Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Issey Ogata, Yosuke Kubozuka, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds

Director: Martin Scorsese

Running time: 2 hours 41 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

Meditative and searing, Martin Scorsese's decades-long passion project finally arrives in theaters, and after the puerile macho nonsense of his last picture, 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street, it's nice to have one of our greatest living directors back in prime form. For all its moral hand-ringing and questions of faith, Silence is above all else a work of extreme rigorousness which locates the vanity and ego of man in thinking they can reach divinity. An artistic triumph which moves from one astonishing sequence to the next while curtailing Scorsese's more overbearing flourishes, its also easily the director's best film since 1999's Bringing Out The Dead.

The film centers on two Portuguese priests infiltrating Japan in 1869 in order to win Christian converts and locate their lost mentor. Since Scorsese is both a Westerner and Catholic (though his devotion to the faith is questionable; something he has tapped into throughout his entire filmography), Silence has a very specific viewpoint on this subject matter. The focus on the struggles and tribulations of the Catholic missionaries is not surprising, but what is bracing is Scorsese's willingness to treat his picture, both aesthetically and thematically, as a more Eastern-leaning enterprise. Instead of lavish crane shots or roaming steadicams traversing the fog-drenched landscapes, Scorsese uses pictorial lensing and flat compositions in order to accentuate the smallness of his characters against the vastness of feudal Japan. There are uses of his patented whip-pans, of course, but they are subtle and unobtrusive, unlike say the "look at me" hyperactive whip-panning of Damien Chazelle's La La Land. Beyond aesthetic, there's also this notion of placing the missionaries within the socioeconomic culture of the time period, and furthermore, of revealing the political and religious interlocking that was occurring, where Taoist and Buddhist practices were either placed in contrast to or in harmony with Christian doctrine. Many will claim Silence is a white savior story celebrating the nobility of the Portuguese interlopers, but such a reductive reading is based on prescribing biases that the film itself doesn't necessarily advocate. The conflict between admiring the priests and being suspect of their vanity is keenly felt through Scorsese's nuanced exploration of faith, belief, doubt, and extremism.

The film begins with Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) searching for their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) in dangerous territory following the Tokugawa Shogunate banning Christianity and issuing widespread persecution of believers. The priests are taken in by a small group of Japanese Christians, and their dilemma extends not only to hiding from the enemy, but also administering the sacramental rites in secret. When word comes that Ferreira may have abandoned the faith, their mission becomes even more convoluted, with Garrpe eventually splitting from Rodrigues and the emergence of a cowardly figure named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozka), who has been forced into apostasy. Furthermore, Rodrigues comes up against Inquisitor Inoue Masahige (Issey Ogata, giving a lively, sharply comic performance), the ringleader seeking to stamp out the missionary's quest, and by extension, Christianity's shadow over Japan. All the while, Japanese Christians are tortured and killed for not apostatizing while Rodrigues stands unable (or unwilling) to intervene.

Scorsese has always been fixated on issues of Catholic guilt, shame, and redemption, but this is by far his sincerest attempt at radicalizing spirituality into an artistic framework, and that includes 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ and 1997's Kundun. More importantly, Silence shrouds itself in ambiguity; complicating the Western Christian worldview by allowing Rodrigues's doubts to become more pronounced until madness takes over, and by implementing counter-arguments from Japanese officials that the priests have essentially tried to bring ideas that are antithetical to their cultural identity. Rodrigues's major struggle; of refusing step on the face of Christ while witnessing the murder of Japanese peasants, begins to mirror the moral conflict of Kichijiro, who continually reappears to apostatize and then receive absolution. In a sense, Kichijiro's apparent treachery as a Judas figure is no different than the Christian missionaries holding themselves to a higher standard of divinity as others perish in their place.

Had Silence simply either been a faith-driven vehicle or a critique of colonialism, it wouldn't be as far-reaching as a work of art. None of the characters here are free of moral burden, and even if the priests remain faithful to their calling in the end, the film itself never asserts that their actions have meaning in a place where such moral dogmas refuse to "take root." Instead, Scorsese's mournful, austere handling of complicated questions and the way his characters endless wrestle with them makes Silence more than just a period epic or evocation of a brutal time in history. It transcends theology and religious conundrums and becomes something universal. All of us, religious or otherwise, can relate to the idea of believing in something; whether moral or intellectual, and fighting for it despite forces pressing against us, and the film's greatest triumph is making that notion both accessible and endlessly complex.