Even if the result is easier to admire than enjoy, every frame of Silence is engulfed by evidence of a painstaking and intensely personal passion project for its filmmaker.
That largely works to the benefit of this ambitious exploration of spirituality from director Martin Scorsese, both in terms of its breathtaking visuals and its provocative subject matter that carries plenty of contemporary relevance — even though the main characters are two 17th century Jesuit priests.
The story weaves some historical facts and legends into its adventure that follows world-weary Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) as they’re sent on an ill-fated mission to Japan to find, and perhaps rescue, their apostate mentor (Liam Neeson).
As they meet one frustrating dead-end after another, a secondary goal becomes to spread Catholic teachings in a land where such beliefs are forbidden. Eventually, they stumble upon a cycle of brutality including the imprisonment, torture, and murder of outsiders that becomes the ultimate test of faith and survival.
It’s a polished technical achievement marked by meticulous and evocative period re-creation. Garfield and Driver each offer audacious portrayals that include physical transformations during their characters’ respective descents into madness.
The film could use some trimming during its long and rambling middle section. And the intense levels of violence and cruelty make it tough to stomach in spots — yet equally difficult to dismiss.
Scorsese, who apparently has had this project on his radar for decades, is fascinated by challenging traditional belief systems, along with the crisis and reinforcement of faith. In particular, the film portrays organized religion both as a tool of division and intolerance, and as an unfair target for persecution.
Such dichotomies can be frustrating on the surface, and the eloquent screenplay — adapted from a novel of historical fiction by Shusaku Endo — is difficult to penetrate at times. Still, it probes universally relevant themes in a way that’s never heavy-handed or pedantic, even if it sometimes raises high-minded questions that are impossible to answer.
Deliberately paced yet quietly powerful, the introspective film indeed contains plenty of silence while speaking loudly about courage and conviction. However, Scorsese isn’t as interested in passing judgment on his characters or their religious persuasions as in scrutinizing the very nature of faith. He allows for Silence to be interpreted individually as a launching pad for reflection and contemplation, for better and worse.