No filmmaker currently working puts the “sin” in cinema with more neurotic majesty than Martin Scorsese. “Silence” may just turn out to be his Golgotha — it’s a mountain of brutal, agonized beauty. The movie’s being promoted as the third in the director’s unofficial trilogy of faith, after “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) and “Kundun” (1997), and it feels like a self-conscious masterpiece, a summing-up from a filmmaker who, at 74, may be thinking of his legacy.
Scorsese is adapting another man’s work here — the 1966 novel by Japanese writer Shusaku Endo was already filmed once before, by Masahiro Shinoda in 1971 (“Chinmoku”) — but “Silence” feels intensely personal and very much in line with the director’s career-long interest in falls from grace and man’s distance from God. It’s a far from perfect film, but the flaws seem as integral, even necessary, to its meaning as the strengths.
The year is 1639. Two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), have smuggled themselves into a Japan that is closed off to the rest of the world and intent on stamping out the foreign devils’ Christian religion. The two hope to learn the fate of an earlier missionary, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is rumored to have renounced his faith and to be living with a Japanese wife.
Upon landing, Rodrigues and
Garrpe find themselves ministering to a devout but justifiably paranoid flock of believers, mostly farmers and fishermen whose understanding of Catholic doctrine is based largely on centuries-old folk beliefs. They’re willing to be martyrs, though, and the Shogun’s inquisitors are willing to martyr them. Father Rodrigues’s naive eyes widen and his ears strain to hear what God has to say about this, but, per the title, God isn’t talking.
Is there a Scorsese movie where the hero isn’t a penitent on some kind of rack, where meaning isn’t to be found in emotional flagellation? Yet the director’s hardly a zealot on the order of Mel Gibson, and “Silence” — like “Last Temptation” 30 years ago — is a work of grave and mighty doubt. Captured by the government and urged to apostasize, Father Rodrigues is told that the longer he refuses, the worse tortures his Christian followers will undergo. It’s a diabolical short-circuiting of the urge to die for one’s God. How can you reach Glory if other people die in your place?
At first Garfield seems the wrong actor for the role — too callow. He grows into the film, though, and the film grows tenser and stranger around him. Driver tries out a marble-mouthed Portuguese accent and throws in the towel two scenes in; unlike Garfield, though, he does look the part, with that pale, gaunt flesh like something out of Goya.
“Silence” is an ungainly movie. It lurches through harrowing set pieces of cruelty; and sometimes our belief in what’s happening on screen doesn’t match Scorsese’s. But, intriguingly, the film doesn’t present the Japanese as heathen barbarians, as might be expected. On the contrary, it understands the persecutions as a vicious but logical response to foreign incursion, and it sees the Jesuits as much less sophisticated in every sense than their persecutors, specifically a worldly, unamused translator (Tadanobu Asano) and a toweringly eccentric Inquisitor General played by Issey Ogata in one of the weirdest and most wonderful performances you’re likely to see any time soon. (Even the way he exhales feels magnanimously theatrical.)
The drama of the film is Father Rodrigues’s slow, hard realization that God will never answer him and that faith can’t be shared — that at the end of the day you can only save yourself. It’s an anti-evangelical tract. Likewise, the movie feels both passionate and hermetic; exhausting and beautiful and, until the final scenes, rather remote. The cinematography by the great Rodrigo Prieto uncovers gradations of light and color you didn’t know existed — the visuals hover between reality and woodcut. As a work of craft, “Silence” is unparalleled. As a work of spirit, it aches with sincerity. As a work of art, it feels as though it hasn’t fully left its maker’s head.
Scorsese isn’t just an intellectual Catholic, of course. He’s one of our reigning cinephiles, with a love for and knowledge of Japanese cinema that is encyclopedic. “Silence” is, on more than one level, an homage by a master to his masters — to great directors like Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, Oshima and Ichikawa. One of the most tragicomic characters in the film is Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a Japanese villager who recants his Christianity every chance he gets. He’s the film’s survival principle, a penny-ante Judas, and Kubozuka plays him with the feral gusto of the legendary Toshiro Mifune in his prime.
Is the homage intentional? Only a fool would bet against it, or against the debt being repaid here to Ingmar Bergman as well. Scorsese’s religious movies are built upon the fractured rock of his uncertainty, but when it comes to his greatest passion — the movies — there’s no doubt at all. He’s a true believer.
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, based on the novel by Shusako Endo. Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Issey Ogata, Tadanobu Asano. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, West Newton. 161 minutes. R (some disturbing violent content). In English and Japanese, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.
An earlier version of this review made an error in referring to a character and actor. The villager who recants is naed Kichijiro and is played by Yôsuke Kubozuka.