Beyond pouty gangsters, Catholic guilt is the most reliable theme in Martin Scorsese’s movies. From its overt expression in “The Last Temptation of Christ” to the undercurrents in “The Departed,” Scorsese’s filmography embraces the notion of a spiritual code governing the lives of deeply conflicted men. “Silence,” a gorgeous and reverential treatment of 17th-century Jesuit priests facing persecution in feudal Japan, epitomizes this side of the Scorsese coin while dulling its edges. A slow-burn tale filled with beautiful imagery and understated performances, its elegance yields one of Scorsese’s most subtle efforts.
By no means a masterwork, “Silence” nevertheless displays the first-rate craftsmanship. However, it’s a surprisingly subdued approach to a story filled with vicious struggles involving men wandering the wilderness at their wits’ end, avoiding perils such as torture by boiling water and decapitation. (Even so, it’s less violent than the 1971 version; both are adapted from Shusaku Endo’s book.) “Silence” is a haunting, immersive experience that, were it not for a handful of flaws, would rank among the director’s grandest epics.
Aided by Rodrigo Prieto’s phenomenal cinematography and Scorsese’s ever-reliable editor Thelma Schoonmaker, each scene has a painterly quality. The story unfolds as a soft, patient elegy for long-ago struggles weighted with contemporary resonance. It’s deadly serious in ways that constantly threaten to smother the drama, but so exquisitely crafted it rarely matters.
The bleak mood takes hold from the very first shot, as haggard prisoners march across a scorched and foggy landscape. It’s 1633, and the military government has stepped up its measures to decimate the country’s Catholics by offering a simple choice: Step on a stone engraved with Jesus’ image and renounce the faith, or suffer from a series of horrible tortures that generally result in slo-mo death. In a deadpan voiceover, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) explains the circumstances, his words traveling across the globe with a letter that perplexes his Portuguese brethren. Uncertain whether Father Ferreira has renounced the church or died in protest, the high priest dispatches younger disciples Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) and Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) to investigate.
So begins a queasy men-on-a-mission movie — think of it as “Saving Private Ryan” with priests — in which the two young men hide out with oppressed Japanese Catholics before embarking on a desperate survival tale as they follow the bread crumbs to Father Ferreira’s fate. That mystery diminishes in relevance as the drama unfurls, eventually settling on Sebastiao’s uncertainties as he’s forced to choose how far he’ll go to protect his beliefs. The latter half of the movie holds far less intrigue than its opening chapters as the self-serious material supersedes its suspense, but Scorsese consistently conveys an awe of the uncertain world that traps the young Jesuits. As they come to grips with their circumstances and confront the pressure to conform, some viewers could find the source of tension questionable — why not just step on the Jesus stone and flee? — but Scorsese stays close enough to his characters that it’s easy to become immersed in the logic governing their beliefs.
While “Silence” conveys a powerful scenario, cracks in its design include the performances. It’s no secret that both Driver or Garfield aren’t Portuguese, which doesn’t necessarily matter for this English-language treatment except that each took very different approaches to the challenge. Driver adopts an odd accent that sounds like a halfway decent Javier Bardem impersonation, while Garfield seems to be trapped between British and American cadences, never quite settling on one model. Fortunately, neither man needs to talk at great length, and Driver drops out of the story relatively early.
Eventually, we’re left with a bearded, frantic Garfield drifting through the woods to elude the Japanese authorities, and looking like a second cousin to Leonardo DiCaprio’s rough-hewn survivor in “The Revenant.” A world away from the goofy charm of his “Spider-Man” days, Garfield achieves a sense of uneasiness that raises the maturity of his screen presence by several notches. His conundrum is the movie’s centerpiece, and he makes the conflict as credible as possible.
Sadly, that focus also speaks to representational issues that hinder the movie at every turn. After all, the story centers on a handful of proud white saviors facing down Asian villains and only a handful of kinder souls. The majority of the film’s Asian characters deliver their English lines as if every word is followed by a punctuation mark. And Sebastiao’s ultimate foe is a flamboyant Grand Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) whose chortling delivery is just a few notes shy of Fu Manchu.
To be fair, the movie’s protagonists stem directly from Endo’s novel, a stripped-down first person account that Scorsese emulates by endowing the narrative with an astounding intimacy, conjuring the precision of Robert Bresson to create an absorbing window into faraway times. Although it certainly foregrounds its caucasian figures, they’re not elevated to some godly plane. Sebastiao’s conundrum is strikingly personal, and Scorsese spends less time on the particulars of his beliefs than whether he’s truly willing to die for them.
While Garfield outdoes himself (and Scorsese gives him room to excel), “Silence” struggles through stretches of redundancy; taut showdowns with Japanese forces and whispery strategy sessions in shadowy hideouts abound. That would completely undo the movie’s spell if its more superficial elements weren’t so expertly rendered. Whether leading a quiet mass in the dead of night or struggling through humiliation as prisoners, the Jesuits’ struggle is a slog, but an engaging one.
Even when the screenplay (credited to Scorsese and Jay Cocks) falls back on obvious soul-searching (“We had no luggage to bring to Japan except our broken hearts”), it fits the fragile nature of the world that Scorsese created. Even as the director avoids overemphasizing the violence of torture, he captures the sheer terror of a slow death in more audacious ways. One scene in which three Japanese Christians slowly drown in the waves while affixed to crucifixes ranks among the better-directed sequences of the year, primarily because it only reveals just enough suffering to make the tragedy sink in. It’s here that Scorsese’s decades-long partnership with Schoonmaker comes to the foreground — the shifts between lapping waves, half-submerged faces, and the stunned reactions of those standing nearby is a mini-masterclass in the construction of a visceral experience. That’s just one of several set pieces that stand out: Just when it slows to a crawl, “Silence” offers up another of these entrancing moments.
In late-period Scorsese terms, the new movie has neither the edge of “The Wolf of Wall Street” nor the majestic vision of “Hugo.” Instead, it falls closer to the eeriness of “Shutter Island,” another imperfect story that overcame many of its shortcomings with stirring visuals and a cooly intelligent air. “Silence” is a smart and sophisticated look at the internal struggles of a true believer, with a masterful last shot that suggests those struggles never end. Some 50 years into a career filled with risks, Scorsese surely can relate.
“Silence” opens theatrically on December 23.