Is God dead – and if not, why does he appear to be deaf, blind and dumb in the face of human suffering? That's a deep dive for any one movie, yet Martin Scorsese's Silence fearlessly takes the plunge, emerging in a dizzying climb that offers frustratingly few answers but all the right questions. The filmmaker, raised Roman Catholic and inculcated in its rituals, has tackled the issue of faith before, both directly (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun) and implicitly (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Cape Fear), works in which belief erupts in bloodshed. This tale of Jesuit priests has been called Scorsese's passion project – a misnomer, since this great American artist has yet to make a film he wasn't passionate about. What's meant here is that the 74-year-old director has been trying to get Silence on screen since the late Eighties, when he first read the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese convert to Catholicism who found something profound in the story of Portuguese missionaries who risked their lives to bring the word of God to 17th-century Japan.
That's the plot on which Scorsese pins the spiritual quest of his urgent, unforgettable movie. Andrew Garfield, his eyes alive with fervor, plays Father Sebastião Rodrigues. Adam Driver, his starved body resembling an ascetic saint, costars as Father Francisco Garupe. Through these fierce, fully committed performances, we journey east with the young priests in search of their missing mentor Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Is he in hiding, executed or married and living in sin as a Buddhist? The last option fills them with dread. Inexperienced in the ways of religious persecution, Rodrigues and Garupe find Japan a shock to their system. The brutal feudal lords and ruling samurai are committed to flushing out hidden Christians, converts who can save themselves only by stepping on a fumie, a crudely carved image of Christ. Resistance can result in drowning, burning, crucifixion or being cut, hung upside down over a pit and slowly bled to death. Scorsese, who wrote the script with Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence), doesn't wallow in these violent visuals, using them only to reflect the horror of priests who are told that by trampling on a fumie themselves they can save the lives of others.
The introduction of doubt, especially in Rodrigues, is a theme that propels the film, two hours and forty minutes of challenging spirituality that won't be easy to sell to a popular audience wary of stepping outside the Marvel Comic Universe. Scorsese is daring us to examine our own feelings about faith and redemption. Neeson, who opens up his character fully in the film's final third, is remarkable at showing how Father Ferreira reconciles conviction and doubt about a God who chooses to suffer with mankind instead of ending its suffering. Shot in Taiwan with a poet's eye by the gifted Rodrigo Prieto (The Wolf of Wall Street), the film Is a technical and soulful marvel. If you want proof that editing can be an art form, watch what longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker does with the arrangement of images that provoke thoughtful debate.
All the performances are first-rate, with particular praise due the Japanese actors. Yosuke Kubozuka is outstanding as Kichijiro, a Judas figure who wants to help the priests but continuously betrays them to save his own skin. There is well-deserved Oscar buzz for the brilliant Issey Ogata as Inoue, the villainous Inquisitor whose sly wit speaks to the political side of his spiritual decisions. It's Inoue who orders the crucifixion of three Christian villagers on a beach, each choking back water as the tide comes in. Like many scenes in Silence, this one is filled with beauty and terror, addressing a silent God against an exquisite background of nature that asserts the existence of a higher power.
At times Garfield's beleaguered priest hears Christ talking through him: "Trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world." Is it delusion, compassion or self-justification? Scorsese has said that Silence is "about the necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience." There is no doubting the film's relevance to a modern world in which fundamentalism and religious extremism are on the rise. Scorsese, with a rigorous fix on the complexity of his subject, refuses to temper the film's harshness with sermonizing or sentiment. Heaven and hell, brute nature and healing grace all have a place in forging faith as Scorsese sees it.
Sure, he's overreaching. Most visionaries do. The fate of this film will depend on what it does or doesn't open up in you. The issues it raises aren't meant to go down easy. But no one with a genuine belief in the possibilities and mysteries of cinema would think of missing Silence. It's essential filmmaking from the church of Scorsese, a modern master who lives and breathes in the images he puts on screen.