Martin Scorsese has made films about Jesus Christ and the Dalai Lama. Silence, adapted from a novel by the Japanese Catholic Shusaku Endo, sometimes seems like an attempt to reconcile or synthesize Christianity and Buddhism in the historical context of the persecution of Christians by Buddhists in Tokugawa Japan. Two young Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) sneak into Japan to investigate reports that one of the last remaining priests, Fr. Ferrera (Liam Neeson) has apostasized, renouncing the faith. They minister to underground congregations who revere "Deus" and cherish any material artifact of faith, from crude tiny crucifixes to rosary beads. These people face terrible torture and certain death if their faith is discovered and they refuse to recant by trampling icons. The priests are in constant danger from betrayal, especially from the man who ferried them to Japan, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kobozuka), an abject character whose family was slaughtered despite his apostasy. Kichijiro in many ways is the worst sort of Christian, one who wallows in his weakness just so he can confess it, yet we will see that his faith is in some sense the strongest of all. Ultimately it is Rodrigues whose faith faces the sternest test after Kichijiro betrays him into the hands of Inoue (Issey Ogata), ironically designated an "Inquisitor." Inoue sees Christianity as the foot in the door for unwanted European influence in his country, and claims that it may be "true" elsewhere but not in Japan. He respects the power of symbolism, telling Christians that they don't have to sincerely recant so long as they go through the motions he hopes will demoralize others by undermining respect for the clergy and their sacred symbols. One can also see an ideological threat to the shogunate, at least as seen by a Japanese believer and a Catholic filmmaker, in the Christian insistence on the value of every human life, while Japan's feudal culture -- as shown in many a Japanese film -- holds much life worthless. You can understand the preference for a Buddhism that aspires to the nullification of self and implicitly acquiesces in feudal tyranny, as well as the significance of the apparent conversion of Fr. Ferrera to Buddhism. He claims to be convinced that real Christianity can get nowhere in the "swamp" of Japan, and tries to convince Rodrigues that keeping the faith is worse than futile. He employs moral blackmail, holding Rodrigues responsible for the torture that the audience more likely will blame on Japan's vicious rulers. But if unassailable power holds innocent lives hostage against the priest's apostasy, Ferrera claims they'll be sacrificed to Rodrigues's pride. Through his ordeal, Rodriguez aches for divine guidance, but the film's title tells you what he gets until the climax.
Apart from a couple of pretentious shots early on, this is a relatively austere film for Scorsese, and that may explain why some reviewers find its length oppressive. It's also unavoidably an intellectual if not theological film, for all the gruesome poignancy of the tortures inflicted on Japanese Christians, and for that reason Silence has probably lost some reviewers' attention. One particularly philistine pan asks why everyone makes a big deal about trampling icons, but this issue really is -- pun intended, I guess -- the crux of the film. Ultimately Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks, if not Endo before them, are critiquing a materialist element of Christianity that arguably can be done without. Investing these symbols with such crucial significance leaves the faith vulnerable to the sort of hostile iconoclasm Inoue practices. Rodrigues's initial dismay at the Japanese Christians' devotion to symbols proves the right instinct, and while we see that Christians ultimately can't do entirely without such symbols, it looks like the key to the survival of Christian people is their readiness to sacrifice symbols, on the understanding that the symbols aren't the faith itself. The less Christianity takes the form of idolatry, the less vulnerable it is to Inoue's sort of propaganda. It's an oddly Protestant note to sound as an important theme of a Catholic story, but there it is.
If Silence convinces people of anything, it's that Andrew Garfield still has a future in movies after the Amazing Spider-Man debacle, though Hacksaw Ridge may already have convinced some people. The film ends up on his shoulders and he bears it well. I was even more impressed by the Japanese performing in English. Kobozuka goes all out as Kichijiro, giving the story's Judas a pathetic grandiosity that might remind you of Akira Kurosawa in his more Dostoevskian moods. Issey Ogata gives an eccentrically gnomic performance as the Japanese inquisitor (credit is also due to Tadanobu Asano, more fluent than ever, as his slick interpreter) both verbally and physically creepy. There's a moment where Rodrigues seems to have the upper hand in a debate when Inoue seems to deflate in stages before our eyes; the only missing effect is the steam coming out of his ears. He makes a great villain, though Neeson, in a smaller role than his billing suggests, is arguably more effective the sort of devil's advocate the story really needs. It looks like the film will prove a flop at the box-office, and that makes me wonder why Paramount didn't promote Silence more to the apparently growing audience for religious pictures. It certainly would strike a chord with those Christians who for whatever reason feel persecuted today, but perhaps the film is too specifically Catholic for the faith-based audience here, and maybe some still hold the allegedly sacrilegious Last Temptation of Christ against Scorsese. That'd be unfortunate, since Silence is really a more effective Christian film than that earlier effort. It's still far from Scorsese's best, but it's one of the better pictures of 2016.