Andrew Garfield stars in this faith-based passion project from the great Martin Scorsese
The result of a self-described obsession, Martin Scorsese brings his formidable experience to bear on Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel, following the delirious excess of The Wolf of Wall Street with a work of courageous severity and contemplation. Its foregrounding of spiritual matters acts as a welcome antidote to the relative triviality of much of contemporary commercial cinema, along with the tinny bells and whistles of the festive period itself.
Set in the 17th century and inspired by a real-life Church scandal, Silence follows two Portuguese priests – Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) – as they journey to Japan, a country where Christianity has been outlawed. There they are seeking their mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is rumoured to have renounced his faith under brutal duress.
Smuggled into the country, the Jesuits are welcomed by fellow Christians but, when word gets out, they and those that harbour them are placed in mortal danger. When the pair are separated, Rodrigues morphs into a Christ-like figure of reverence and suffering; his beliefs are severely tested and he meets his own Judas in Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka).
The quest for a man who may have 'gone native' through oppressively atmospheric environs recalls Apocalypse Now. Working with occasional collaborator Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York, The Age of Innocence) on the screenplay, Scorsese delivers a film where the title may suggest quiet reflection but where you feel the weight of every carefully crafted word. Although there are the merest flickers of humour, it's admirably po-faced and philosophical in a way that feels radical for a $50 million picture.
The choice for the cast to speak in English but with Portuguese accents (apparently Neeson missed that memo) jars at first and the unrelenting focus on anguish means it lacks more relatable moments of heartrending humanity, of the kind found in Xavier Beauvois' similarly theological Of Gods and Men, which pitted two religions against each other in a way which emphasised commonality as much as difference.
Here the Buddhist faith is represented by the pitiless and hypocritical Japanese elite ('To help others is the way of the Buddha,' one persecutor comments unironically). By contrast, and despite the problems inherent in missionary work, the young priests are the very essence of earnestness ('We just think a different way,' Rodrigues reflects reasonably). It may mirror the reality of the situation but, particularly by comparison to Beauvois' film, it feels a little black and white.
And yet the film throws up some fascinating adversaries, performances which may even overshadow the main cast. Garfield visibly gives it his all but the Japanese actors who flank him are uniformly excellent – from the poignant villagers (including Shin'ya Tsukamoto's Mokichi), to the chilling Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) and his sly interpreter (Tadanobu Asano).
Perhaps only those who share Scorsese's faith will feel the full emotional impact of the film's various tragedies but, at the very least, it's to be greatly admired. Fervent in its telling and unusually cerebral, Silence is a paragon of integrity from one of modern filmmaking's most reliable maestros.
General release from Sun 1 Jan.