In the 17th century, two Portuguese Catholic Priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) travel to Japan in search of their mentor (Liam Neeson) who has gone missing in an attempt to convert the Japanese to Catholicism.
This is Scorsese’s passion project. A film he’s been working on for, apparently, thirty years. It’s a film that obviously has had a huge amount of thought and love poured into it and it feels very different from the more recent films in his repertoire. It certainly lacks the Scorsese swagger that is so abundant in The Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, this is obviously a very different film, I feel like Scorsese himself is unsure of what he’s trying to do here so the film feels unsure of what it wants to be.
This is no parable, as you might expect from a religious epic. There’s no obvious message or question that Scorsese is trying to convey on the audience. The Catholic church are portrayed as arrogant, ignorant and patronising, as you would expect from a group of people who make it their life mission to travel around telling everybody that their way of life is wrong and that they should live how ‘God’/ the Church wants them to live instead. Likewise the portrayal of religious persecution by the Japanese is no eye-opener. Different religious groups argue about who is right. Both as equally arrogant and patronising as the other. Shocker.
As an atheist, I’ve held these opinions about religious groups my whole life so the film didn’t really speak to me in this sense. I didn’t have an epiphany when I realised the white men trying to control the foreigners might just be the bad guys. Equally, I didn’t really care seeing priests getting tortured by the Japanese. I couldn’t find a connection with either side because their motives were grounded in something I cannot relate to. Maybe it’s my lack of faith but I didn’t really find anything of interest in the subject matter here. I wasn’t made to reconsider my views on religion or colonisation.
The being said, I did find interest in the characters. Andrew Garfield in particular gives an exceptional performance as he begins to question God’s silence in the face of the death and torture of Christians. Did he genuinely doubt the existence or goodness of God? But by the end, we’re not sure if he ever did question his faith. Did anyone learn anything from this? It’s not a particularly satisfying ending.
The film is beautifully shot with slow panning shots of the landscape masked by fog creating truly stunning visuals. And you get plenty of time to admire the views too because this film is very slow. It harks back to films of the 60’s and 70’s with slow, lingering shots. The slow pace and rather dry subject matter, at times, make this hard work to sit through especially given the 2 hour 40 minute run time.
Technically, there’s nothing to criticise here. The acting, iffy accents aside, is great. Driver and Garfield are excellent and so is the Japanese cast. Liam Neeson, though he doesn’t even attempt a Portuguese accent, is the catalyst for the film to become slightly more interesting but it happens too late. The film only becomes interesting when Garfield’s character is forced to question his faith when the Japanese try to make him apostatise. But again, this all comes a little too late for me.
GOOD. Technically, I can’t really fault this film. It’s beautiful to behold and good performances carry the film when it becomes hard work. There’s just not a lot there to think about.