"Silence", the new film from Martin Scorsese, explores the history of Catholicism in medieval Japan and would seem to be something of a departure for a director known primarily for hard-hitting gangster movies ("Goodfellas", "The Departed") and gritty depictions of desperate New Yorkers ("Mean Streets", "Taxi Driver"). While Mr. Scorsese has rarely foregrounded religious themes in his work - 1988's "The Last Temptation of Christ" is an obvious exception - there has often been an undercurrent of spiritual struggle in his work. By contrast, in "Silence" he actively explores Christian theology, the concept of martyrdom, and the nature of religious faith. It's a dazzling, difficult film that offers a journey that not all viewers will be ready to take.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, "Silence" tells the story of two young priests, Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, "The Amazing Spider-Man") and Fr. Garrpe (Adam Driver, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens") who leave Portugal for Japan in the mid-1600s to search for their mentor, Jesuit missionary Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson, "Taken"). A long-delayed letter smuggled from the east indicates that Ferreira, a victim of religious persecution, has committed apostasy, i.e., denounced his Christian faith, then changed his name and adopted Japanese culture. The younger Jesuits protest in disbelief, recalling how Fr. Ferreira's powerful faith led them to their avocation, and they set out to learn the truth.
There's a fair amount of historical and political background to be conveyed here, and "Silence" effectively provides enough context to understand the story's central conflicts and the challenges facing its main characters without being overwhelming. To wit: following a failed Catholic-led uprising, Japan has outlawed Christianity, and its practitioners are ruthlessly hunted down, be they peasants or priests. Frs. Rodrigues and Garrpe warily accept despairing, drunken expat Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) as a travel guide, and once in country, every encounter with locals tests their faith as their desire to minister is balanced against the constant possibility of betrayal. Betrayal in this case would mean capture, torture, renouncing of religious beliefs, or death.
"Silence" is ostensibly about whether the young Jesuits will reach Fr. Ferreira, and if they will learn that the rumors of his denunciation of Christianity are true. In fact, the plotline really serves as a structure to tell the story of Fr. Rodrigues's spiritual struggles and the testing of his faith. His trials play out against the backdrop of the brutal oppression of Japan's Kakure or "hidden Christians" under Japan's military government.
Brutal really is the word here: be forewarned that "Silence" includes depictions of torture and execution that are difficult to watch. But Mr. Scorsese, working with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto ("Argo"), stages these scenes with a restrained, poetic purity that allows for a mingling of horror and awe in the viewer; there is an absolute beauty in the terrible scenes of martyrs being crucified on a rocky outcropping at the edge of the sea, and in the bound bodies of the faithful tipped over the edge of a boat to perish in heartbreakingly clear blue water.
As the film proceeds it settles into a series of dialogues between Fr. Rodrigues and his chief tormenter, Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata), on the nature of faith, the practice of religion, and the potentially insurmountable differences between eastern and western worldviews. Far from being static, these are surprisingly dynamic passages owing primarily to Mr. Ogata's incredibly deft performance - he appears initially as a weary bureaucrat who finds the effort of persecuting peasants distasteful, and emerges as a shrewd debater who challenges Fr. Rodrigues on the tenents of his faith before pushing him to the breaking point.
As Fr. Rodrigues Mr. Garfield aquits himself well in what must have been a very challenging role, though his Hollywood-handsome appearance is somewhat distracting in this tale of a 17th century ascetic in feudal Japan, and he occasionally struggles to maintain a Portugese accent. By contrast, Mr. Driver, though he has less screen time, is hauntingly effective here, and might have been born in such an era; he wouldn't seem out of place in a Josefa de Obidos painting.
With a runtime of close to three hours, "Silence" is a commitment, and watching it is certainly an experience. In fact, "Silence" may be this year's "The Revenant": it's an unquestionable artistic accomplishment that demands admiration but it probably won't invite many second viewings. For Scorsese completists it will of course be a must-see. Others will have to decide for themselves what value they might find in the experience.