We should take Silence seriously, because Martin Scorsese's sober historical drama seems a heartfelt attempt to wrestle with complicated spiritual subject matter. Its meditation on the trials and frustrations of Portuguese Roman Catholic missionaries preaching Christianity in Japan in the 17th century audaciously embraces ideas that most mainstream screen entertainments avoid like the plague. Filmmaker Scorsese, working from a screenplay he and writer Jay Cocks adapted from a novel by Japanese Christian author Shûsaku Endô, imbues Silence with a solemn dignity, as if it were conceived from a sense of duty. The film resembles nothing less than an act of faith.
That noted, there are one or two problems. At 159 minutes it's a bit too long and somber. From the moment Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) are sent out on their mission as the last two priests in Japan, a dense cloud of misery descends over their efforts — literally, as in the prevailing heavy fog over the province of Kyushu. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Christianity was outlawed and Christian communities went underground. Priests were seen, with some justification, as the leading edge of unwanted foreign influence. Government suppression ramped up and recalcitrant Christian converts were subjected to grisly torture and execution. Rodrigues and Garrpe, alongside such parishioners as the unhinged villager Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), spend their screen time on the run from the likes of the Grand Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata). That oppressive atmosphere never dissipates.
Scorsese is up against tough competition in the "religious persecution" department. D.W. Griffith, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Cecil B. DeMille, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel (from his own unique perspective), Shôhei Imamura, and (ahem) Mel Gibson, among many other filmmakers including Scorsese himself, have tried to squeeze the essence of devotion out of scenes of true believers being tormented, with varying degrees of success. There's a strong whiff of torture porn at work in Silence. How that relates to an investigation into the meaning of faith is an open question throughout most of the film.
The film's central dilemma for 21st-century audiences comes in a climactic scene in which the No.1 Christian apostate, played by Liam Neeson, tries to convince zealous Father Rodrigues that all religions are essentially the same. If that is true, then what good are Rodrigues' priestly vows? And what to make of the dueling "truths" when Rodrigues and the sardonic official translator (Tadanobu Asano) debate theology with the lives of the pastor's flock in the balance?
In those moments, our cinematic memory instinctively defaults to Maria Falconetti's anguished Jeanne d'Arc, or the burdens of the saintly donkey Balthazar. Sometimes a slender parable conveys more insight than the most ponderous pageant of suffering. Garfield, Ogata, Neeson, and Asano all turn in sharp performances. But Scorsese's heavy-handedness hampers what might have been a startling new entry in the director's religious casebook. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.