), who's made it his mission to wipe out Christianity. He's doing that not just by killing the converts, but also torturing others until such missionaries apostatize (renounce their faith).

Sebastiao and Francisco manage to avoid capture at first, but witness firsthand the horrors that Inoue inflicts. They decide to part ways in order to protect the locals who worship them, but Sebastiao ends up captured by the inquisitor and his men. From that point on, and with the aid of an Interpreter (TADANOBU ASANO), Inoue does what he can to break the priest and get him to renounce his faith, something the missionary steadfastly refuses to do, no matter the consequences and human toll.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Without full information on any topic, it's easy to blindly head down any number of assumption paths that may or may not prove to be correct. That's certainly true for movies, especially if one hasn't seen the trailer for a particular offering (that often give away the entire story), and instead only sees a single, isolated clip, perhaps hears a one-line description of the plot, or makes a snap judgment based on one or more of the cast members.

That could certainly apply to "Silence," the latest film from director Martin Scorsese who's reportedly been trying to bring his version of this historical tale to the big screen for several decades. If one were to simply go off the brief description of two men setting off for a distant land to try to find another man who's apparently gone rogue from his initial mission, it wouldn't be difficult to jump to the conclusion that this was yet another take on Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (that inspired "Apocalypse Now').

Then again, the casting of Liam Neeson and his relatively recent "I have a special set of skills" onscreen persona could lead one to believe his character might go all Crusades on 17th century Japanese traditionalists who've been killing and torturing locals who've turned to Christianity.

And if one only saw a clip of Issey Ogata playing something resembling a Japanese version of Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz's charming yet smarmy meets volatile and deadly Nazi in "Inglourious Basterds") and was familiar with Scorsese's use of violence in his films, it wouldn't be hard to imagine the 74-year-old filmmaker trying to one-up Tarantino.

While some of the above is present (save for Neeson doing his kick-butt thing), Scorsese is after something completely different. And that's an examination of faith and how far one will go to protect and preserve that in the face of persecution.

The director works from his and screenwriter Jay Cocks' adaptation of the 1966 novel of the same name by Sh?saku End? (which was previously turned into a 1971 film by Masahiro Shinoda). That is based on the true-life events of Japanese authorities trying to eradicate Christianity from their land during the 17th century, namely by killing missionaries and their converted followers.

The plot revolves around two Portuguese priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who've been tasked with finding out what happened to their former Christian idol (Neeson) who's gone missing in Japan. Based on letters sent by the latter from several years back, it appears he might have given up his faith, something his protégés don't believe. And despite the inherent danger, they get permission to head to Japan with the intent of proving the fallen priest slander false or, if true, they want and need to save his soul.

Smuggled in from China with a disgraced Japanese man (Y?suke Kubozuka) who watched his family die for not abandoning Christianity like he did, they find believers practicing in secret and learn they're just as important as Jesus and God in these folks' eyes, hearts and minds.

But these missionaries must practice the work of their God at night in secret, lest a feared inquisitor, Inoue Masashige, learn of their presence and make examples of them. To complicate matters, that man (played by Ogata in a highly affected performance that's fairly intriguing but also feels too much like Tarantino and thus out of place in this period pic) has abandoned killing such missionaries outright (which would make them martyrs for the cause and thus feel akin to Jesus). Instead, he wants them to abandon their faith by making them witness others' suffering via torture that could easily be stopped as soon as the priests -- mainly Garfield's character once he becomes the center of the plot - apostatize.

The film's title comes from the priest ending up questioning why God remains silent and doesn't answer his prayers to help him and his followers in need, something many a believer over the centuries has wondered when facing their own challenges. It's ultimately unclear what Scorsese's view of that is, but he examines that with reckless abandon, along with the notion of some such people of the cloth developing their own self and religion-induced Jesus complex.

It's fairly fascinating stuff, but the filmmaker unnecessarily drags it out to a running time north of 160 minutes when the same examination and overall storyline could have been executed in a significantly shorter period of time. That said, the last ten minutes or so feel rather rushed when everything before that takes its sweet old time playing out.

Aside from Ogata's performance (which is good in a standalone sense but doesn't entirely feel right in this setting), the rest of the acting works quite well, and as is always the case in Scorsese's films, the tech credits are solid across the board.

It will be interesting to see how the film plays to the masses. I imagine the very devout will find strength in the central priest holding onto his faith as long as humanly (and humanely) possible, with the ending (and last visual) only cementing that. And those who often question their faith in times of adversity will find a kindred spirit in the protagonist's travails, even if no perfect answer is offered.

Overall, I found "Silence" interesting, but it's often slow and repetitive, and another trip (or two or three) through the editing process could have made this a much tighter and likely more effective offering. Unless, of course, Scorsese is trying to make us suffer via those extra minutes and test our faith that he knows what he's doing. The film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 3, 2017 / Posted January 6, 2017

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