Review: Silence

It’s Martin Scorsese’s best film in decades. This now one in a long line of reviews to say that, but it’s true. See it. And do so before you see or read too much about it. The decision to release so little promotional material until the very last minute – surely it must hold the record for being the shortest time span between teaser and cinema release – is clearly the right one.

It feels like a lifetime since a film has been released that’s given an audience this much to chew on. From the visceral experience of the film to its more intellectual and philosophical parts, it’s two and a half hours with not a second wasted. It’s overflowing. Beyond just how moving and unforgettable in a burnt-on-the-brain way many of the scenes were, I left the cinema desperately wanting to talk for hours just about the ideas of the film. I can count the amount of times that’s happened to me on one hand.

From the dreamlike opening by the hot springs, to the priests first arriving in Macao, Silence transports you to another world. It doesn’t forget to be beautiful, understanding that adding that juxtaposition will only elevate the horrific violence and cruelty that’s to punctuate the rest of the film. On a structural level, Silence isn’t groundbreaking and nor does it have to be. It follows a pretty neat three act character arc. But even if the structure of the film is pretty predictable, that doesn’t mean Scorsese and co aren’t able to find ways to inject that danger and tension and unpredictability. Just because the two priests will be alive, does that mean everyone is just as safe? The general smorgasbord of franchise and superhero films have a thing or two to learn from this film about Jesuit priests.

What films like Raiders of the Lost Ark understand but Doctor Strange doesn’t, is that while the main character of the film may be set down a pretty well-established path thanks to some pre-ordained formula, it doesn’t mean that the people either side of them are too. Jaws understood it, which is why Robert Shaw was bitten in half and Roy Scheider’s kids were perpetually placed in shark’s way. And so just like Jaws, Scorsese’s Silence understands that it needs to have villagers to put in front of the relentless and merciless Inquisitor.

The tension is so unrelenting at times and the tipping points so shocking and horrifying that this is not a comfortable film to watch. The danger is so well established and so quickly that in the first 40 minutes I found myself tensing up with tears in my eyes in a kind of pained way that I haven’t experienced since Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. This film, like The Master, is a slow burn. It asks that you come to it, rather than it come to you. If you do, you’ll find one of the most stimulating, unsentimental, and challenging experiences in years.

Silence, like many of the best cinema experiences in the last couple of years, feels like a call back to an older Hollywood kind of film. But unlike films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens or La La Land, which were lovingly slathered in allusions and nostalgia, Silence instead isn’t reminding you of a specific film or even a specific style, it’s instead reminding you that this used to be the kind of thing that could actually wrangle together a budget.

There’s a saying that’s been doing the rounds that films only get made if they’re budgeted either under five-million, or over one-hundred-million. Gone are the days of the thirty-million-dollar adult drama dealing with heavy themes, gone are the Kubrick films and the Tarkovskys and the Altmans, the Ciminos, the Chayefskys, the… But it’s films like Silence and The Master that are slowly proving that self-deprecating quip wrong. It’s no secret that Silence was made with a castrated version of the budget they’d hoped for, leading to Scorsese having to cut back on some things he’d had in his mind for nearly 30 years. It was this that led to, I presume, choices like shooting the night-time sequences in digital with day time given the luxury of 35mm, a half-half day-night approach that’s so depressingly prevalent at the minute that it makes the pessimist in me worry if we’ll ever see another Robby Müller or Gordon Willis.

As much as I do wish I could have seen what Scorsese and co. could have done totally free from budgetary limitations, there is something else that maybe thinks that, a bit like a Werner Herzog film, part of the life in Silence that sets it so clearly apart from anything else was born right from that struggle. Those who work with Scorsese lovingly talk of his mood swings, his tempestuousness, his bottomless passion, his sometimes cantankerousness, his wavering between self-confidence and self-doubt and God bless him for that. I’d hate to see someone level-headed and down-to-Earth even attempt to make a film like this.

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Tom May

Tom May is a Melbourne based writer, filmmaker and essayist with a vast knowledge of video games, film and Thomas Pynchon. He has recently completed his Advanced Diploma in Film & Television at Footscray City Films. 

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