To anyone who has been paying attention to the unfolding of Martin Scorsese’s career over the last forty-plus years Silence should not feel particularly idiosyncratic. True, the new film (his twenty-fourth narrative feature) does not sport gangsters or hustlers and is set on the other side of the world from his native New York. But at its core Silence concerns itself with the same rituals of violence, punishment, and guilt once enacted by Robert de Niro and Harvey Keitel. The film’s knot of suffering, religious fealty, and moral ambiguity has structured Scorsese’s work since the beginning. In 1973 he wrote, “you don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.” Now, in 2016, he has written a film about Portuguese missionaries taking their faith out of the church and into the mean streets of seventeenth-century Japan, where they face persecution, imprisonment, and torture at the hands of anti-Catholic natives.
Even though I have worshipped at the altar of Scorsese for the better part of my life I will confess that the first half of Silence felt like a test of my own faith in his artistry. I started to wonder whether it was one of those passion projects (Scorsese has been laboring to bring Silence to the screen for some thirty years) that means a lot to its creator but never really connects with an audience. For what it’s worth, audiences and critics alike have been somewhat cool to receive this most hotly anticipated of films. Handsome as it is, it doesn’t have the propulsive energy that drove Scorsese’s previous film, the hugely successful Wolf of Wall Street. And while the performances by Andrew Garfield as the most intrepid of the missionaries and Issei Ogata as his chief adversary are commendable, they’re significantly harder to hook into than, say, Cate Blanchett’s in The Aviator or Joe Pesci’s in GoodFellas. Silence isn’t “fun”; it’s rigorous and sober, and while its running time is almost identical to that of The Departed it feels at least thirty minutes longer.