Why is (or was) God silent is a key question for believers. Why was God silent when Christians were prosecuted and died for their religion in the 17th century in Japan? Why was God silent when Jews were prosecuted by the Catholic Inquisition and died for their religion at the very same time? Or when Christians fought and killed each other in the European religious wars in the same century? Or during the Holocaust? Or today when people are prosecuted, fly for their lives and die for their religion in so many parts of the Globe? Is (or was) God silent? Or maybe He did speak and we did not hear Him? Those are the questions asked in Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Are these questions asked in a generic manner, or just limited to his own faith, and to the specific period he deals with? Are the answers the film gives convincing?
The answer may depend on the viewer’s close or remote relation to faith. The story of the two Catholic priests who are traveling in AD 1640 in Japan at one of the most cruel periods of persecution of Christians, their encounter with the different culture and religions, their fight to help the devote local Catholics who were continuing to stick to their belief, their own personal fight with the doubts and the apparent silence of the Divinity, their dilemma the ultimate choice that they need to make between saving lives and their own soul, between martyrdom and apostasy – all these may speak a lot to believers in general and Catholics in particular. From that perspective, this is the story of Via Dolorosa with a different ending. What if as viewer one does not belong to either of these categories? These viewers are left with a film of exquisite cinematographic beauty but with a slow and unconvincing story telling, quite surprising for a master director as Martin Scorsese is.
There is a secondary story here of the relationship between the priest father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and the local fisherman who helps and then betrays the two priests Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka). It’s an extension of the Jesus – Judah story, a continuation maybe of the relation between the two described in Scorsese’s 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ, and one more work that deals with the story of Judah, part of a trend of ‘rehabilitation’ of the character, at least in films and books. I liked this part, and the acting in general (not to forget Liam Neeson who always fills any screen he is on). I liked less the long off-line monologue which becomes quite repetitive at some point, the ‘Deus ex machina’ off-screen voice that shows up at a key moment, and the odd epilogue that does not add too much to the story, is told in a different style and from a different perspective. Maybe it’s just Scorsese’s way of making sure that we place the story he is telling in the historical context? Did he really need this?
One of my friends wrote after reading the original version of my short review: ‘It is an experience more than a movie to watch.’ I agree with her. Seeing Silence is like visiting a church. Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers, everybody has a different experience, remarks and appreciates different things.
‘Inspired by a true story’ seems indeed to be the mantra for the majority of the films in the Academy Awards race this year. A few days ago I saw ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ and now this ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ which together with ‘American Hustle’ are among the strongest competitors in the race and are all inspired by biographies and true stories that took place in the last few decades of the previous century. Even ’12 Years a Slave’ is inspired by a true story and biography but from the previous century. While I liked much less ‘Dallas’ I feel ‘The Wolf’ is quite comparable – both are remarkable movies, both throw light on some dirty and corrupt aspects of the American society, both bring to stage characters which use and trick the system at the same time. While ‘Hustle’ has a more original idea, ‘The Wolf’ has Scorsese and DiCaprio.
The real life Jordan Belfort is probably a much less likeable character than the one brought to screen by Leo. He made his fortune in the 80s and early 90s by pulling the strings and walking the dark alleys of a system which was building financial castles on sand and where the real money was made almost exclusively by people like him. The whole movie can be actually considered as a sharp critical view of a society that creates and makes heroes of such individuals. This is however a moral judgment and it belongs exclusively to the viewers – actually the film makers were quite insistent that the many scenes of debauchery in the film were as close to what really took place in Belford’s corrupt empire and faithful to episodes from his auto-biographical book. Scorsese can use the excuse that he just makes a film which is fun, interesting, entertaining based on the real life story and the conclusions are yours, Mrs. or Mr. Viewer.
It’s rather amazing for me that things that I really dislike in other movies work so well under the hand of Scorsese. The use of the out-screen voice for example which I typically hate works here pretty well, as it gives an auto-biography touch to the whole story. I would hardly bear three hours in a cinema theater if it was not a very well told story, with heroes and action that keep me quiet in the chair. Leonardo DiCaprio amazes me again and again, especially when Scorsese directs him. His hero is mean and cynical and does abhorrent things and yet he is simply fascinating. The most questionable thing in the film seemed to the ending, which I frankly did not understand. Maybe it tried to make a point that I missed, maybe it just described the anti-climatic years of the rest of the life of an individual past his wild years – I do not know. It came however too late to spoil my immense appreciation for this film.
