Near the beginning of Martin Scorsese's shattering "Silence," two young Jesuit missionaries shiver in a cottage far from their Portuguese homeland, taking shelter from the rain and the watchful eyes of those to whom they have sought to bring their gospel. The year is 1639, and Japan is in the midst of its Edo period, an era of strict isolationism and intense hostility toward Christianity, whose many adherents have been subjected to mass torture and execution.
When the missionaries hear voices calling "Padre!" from outside, Father Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), fearing a trap, insists that they do nothing. But Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) bravely opens the door and is relieved to greet two Japanese Christians who have traveled from a nearby island, desperate for the sacraments that only these foreigners can confer.
As the priests will soon learn, the consequences of answering God's call are not always so clear or edifying. "Silence," magisterially adapted by Scorsese and Jay Cocks from Shūsaku Endō's revered 1966 novel, knows this down to its bones. It ponders the dogmas, riddles and anxieties of Christian faith with a rigor and seriousness that, with a few exceptions — Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" and Lee Chang-dong's "Secret Sunshine" come to mind — has few recent equivalents in world cinema.
These artists may regard the divine with a measure of ambivalence, but they rarely speak from a place of neutrality. Endō wrote "Silence," his acknowledged masterpiece, partly in response to the discrimination he experienced as a Japanese Catholic. (He also co-wrote the striking 1971 film adaptation directed by Masahiro Shinoda.) Scorsese, for his part, has made his Catholicism a visual and dramatic fixture of much of his work — never more controversially than in "The Last Temptation of Christ" — and this anguished, contemplative new movie, which he spent nearly three decades coaxing into celluloid reality, carries the weight of a career summation.
Miraculously, that weight doesn't crush the movie; it exalts it. Filmmakers have choked on all-consuming passion projects before, and Scorsese, who spent another quarter-century struggling to bring "Gangs of New York" to the screen, knows all too well the difficulties of spinning grand personal ambitions into popular art. In "Silence," a work of good faith in every sense, you feel the passion but none of the strain. It's remarkable how absorbingly, and indelibly, its story takes shape before our eyes.
Rodrigues and Garrpe arrive in Japan hoping to revive a ministry that has been driven underground, and also to locate the physical and spiritual whereabouts of Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a veteran priest who is rumored to have done the unthinkable and apostatized, or renounced his faith. And as the two men minister to Japanese believers in secret, Rodrigues — played by Garfield with a galvanizing swirl of doubt and conviction — becomes the movie's conflicted center, though he could scarcely be considered its hero.
The great deliverance that Rodrigues envisions for himself, through either his success or his glorious martyrdom, is a vain delusion that will be steadily chipped away — by the cruel, sadistic interrogation of the local authorities, but also by the doubt and despair that have taken root in his heart.
Working with such sterling past collaborators as editor Thelma Schoonmaker, production designer Dante Ferretti and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Scorsese has done more than resurrect a vision of feudal Japan, wreathed in mist and caked in state-of-the-art period grime. (The film was shot entirely in Taiwan, on 35mm film.) He has come to trust his material on an instinctual level; "Silence" feels less like a feat of adaptation than an act of artistic submission.
At times the camera holds with mournful solemnity on the torments endured by Japanese Christians — three of whom we see crucified at sea, while others are burned alive or dangled over a pit for hours on end — but any sense of revelry in this horrific spectacle is entirely absent. Gone, too, is the director's swaggering formal bravado; everything extraneous seems to have been pared away. In embracing the irreducible simplicity of Endō's language and slowing his own narrative rhythms accordingly, Scorsese has conjured a portrait of unbearable suffering that is also a work of insistent, altogether confounding grace.
The searing honesty of the director's approach demands a no less candid spirit on the part of this critic and fellow believer: Endō's novel wrecked me when I read it three years ago, for both its consolation and its challenge. It struck me then as both a wrenching affirmation of a savior's unfathomable grace and a thorough dismantling of everything that Christianity has often aligned itself with across the centuries: the arrogant pursuit of its own power and authority, and a willingness to do harm in the name of one who stood for unconditional mercy.
