Two more reviews of prestige pics here, that are for for now the end of my awards season coverage. It's been quite a run.
"Lion" seemed like an unlikely story to be made into a film, when I first ran across the magazine articles about Saroo Brierly a few years ago. As a five year-old, Saroo got on the wrong train, which took him from his rural Indian village to Calcutta (now Kolkata), where it was impossible for him to find his way home again. It was only twenty-five years later, with the help of Google Maps, that he was able to find his way back. However, the journey between those two endpoints definitely yielded some good drama.
The trials and tribulations of young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) take up the entire first half of the film, and it's fantastic. Pawar is deeply compelling as a lost child in an unfamiliar place, who has to dodge multiple dangers and pitfalls in order to survive. Though Calcutta is pictured as sinister and forbidding at times, director Garth Davis also takes the time to show its more picturesque and inviting sides. Saroo's village is poor, but surrounded by natural beauty. Sadly, once the story moves to the adult Saroo (Dev Patel), who now lives in Australia, the film loses a lot of that atmosphere. Saroo's search for his origins follows a far more typical dramatic arc, including difficulties with his adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham), a girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), and adoptive brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa)
Now, all the more famous actors give perfectly good performances, and Davis does his damnedest to make Google searches and flashbacks to mundane events look as exciting as possible. But compared to the first half of "Lion," the second half just doesn't have the same degree of verve and dramatic heft. It also feels a bit padded, as if to purposefully give Mara and Kidman more screentime. The finale is very satisfying, though, and overall this is a perfectly good bit of feel-good melodrama that shines a spotlight on the talents of its Indian actors the way that's rare to see in western films. I was surprised to learn that "Lion" was Garth Davis's feature debut, since his work here is so surefooted. I can't embrace the film fully because of that second half, but this is definitely worth a watch.
Now Martin Scorsese's "Silence" is a far more fascinating picture, an examination of religious faith, set in 17th century Japan, where the heroes are a pair of Portuguese priests. Japan was still largely closed to outsiders, and Christianity was considered a forbidden practice, so any converts were brutally persecuted. The two priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) journey to Japan after they hear rumors that one of their mentors, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has renounced his faith after the persecution of his converts in Nagasaki. Their goal is to find Ferreira and tend to the Christians still in hiding, while evading the local inquisitor, Inoue (Issey Ogata). They quickly find themselves tested by the Japanese authorities, who employ incredibly harsh tactics, including torture, to stamp out Christianity.
Scorsese famously worked on "Silence" off an on for over two decades as a passion project, and the result is an uncompromising, difficult, gorgeous film. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is the real star of the picture, with his transporting images of the Japanese landscape, that look remarkably like they were plucked out of a classical jidaigeki film. Many of the performances are very strong, especially Liam Neeson as the mysterious Ferreira, and Tadanobu Asano as an interpreter for the priests. However, I was most impressed by the script that Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks famously labored over, which is so much harsher and more troubling than I expected. It would be very difficult to sell this as a religious film, since there is so much persistent, fundamental questioning of the characters' faiths. And that's exactly what makes it so unique and involving.
Still "Silence" is far from perfect. I think the film's biggest flaw comes down to how it treats the Japanese. There are several excellent Japanese characters, and generally "Silence" does a much better job of portraying them than we've seen in roughly analogous WWII films like "Unbroken" or Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence." However, this is only true up to a point, and "Silence" still relies on a few too many white savior tropes, even if the film doesn't turn out to actually be an example of that kind of story. Scorsese's treatment of religion and the priests' relationship with the converts also comes across as a bit too whitewashed and unlikely. As complex and boundary pushing "Silence" feels on subject, it's still got some ways to go in others.