Silence, Martin Scorsese’s first feature since 2013’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, is a mighty, sometimes cinematically gorgeous passion project, and specifically a study of religion like his The Last Temptation Of Christ and Kundun (although Catholic guilt permeates just about all of his work).
There’s no doubt that it eventually proves a hard film to bear, with a 161 minute running time, lengthy silences (as the title suggests) that prove irksome towards the end, and violent tortures that hark back to outings like Goodfellas and Casino and tend to overshadow the heavy theology, making this more than just a test of patience and faith.
Drawing from Shûsaku Endô’s semi-factually-based novel (which Scorsese tried to push into production for decades), we open in 17th Century Portugal with a pair of young Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (an increasingly emaciated Adam Driver), trying to convince Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) that they should travel to Japan to locate their lost mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson, also looking skinny).
Ferreira has reportedly renounced his faith (hardly surprising after what he sees in the opening scene), and Rodrigues and Garupe know that their journey will be dangerous, but they go forth anyway, hoping to spread a little Christianity along the way.
After their arrival, Rodrigues whisperingly narrates as he and Garupe find a small, secret group of Japanese believers, and for some time they live close to a village and emerge at night to take confession and other holy duties with help and guidance from interpreter Kichijiro (Kubozuka Yosuke, shining amid a huge Japanese cast).
However, and of course, they are eventually caught by sadistically persecuting Buddhists, and Scorsese then allows more than the whole second half here to follow their imprisonment, interrogation and torture, with images of barbarity (a crucifixion at sea, drownings, beheadings) reminding you that he loves violence almost as much as he loves his God.
Beautifully photographed (although it was mostly shot in Taiwan for obvious reasons) and stirringly acted, even if Garfield seems too unhinged too early, this is unquestionably a personal pic, with a whiff of Heart Of Darkness (and therefore Apocalypse Now), an awkward FX moment or two (as when Rodrigues hallucinates Jesus’ face in a pool of water), a sense of authentic grandeur at times and, unfortunately, considerable scope for charges of racism. Yet true Scorsese disciples will be in raptures anyway, and it could have been far, far worse: just imagine if Mad Mel Gibson had directed it!
Rated MA. Silence is in cinemas now.