Scorsese's film continues that dismantling, brilliantly and unsparingly. It's not often that Hollywood gives us a Christian-themed movie with no particular interest in preaching to either the unconverted or the choir. With ruthless wit and an incisive grasp of cultural and theological nuance, "Silence" subverts the familiar narrative of imperialist conquest and lays waste to the conventional Hollywood wisdom of East bowing to West.
In particular, Scorsese grants his Japanese characters the full measure of their vivid, thorny humanity — something he manages with no small help from some exceptional acting talent. The personal stakes are etched with plain, piercing eloquence in the faces of two village elders, Ichizo (Yoshi Oida) and Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto), who are forced to participate in a humiliating act of apostasy by trampling on a fumi-e, an icon bearing the likeness of Christ.
That particular blasphemy will play out again and again, often performed by the treacherous, pathetic Kichijirō (a haunting Yōsuke Kubozuka), a holy fool whose endless turmoil holds up a twisted mirror to Rodrigues' own. At once a helpful guide and a persistent thorn in Rodrigues' side, Kichijirō never stops pleading for the absolution he knows he needs, even as he betrays his faith again and again for the sake of survival.
If that makes Kichijirō the story's Judas figure (if also, perhaps, its truest exemplar of Christian humility), the role of Pontius Pilate is given a malevolent comic spin by the notorious inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata), whose persecutions have struck terror into the hearts of Christians across Japan. Like Ferreira, whom Neeson embodies with a profound sense of defeat, and the silver-tongued interpreter (the excellent Tadanobu Asano) provided for Rodrigues' benefit, Inoue pointedly identifies Japan as a "swamp," a place whose feudal economy and Buddhist worldview have made it impossible for Christianity to flourish.
Even viewers who recognize Ogata from Edward Yang's "Yi Yi" and Alexander Sokurov's "The Sun" will be unprepared for the bracing dose of camp he injects into these severe proceedings, with his mock formality and an unnervingly high vocal pitch that suggests a Nipponese Mr. Woodchuck. It's an audacious, beautifully judged performance, and also a jolting reminder that, for all the asceticism of the film's subject, Scorsese the entertainer is still very much at work.
At times the director seems to channel the stark, meditative gaze of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson and other saints of European cinema, as well as the ghostly poetry of such Japanese classics as Kenji Mizoguchi's "Ugetsu." But "Silence" isn't, in the end, a radically austere film, or an especially difficult one. Scorsese may be pushing us into uncommonly rarefied multiplex territory — much as he did with "Kundun," his epic portrait of the Dalai Lama — but he has no intention of leaving us in the dark.
The casting of name actors like Garfield, Driver and Neeson as Portuguese priests, speaking English in a range of accents, may represent concessions to the mainstream. But these surface inconsistencies — think of them as slightly varying translations of the same rock-solid text — are quickly subsumed in the urgency of the performances, and in the flow of a drama that gathers tremendous force over its 161-minute running time. Building implacable dread and tension from scene to scene, the story is as simple as its underlying ideas are endlessly complex.
The possible meanings of Endō's title are infinite, and hardly limited to the historical moment that so gripped his imagination. Is God's silence a test, or an admission of His nonexistence? What about the problem of our own silence, especially when it makes us complicit in someone else's suffering? The dissonant closing scenes advance a still more provocative inquiry: Could silence, far from being an act of cowardice, in fact constitute the truest, most necessary expression of faith?
These questions are more easily posed than answered. As this film enters the cultural bloodstream, much will be made of its allegedly polarizing qualities, the divisions that it will draw between skeptics and believers. But "Silence" is too enormous in mind and spirit, too respectful of its own mystery, to be contained by these convenient dichotomies.
Scorsese summons every last ounce of conviction to question the very nature of conviction itself — and in the process, a movie that never insists on our faith becomes all but impossible not to believe in.
In English and Japanese with English subtitles
MPAA rating: R, for some disturbing violent content
Running time: 2 hours, 41 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark Theatre, West Los Angeles