Movie Reviews: 'Silence' and 'Fences'

  • Written by Catholic News Service
  • Published in Movies & TV
Liam Neeson stars in a scene from the movie "Silence." Photo: CNS/Paramount Liam Neeson stars in a scene from the movie "Silence." Photo: CNS/Paramount

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By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Directed and co-written (with Jay Cocks) by Martin Scorsese, "Silence" (Paramount) is a dramatically powerful but theologically complex work best suited to viewers who come to the multiplex prepared to engage with serious issues.

Those willing to make such an intellectual investment, however, will find themselves richly rewarded.

In adapting Catholic author Shusaku Endo's 1966 fact-based historical novel, a project in the works since the late 1980s, Scorsese finds himself in what might be called Graham Greene territory. As fans of that British novelist know, he had a fondness for stretching and twisting fundamental issues of faith and morality, and Endo's plot shows the same tendency. So this is also not a film for the poorly catechized.

The movie's primary setting is 17th-century Japan, where persecution is raging against the previously tolerated Christian community.

Shocked by rumors that Christavao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), their mentor in the priesthood, has renounced the faith under torture, two of his fellow Jesuits, Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), volunteer to leave the safety of Europe for the perils of the Land of the Rising Sun. Their twin goals are to find their role model and to minister to the underground Japanese church.

What follows is a long, sometimes harrowing battle between doubt and human frailty on the one hand and fidelity on the other. Earthly compassion is set against faithfulness and an eternal perspective, with both divine and human silence contributing to the appropriateness of the title.

Scorsese has crafted an often visually striking drama that's also deeply thought-provoking and emotionally gripping. And the performances are remarkable all around. But the paradoxes of the narrative demand careful sifting by mature moviegoers well-grounded in their beliefs.

Those lacking such a foundation could be led astray, drawing the conclusion that mercy toward the suffering of others can sometimes justify sin. While Catholics who are blessed with the freedom to practice their faith in peace are hardly in a position to judge those facing martyrdom, the principle that circumstances can mitigate guilt but not transform wrong into right remains universally valid.

In the end, "Silence" movingly vindicates a certain form of constancy. That may, in a roundabout way, match the historical record: There is edifying, though inconclusive, evidence that the real person behind one of the three main characters in the picture not only rejected his previous apostasy, but ultimately surrendered his life for the faith.

The film contains religious themes requiring mature discernment, much violence, including scenes of gruesome torture and a brutal, gory execution, as well as rear and partial nudity.

The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.

The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service. 

Fences movie still
Russell Hornsby and Viola Davis star in a scene from the movie "Fences." Photo: CNS/Paramount


By Kurt Jensen Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Suffering is a leitmotif in any of August Wilson's plays, but there's also brutal honesty and joy in unexpected moments -- as well as the musical cadence of his language to enjoy.

That's what enlivens "Fences" (Paramount), the film adaptation of Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning work from 1983. Moral decisions, and the consequences of immoral ones, lurk at every turn in the plot as well.

Denzel Washington, who also directed (from Wilson's own screenplay, finished before his 2005 death), plays Troy Maxson, an embittered ex-ballplayer, ex-convict and self-centered Pittsburgh garbage collector.

It's the mid-1950s, and Troy has constructed a respectable, almost-middle-class existence for himself and wife Rose (Viola Davis). Partly that's the result of his unyielding labor, but Troy also takes advantage of brother Gabe's (Mykelti Williamson) disability payout from brain damage suffered in World War II combat.

Troy is bold enough to have become the city's first black garbage-truck driver simply by asking his supervisor why Pittsburgh had no such drivers. He takes pride in being the noisy and coarse family patriarch, even if he is often a monster who takes no pleasure in the accomplishments of his children.

Older son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), the offspring of a previous marriage, lives outside the home, supports himself as a jazz musician, and sometimes stops by for a short-term loan just to demonstrate to his father that he can repay it.

Younger son Cory (Jovan Adepo) has a chance to attend college on a football scholarship. But Troy interferes with that, insisting, "The white man ain't gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway."

Troy also likes to drink and trade boasts with his friend Bono (Stephen Henderson).

Churchgoing Rose is the compassionate and understanding moral center. She's on the receiving end of everyone's decisions for most of the story until she encounters Troy's cruelest betrayal. Even in the face of that, she sacrifices her own happiness to carry on.

While both sons have lives circumscribed by racism, hard luck and sometimes Troy's selfishness, they're also unrelentingly stoic and accepting.

The toughest stretches for viewers will be the long speeches characteristic of Wilson's style.

Although they tend to show actors to good advantage -- here Davis is particularly fine -- Wilson's dramas are not in the least cinematic, and Washington hasn't found a way to solve that problem. "Fences," accordingly, requires a committed attention span.

The title refers to Troy's plan to build a high wooden fence in his backyard so he can keep death at bay: "I'm gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me. And then I want you to stay on the other side. See? You stay over there until you're ready for me."

Death, of course, is on its inevitable path, but Wilson refuses to give it the last word, instead choosing to display the resiliency of the human soul.

The movie's focus on ideas and their consequences makes it acceptable for mature adolescents.

The film contains references to adultery, frequent use of the n-word and a single instance each of profanity and rough language.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.