Silence, an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel about Jesuit priests in 17th Century Japan, has been described as Martin Scorsese’s ‘passion project’, but there are few Scorsese films to which that description does not apply.

It can be tempting to divide Scorsese’s career into commercial projects and personal ones (ie those unlikely to make much money). But if you look closely at the former - The Wolf of Wall Street, say, or The Departed, which won Scorsese his first, and to date, only Oscar - you’ll find his signature scribbled in the margins like a message to the faithful.

Although they are filled with the desire to spread the good word, the Portuguese Jesuits Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) are forced to preach in secret, away from the watchful eye of the Tokugawa shogunate. Japanese Christians caught practicing their faith are subject to horrendous tortures, slowly scalded to death or hung upside-down with their heads in a pit, and the priests who minister to them can expect even worse.

Remove the period garb, and Garfield’s wild, upswept hair wouldn’t be out of place on a clipboard-toting canvasser buttonholing passersby on a city street

But their greatest fear is giving into the demand to apostatise, to renounce their faith and publicly blaspheme their god, as Rodrigues and Garupe fear their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has been compelled to do. Reports filter back to Portugal that Ferreira has disappeared, that he may be dead, may have abandoned his calling, may even have taken a Japanese name and a Japanese wife. So the two embark on a journey to find out what has become of him, and whether the faith can survive in his absence.

Silence, which was adapted by Scorsese and his Gangs of New York/Age of Innocence collaborator Jay Cocks, strangely elides the reason for the shogunate’s persecution of Christians, which followed in the wake of an uprising by Japanese Catholics in 1637 and ’38. But this is not a film about history, despite its historical setting, or even particularly about Catholicism, with which Scorsese has long struggled in his work.

Rodrigues and Garupe aren’t sainted holy men but earnest emissaries; remove the period garb, and Garfield’s wild, upswept hair wouldn’t be out of place on a clipboard-toting canvasser buttonholing passersby on a city street. And like one of those liberal do-gooders,Rodrigues is at risk of being blinded by his own dedication, unable to see what the people he preaches to are really taking in, and unwilling to contemplate the implications of his actions from any perspective but his own.

Keeping the faith?

Rodrigues works his way through several antagonists of varying ideological bents. Some seem truly committed to wiping out the scourge of Christianity, others more like sadists-for-hire. His ultimate adversary - the final boss, if you will - is Inoue, played by Yi Yi and Tony Takitani’s Issey Ogata. Although the torments he devises for those who practice the forbidden religion are truly diabolical, Ogata’s inquisitor is very nearly a comic figure, speaking English in a high-pitched, melodic voice as if reciting the punchline to some darkly private joke.

Like The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence is a movie that perches on both sides of a divide, pitting one form of monstrousness against another

Until his arrival, Silence plays more or less like a straightforward story of religious persecution, but like Dostoevsky’s inquisitor, he puts to Rodrigues a series of questions that shake the foundations of his faith, and tie it at last to the long and bloody history of European colonialism.Rodrigues is mainly concerned with preaching to the converted, but Inoue reminds him how so many Japanese were induced to take up Catholicism, and, more importantly, to what end.

Like The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence is a movie that perches on both sides of a divide, pitting one form of monstrousness against another. It’s a profoundly moving story, and a profoundly, and deliberately troubling one. Inoue’s innovation is to threaten Rodrigues not with physical harm but with spiritual torment, especially the agony of watching his fellow Christians suffer. He confronts him with the idea that his piety is merely a form of vanity, that if he worships a god, and especially a Christ, who sacrificed himself for humanity’s sake, then he ought to be able to do likewise, even if that sacrifice is public blasphemy.

Is he meant to follow Jesus’s example, or is to emulate him an act of the most profound hubris? At the moment before he is finally captured, Rodrigues sinks to his knees and catches his reflection in the water, and for a moment it gives way to a drawn image of Christ’s face. It could be a vision or merely a desperate hallucination; how we see it depends on our own faith.

The most nagging question in Silence occurs in the realm where evangelism and artistic creation overlap. Towards the end of his journey, Rodrigues is at last brought to question whether the people he’s ostensibly converted even know what they’re worshipping. They call themselves “Kirishitan”, and they disguise their icons and even their prayers as Buddhist practices - but in doing so, are they keeping the faith or perverting it?

Can one’s belief ever be conveyed to another, or is it only ever between them and the gods they worship? Scorsese has been etching his beliefs onto celluloid for almost 50 years, and their meanings remain as evanescent, as mysterious, as ever. Silence is not a film to be solved, or resolved, but pondered. It’s not a parable. It’s a koan.

★★★★☆

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