I would not normally rush to see a film about Portuguese priests on a mission to 16th century Japan. But Silence is the work of a master, Martin Scorsese, who has labored to bring Shusaku Endo’s acclaimed novel to life for more than twenty years, having written a screenplay with Jay Cocks long ago. He has pondered the novel all along while dealing with religion both directly and indirectly in his other works. The result is a film that casts a kind of spell. I fell under that spell in the opening scene and it held me in its thrall to the very end.

Scorsese is willing to take his time with this story but it never feels slow or labored. On one level there is always an element of suspense and surprise. Two young priests (perfectly and credibly played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) are sent to Japan to find their respected colleague (Liam Neeson) who went there on a groundbreaking mission and has lately gone silent. When they arrive they are greeted with great enthusiasm by simple villagers who have been converted to Christianity. They desperately want comfort, solace, and the sacraments they have been denied during the older priest’s absence—especially baptism and confession.

They have also been punished terribly for clinging to their beliefs. They struggle  to maintain a blanket of secrecy from the Japanese leaders who revile Christianity and everything it stands for. They demand that these believers apostatize, publicly renouncing Christ. This harsh treatment is brought down on the new arrivals, as well, causing spiritual crises for Garfield and Driver. Where is God when they need him most? Garfield, in particular, is tortured and taunted by a wily inquisitor (Issey Ogata) who tells him that Christianity has no place in Japan. How will the young priest respond…and how can he survive?

All of this plays out against a mesmerizing backdrop: the crashing surf of ocean against the shore, a nearby cave, a primitive village. Scorsese’s A-team of production designer Dante Ferretti, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and editor Thelma Schoonmaker help him realize his vision in a series of striking tableaux. There is no music in the conventional sense but the organic score of natural sounds (credited to Kathryn and Kim Allen Kluge) supports the drama exquisitely well.

Silence transported me to another time and place and gave me great empathy for its leading characters. I can ask no more of a film…but the harshly beautiful environment, and deeply-felt performances, lift Silence to the pinnacle of personal filmmaking. Scorsese has given us a rare and extraordinary gift.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024