The first reaction on hearing that Martin Scorsese's three-decades-in-the-making dream project, Silence, is a 2½-hour story about Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Japan?
Justifiably or not, most of us think of the Queens native as an artist best suited to a very particular milieu. A poet of the (mean) streets, Scorsese makes movies – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street – that break down and reconstruct with stunning detail the rituals and incantations that shape the American mythos, be they criminal, culinary, comedic.
Scorsese has previously stepped outside his comfort zone to explore religion with two bold epics: the uneven, troubling gospel story The Last Temptation of Christ and the remarkable but flawed jewel Kundun, about a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader. With Silence, an ambitious magnum opus, he ventures once again into this uncertain territory.
Silence is based on Japanese Catholic author Shūsaku Endō's 1966 masterpiece of the same name, which also inspired a 1971 Japanese production directed by Masahiro Shinoda and a 1996 Portuguese film called The Eyes of Asia.
Considered one of the great novels of the 20th century, it's about Jesuit missionaries who arrive in feudal Japan more than 100 years after Catholicism has taken root there. They come at a time when the military government has outlawed the religion and is brutally persecuting converts.
Scorsese's adaptation is overlong and at times insufferably self-indulgent, but contains sublime moments of transcendent beauty and a wealth of beautiful performances.
The first half is a mood piece with minimal dialogue that tends to drag on. Then the film switches gears from a nonverbal visual tapestry to a better, intensely talky intellectual discourse about the nature of religion and its place in specific cultures.
With the first part, Scorsese takes a meditative plunge into the inner experience of one man, a devout Jesuit priest named Sebastião Rodrigues who is portrayed with feverish, even mystical intensity by Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge). Rodrigues, who travels to Japan with fellow Jesuit Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), will suffer fear, guilt, despair, even madness. And Scorsese's camera will follow.
His movie captures with breathtaking poetry the perception and apprehension of the divine, as when the layered colors of a morning mist dance and swirl to create an abstract mosaic, then retreat to reveal a human silhouette. Throughout, Scorsese alludes to the meditative visual lyricism of Japanese film master Yasujirō Ozu. He makes great use of sound design, including poignant periods of total silence.
The film also depicts the human fellowship made possible by religion. The Jesuits live in a shabby, secret village founded by Japanese converts to Christianity. Services are small, intimate gatherings where the converts seem to find sustenance in the presence of the two Portuguese men. Scorsese is light on explanation here: Is this the mystery of faith?
Given the language gap, one wonders just how much Christian dogma the converts even grasp. Is it possible that they live and die not for the sake of Christ, but for the sake of their priests?
Silence deftly investigates ideas of persecution and martyrdom. While Rodrigues touches us with his piety, we begin to question his fixation on imitating Christ. Is it a form of narcissism? Well hidden by his flock, he watches helplessly as his parishioners are tortured and killed. Is his preoccupation with suffering hypocritical?
Scorsese addresses the questions head-on in the film's latter half, which touches on a remarkable range of topics: the nature of faith, the universality of religion, the clash of Japanese and European cultures, the viability of believing in one absolute truth in a multicultural world.
Exciting, stimulating, and thoughtful, this part of the film is enlivened by an energetic, wily performance by Issey Ogata (Alexander Sokurov's The Sun) as the government's inquisitor, who is in charge of forcing Christians to renounce their religion. Liam Neeson is quite good as Rodrigues' mentor, who had gone missing in Japan only to pop up in a surprising twist.
Having captured Rodrigues, the inquisitor treats him with remarkable respect, but vows that he'll eventually force the Jesuit to become an apostate. He initiates lively debates with the missionary while he continues to torture members of his flock. The Jesuit resists. Will the Inquisitor manage to break him?
Scorsese's films have always touched upon aspects of religiosity, even if it's the inner torment of a lapsed Catholic trapped in a life of crime.
His three religious epics reinforce the fact that spirituality is an important component of his vision. The films have become progressively stronger, more assured – Silence is clearly the crown jewel. It's certainly not an easy film to take in. It dazzles and provokes. It inspires and bewilders.