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Will Scorsese's 'Silence' be the late-breaking Oscar spoiler?

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A film 26 years in the making, Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” may be settling in to play spoiler at the Oscars.

Scorsese’s passion project had been in development since 1990 before premiering on Tuesday at the Vatican.

An adaptation of a 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, “Silence” is set in 17th century Japan and centers on the journey of two Jesuit priests seeking to recover their mentor after he is accused of apostasy. 

Early buzz on the film is good, if sparse, and its late, holiday-adjacent release date puts it in a prime position to upend an Oscar race season that previously looked largely settled.

Strategic release dates have been a part of Oscar season since its inception, even effectively utilized by “Gone With the Wind” in 1939.

But often the power of the late release doesn’t come as much from timing as it does from expectations.

In 2004, it appeared to be smooth sailing for Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” set for wide release on Christmas Day. Anticipation for the film was high, and it received largely favorable reviews. 

But “The Aviator” was ultimately upended at the Oscars by Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” which didn’t even have a release date in October.

For Scorsese, in particular, Oscar success is often coupled with decreased expectations. While “The Aviator” took home awards for five of its 11 nominations, Scorsese was similarly successful with 2011’s “Hugo.” The latter boasted the same win/loss record as the former thanks to the lowered expectations of “Hugo” being “just” a kids movie.

“The Departed” eschewed the December release date entirely, instead embracing its commercial appeal and premiering in early October 2006 and finally scoring Scorsese the Oscar for directing. 

So where does that leave “Silence”?

While a screening for the pope isn’t exactly low-key, much of the substance of “Silence” has been kept under wraps, leaving plenty of room for speculation but not much for prognostication. 

“Manchester by the Sea,” “Fences,” “Moonlight,” and “La La Land” are all intimate stories, so subject and scope alone differentiate “Silence” from those current Oscar front-runners.

Indeed, when the National Board of Review announced its awards on Tuesday, Scorsese’s latest was included in its top 10 films of the year, in addition to winning best adapted screenplay.

If critical praise continues apace, “Silence” may prove golden after all.

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

libby.hill@latimes.com

Twitter: @midwestspitfire

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