Exploring religion in movies is tricky. You lose the non-believers from the start; you can’t even get them inside the theater. But that didn’t deter Martin Scorsese, who spent more than 20 years working and revising his adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel “Silence” before he deemed himself ready to start filming.
Financing woes caused further delays. But the finished movie feels like the result of thoughtful contemplation and interpretation. Scorsese hasn’t just adapted the book, about two 17th-century Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in search of their mentor. Scorsese has made “Silence” his own.
This is arguably the most personal picture to date from a filmmaker who always invests himself in his projects. But everything in “Silence” feels precise and exact — every shot considered, every cut calculated. When Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) volunteer to travel from Portugal to Japan to search for their teacher Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has gone missing and is rumored to have renounced his faith, you can almost hear Scorsese committing himself to making the movie, too. He’s going on this journey with them.
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The difference is that Scorsese already knows what his final destination is. The first half of “Silence,” which Scorsese co-wrote with Jay Cocks, follows the two priests as they sneak into Japan in 1636. The country is under Tokugawa shogunate rule, Christianity has been outlawed and its followers are almost extinct. The few hundred remaining are persecuted by an inquisitor (Issei Ogata) who isn’t evil as much as he is reasonable. He’d rather convert Christians into renouncing their faith instead of executing them. And who better to make an example of than actual priests?
Deliberately paced, with a score made up largely of natural sounds and noises, “Silence” unfolds with a realism and simplicity that is uncommon for Scorsese (the camera rarely makes any flashy moves, except for a few grave moments when it must). The movie unfolds through the eyes of the two strangers in a strange land, although Rodrigues is the primary focus — he has more conviction.
Rodrigues is so steeped in his beliefs, so sure that God is listening even though he never replies with anything other than silence, that even after he’s separated from Garupe and taken prisoner, he seems incapable of apostatizing. So his captors start to increase their pressure to get him to step on a fumi-e, a likeness of Jesus or the Virgin Mary, which would be the ultimate repudiation of his faith. If the priest doesn’t cooperate, the inquisitor will start killing his followers.
The dilemma is impossible; its resolution is astounding. “Silence” becomes tenser and more engrossing in its second half, even though the story becomes a series of theological conversations, because there are innocent lives at stake. With its particular tale, the film touches on a larger, almost impossibly grand question about the value of spiritual faith in a world that has no use for it. Scorsese handles this heavy material with an intellectual curiosity and a visual style that keeps it nimble and engaging: The movie blows your mind as it fills your heart. And the ending, which is as perfect and lovely as any to grace a movie in 2016, sends you out of the theater in an awed hush.
“Silence” feels like a career summation for a filmmaker who has spent his life exploring his faith through his work. Here is a movie about the importance of religion that will move you, regardless of whichever God you worship — or don’t.
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Issei Ogata, Tadanobu Asano, Yosuke Kubozuka.
Director: Martin Scorsese.
Screenwriters: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 161 minutes. Brief violence, gore, adult themes. In English and Japanese with English subtitles. Playing in Miami-Dade: South Beach, Aventura. In Broward: Palace. Expands to more theaters Jan. 13.