For me the rebirth of cinema in 3D, the moment when the technology met with art is not ‘Avatar‘ but Scorsese‘s ‘Hugo’. James Cameron‘s film validated the technology, brought it into the mainstream, and – of course – made a lot of money in the process. Hugo is in my opinion the first great film realized in this technology, taking a rather melodramatic story targeting the all family audiences and using 3D to amplify the visual effects, to create a world of dreams and fantasy – the material great films are made from. Based on the Paris of the 1920th it recreates the city on screen in a manner that is spectacular and sensitive at the same time, and populates it with characters who meld the qualities of fiction heroes and flesh and blood humans. The complexity of the staging, the attention to the details, the pace of the action and of the moves of the camera, the world of objects who surround the heroes – all this get together in a charming visual experience. We have known many versions of Paris in art, some from books like (Victor) Hugo, some from photos like the ones of Brassai or Robert Doisneau, some from works of art like the paintings of the Impressionist era, now we have the Paris as imagined by Martin Scorsese.
Bringing George Melies into the story is a real touch of genius.This film is a love declaration for cinema, full of respect and quotes from famous movies. The comparison with the other big film about cinema in 2011 The Artist is immediate and makes us forget immediately the simplistic kiddish story. But the story itself has a quality that makes jealous the current Disney productions. This is real Disney stuff, the one that would not make Master Walt blush as would the majority if not all the scripts of the films made by the studios who inherited his name. This is the Disney of Fantasia, the one that made me dream and cross the barriers of imagination.
George Melies actually did break with the studios and retired from film making before the war, and many of his films were destroyed to be used to manufacture military materials. He had a shop in the Montparnasse train station, and even if a round-eyed boy who was making the clocks turn in the station did not really exist – the imagined part of the story is as good and as moving as the real one.
A film like Hugo does not necessarily excel in acting, although big names show up in the cast and do more than a decent job. Ben Kingsley adds George Melies to the gallery of the great personalities he brought to life in his screen career, and Sacha Baron Cohen proves that he can be funny also out of his usual stand-up comedy style. It is however the complex and beautiful world in which the characters move will be the one that we shall remember from this film.
Islands are terrific settings for thrillers. We know it from our own cinematographic experience, and we know we are in claustrophobic territory from the very first scene of this film, with the Shutter Island somewhere out of Boston in the mid-50s appearing in the mist under the gray oppressing skies. In Polanski‘s Ghost Writter or in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo the first series of Millennium there was a bridge to connect the island with the continent, here there is no bridge and a storm will soon cut any connection with solid ground and any way for the characters to get back to the safety of their routine existence. If there is one.
There are a lot of Hitchcock quotes in this film of Martin Scorsese, we almost may characterize it as a Hitchcock film directed by Scorsese. The setting of the film in the 50s reminds immediately the great films of the master of the suspense from that period, and the main character, a US marshal sent to investigate the impossible disappearance of a patient in a special asylum, where criminals are treated for insanity using modern psychoanalytic methods behaves for a while as one of these Hitchcock heroes whose sanity is placed under doubt, but we know that it is not them but the world around that became crazy, and tries to pull him into its lack of sanity. Is this the case here? Leonardo DiCaprio plays the lead role, I am no fan of his, but I confess to have liked immensely his acting here. In a film where nothing is really what seems to be, where the reality and terms of reference change slowly to be completely swapped by the end, his solid but very nuanced acting is critical and sustains the film from start to end. DiCaprio is present in every scene in the film, because what we see is what he sees, and what he feels starts to infuse into us viewers as the film progresses. His perception of reality becomes ours, his flashbacks bring his past under our eyes, his visions and nightmares end by hunting us.
There are many beautiful scenes in this film, ideas, shots, dialogs that are all memorable. Acting from actors like Ben Kingsley or Max Von Sydow as two of the psychiatrists in the prison-asylum is positioning their characters against the evolution (or is it an involution) of the hero in search of the truth, which becomes a search of his own identity. If I am to explain why I was not completely happy with this film I would maybe blame its duration, the rule of ‘way over two hours’ which seems to have been legislated in Hollywood lately applies here as well, with no clear benefit. It’s maybe a way to say – this is a serious and heavy movie- but there is no need to have said it in this case because the film is serious and catching and the final is hard to forget anyway. Less is better, here is another rule which could have applied. Scorsese makes great films, they need not be excessively long also.