Based on the much-lauded 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō, “Silence” is Martin Scorsese’s most ravenously Catholic movie since “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
It is also gorgeous, over-long, exhausting yet intermittently fascinating, racially sketchy and should be required viewing for both serious movie nerds and anyone who shelled out money for, say, “The Passion of the Christ” or even “God’s Not Dead 2.” You want a faith-based film? It gets no more faith-based (and faith-testing) than this slow-moving, 161-minute goliath.
The plot will be familiar to anyone who has seen “Apocalypse Now” or read Joseph Conrad: Two young, Portuguese Jesuits — Sebastião Rodrigues (a surprisingly good Andrew Garfield and his even better hair) and Francisco Garrpe (a skeletal Adam Driver) — head to Japan to find their mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The latter has been accused of renouncing Christianity, taking a wife and, as the young men’s boss Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) puts it, “living as a Japanese.”
Once we see what Ferreira has seen, you understand why his faith has perhaps been tested. It is the 1640s, and muddy, misty, feudal Japan — which sees Catholic missionaries as a Western incursion into the East — has been torturing and executing native Christians and their European priests left and right. It is simple: Renounce Christ by stepping on a copper engraving of Jesus or Mary called a fumi-e or face excruciating death.
The Japan of “Silence” is gorgeous even when horrific or cramped, when muddy and mist-shrouded and even when severed heads share space with believers who are slowly scalded to death by hot springs. Ferreira looks like a man who has stared into the abyss and thought long and hard about blinking.
Rodrigues and Garrpe, especially the former, cannot believe that Ferreira would turn his back on the Lord. Filled with a sense of righteous mission, the two head for Japan, picking up a guide named Kichijiro (a terrific Yosuke Kubozuka).
The Japanese Christians, all miserable-looking peasants who crave the life of the world to come, are thrilled to see new priests. The two men say Mass and hear confessions in huts at night or literally underground. At first, this is thrilling; they are living as early Christians under Roman rule. Soon, reality catches up.
We learn very little of Garrpe’s inner life, but Rodrigues’ voice-over details his faith, sometimes unwavering and almost callow, sometimes exhausted (“It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt”). Always, the biggest test of faith is God’s silence in the face of agony. Scorsese being Scorsese, he does not spare us said agony — the faithful are burned alive, bled to death upside-down over pits or drowned.
Kichijiro presents a more immediately vexing problem for Rodrigues. Again and again, Kichijiro denies Jesus or betrays the priests. One can receive 300 hundred pieces of silver from the Japanese government for a priest — inflation has been considerable since Judas’ time. Again and again, he comes for confession and absolution, only to bend to cowardice once more. Is he making a mockery of confession? Or are the contours of Catholicism fundamentally incompatible with Japan, as is suggested by the priests’ main antagonist, a government inquisitor named Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata, a bit cartoonish in spots)?
Driver is very much a supporting player. Garfield, in by far his most complicated role to date, must carry the film on his thin shoulders — his is a profound moral journey, and not a particularly heroic one. Scorsese leans on him hard and in ways that seem new.
Scorsese has explored issues of faith and doubt in “Last Temptation” and “Kundun” and “Mean Streets” (and, for that matter, issues of fanaticism and excess in “Taxi Driver” and “Wolf of Wall Street”), but “Silence” feels markedly different. There is virtually no music, which seems unheard of for a Scorsese picture. There is very little of the frantic camera movement of the type one expects from the Scorsese of “Goodfellas” — when the camera pulls back hard, it is to emphasize vast landscapes or the smallness of our protagonists.
For those who enjoy Scorsese the ex-altar boy, lover of image and questing craftsman, “Silence” will absorb and fascinate. Those who find that aspect of his personality annoying, overly pious and a stereotypical sign of an aging guy looking for larger meaning are urged to stay far away.
Either way, it’s still better than “Vinyl.”
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Yosuke Kubozuka
Rating: R for disturbing violent content
Running time: 2 hours, 41 minutes
Theaters: Alamo South, Arbor