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Two Christian missionaries (Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) travel to Japan in search of their missing mentor (Liam Neeson) at a time when Christianity was outlawed. When they are captured and imprisoned, both men are plunged into an odyssey that will test their faith, challenge their sanity, and, perhaps, risk their very lives. (From Paramount’s official synopsis)

It’s always strange when a Martin Scorsese movie is released to mitigated fanfare and it’s even stranger when the film in question is referred to as one of the director’s passion projects. Apparently, Silence was on Scorsese’s backburner for quite a while, which isn’t unusual. The screenplay was completed in the ‘90s and he planned on making it directly after another long-gestating passion project, Gangs of New York (2002), but other projects and extensive rewrites seem to have gotten in the way. The screenplay, co-written by Scorsese and his Gangs of New York and Age of Innocence (1993) collaborator Jay Cocks, is based on the historical fiction novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō. Previously, the book also inspired a stage play (written by Endō himself), a 2000 opera by Teizo Matsumura, a 2002 symphony by James MacMillan, and two other films – Masahiro Shinoda’s Silence (Japanese: Chinmoku; 1971) and João Mário Grilo’s The Eyes of Asia (Portuguese: Os Olhos da Ásia, 1996). Scorsese’s back-burned version of the story is at times among the most awesome work in his entire oeuvre, but also falls short when it comes to many of its spiritual and tonal achievements. This, along with the limited theatrical run, probably explains the lack of fanfare.

Scorsese is very good at intimate portrayals that still hold troubled/troubling characters at an emotional arm’s length. Many of his best films – Taxi Driver (1976), The King of Comedy (1983), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), for example – delve into the lives of anti-heroes in extreme close-up without making the audience culpable in their crimes or pains. Of course, he’s also capable of unabashed subjectivism and old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama, as he did with The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York, but Silence tends to lean more towards the former approrach of penetrating objectiveness. In this case, the approach feels oddly impartial, turning the tortuously emotional story into a rather cold technical achievement. There is a palpable sense that Scorsese is more at home and active while recreating the arcane interrogations and cleansing tortures visited upon the Christians. Despite being such a classy, Oscar-ready production, Silence definitely has one foot in the classic ‘torture porn’ mould. Scorsese recreates the brutal extremes of the Ero Guro (‘erotic-grotesque’) and Zankoku (cruelty) exploitation movements of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s – specifically, the savage ‘torture travelogs’ of Teruo Ishii’s Shogun’s Joys of Torture (Japanese: Tokugawa onna keibatsu-shi, 1968) and Yūji Makiguchi’s Shogun's Sadism (Japanese: Tokugawa onna keibatsu-emaki: Ushi-zaki no kei, 1976). It is sad, though obviously fitting to note that the frightening images of pain, madness, and desolation (the shot of Andrew Garfield returning to an abandoned town populated only by cats is an ‘all timer’) are what keeps this film going when images of rapture and faith fail.

While the horrorfying aspects are undoubtedly successful, it’s difficult specify what isolates the drama, because the film is so precisely constructed that there’s little room for hypothetical changes. The use of narration (itself framed as the logs/diaries of the missionaries) is the most obvious culprit, I suppose. The dialogue used is poetically written and I’m legitimately not sure if I could follow the story had Scorsese and Cocks not used narration, but it does have an intrusive effect on the breathtaking imagery and Thelma Schoonmaker’s very nearly surrealistic, stream-of-consciousness editing style. Another possibility – one I hesitate to point to, considering the obvious inspiration taken from Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, and other masters of classic samurai cinema – is that Silence doesn’t need to be nearly three hours long. Surely deliberate pacing serves both the genre-type and Endō’s story better than a short, mainstream-friendly movie on the history of cultural differences in Japan (no one wants to see Martin Scorsese’s The Last Samurai). Unfortunately, Scorsese and Schoonmaker have not made the best choices in terms of where to stretch the narrative. Silence’s structural shortcomings are somewhat similar to those of Gangs of New York. The latter was tight on the edges and saggy in the middle, while this one slowly burns into a superior central act and satisfyingly devastating (though drawn-out) denouement.


According to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Silence was shot mostly on 35mm film, but the darkest night sequences – specifically those lit by candles – were shot using Arri Alexa digital cameras, because of the format’s low-light abilities. For the most part, this does look like a 35mm-to-digital transfer, albeit a very modern one, so there isn’t a whole lot of grain or other film-based artefacts. The digitally shot sequences generally match the texture and tone of the film scenes, creating a consistent overall look. The homogenized, mostly desaturated and naturalistic colour palette helps in this regard. Scorsese and Prieto utilize a lot of deep focus and wide angles, so the consistency solidifies sharp edges and patterns, especially during busy daylight sequences. That said, there are some signs of artificial softening throughout the transfer. Some of the finer gradations are sort of ‘oily’ and some scenes have a mushy quality, similar to some of the faulty CRT scans that accompany older B-movies from Europe and Asia (see the second screen cap on this page for a good example of what I’m talking about). I don’t know if this means that DNR was employed for some strange reason to certain shots, if more shots that Prieto described were digital, or if these are compression issues. The latter seems the most likely culprit, considering that some of the darker scenes also exhibit muddy step effects in the warmer gradations. This would be unusual, though, since Paramount is usually pretty dependable in this respect and that the admittedly lengthy film shares this BD50 with very few special features.



Silence is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. As the title implies, quietness is a key aural feature and there are some sequences that depict almost absolute silence. That said, subtle hints of environmental atmosphere often ring throughout the channels during all but the most stiflingly quiet sequences (it’s noisy bugs in most cases). The more aggressive and directionally-heavy sequences are rapt with the rush of ocean waves and busy market streets of Tokugawa era Japan. Dialogue is clean and understandable with narration being clearly delineated from the words spoken on-screen by the actors. The haunting music is composed by Kim Allen & Kathryn Kluge and used very sparingly, often in the form of softly pounding drums and ambient tones.


The only extra is Martin Scorsese’s Journey into Silence (24:30), a pretty good EPK featurette with the cast & crew that nevertheless feels kind of like an ad piece. The gist of the behind-the-scenes process is covered, though, so it’s definitely not a total bust. Ideally, there would be much, much more on the historical context of the story.



Silence is undoubtedly a grand achievement and worthy of attention, but it can’t quite live up to the expectations set by its implied subtitle – “A Marty Scorsese Passion Project.” Its gut-punching last act comes a bit too late following a chilly first couple of hours. Paramount’s Blu-ray features a couple of transfer-based bugaboos that are easy to overlook when the footage is moving and a strong, though reserved DTS-HD MA soundtrack. The lack of in-depth extras is disappointing, but not unexpected, given the director’s other releases.



* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.