After spending nearly 30 years shepherding his adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s “Silence” to the screen, Martin Scorsese may be starting to feel as forsaken as the book’s Jesuit protagonist, abandoned by an uncommunicative and apparently uncaring God. The movie has been roundly ignored by Hollywood awards voters and it flopped at cinemas in the U.S., where viewers were apparently reluctant to sign up for a 161-minute theological discourse conducted partly in Japanese.

Scorsese has been wrestling with the demands of religious faith ever since his 1967 debut, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door,” in which Harvey Keitel played a young New Yorker burdened by Catholic guilt. It’s easy to imagine what must have attracted the director to Endo’s novel, a conflicted, richly nuanced work of historical fiction that considers the ability of faith to endure under seemingly impossible circumstances.

Set in mid-17th-century Japan, it focuses on the persecution of religious communities in the wake of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s ban on Christianity, as seen through the eyes of a Jesuit priest.

Silence (Chinmoku — Silence)
Run Time 161 mins
Language English, Japanese (English/Japanese subtitles)
Opens JAN. 21

Father Sebastien Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and his comrade, Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), sneak into the country in the hope of tracking down one of their predecessors, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who’s rumored to have renounced his faith. Arriving off the coast of Nagasaki, they discover scattered groups of Christians practicing their religion in secret, at risk of persecution and death.

The local inquisitor (Issey Ogata) displays a casual brutality that could match the horrors that were being unleashed in the name of Catholicism in Europe at the time. Unrepentant Christians are beheaded, burned alive or strapped to crucifixes that are placed in the sea and slowly engulfed by the rising tide.

The authorities have devised a simple test for identifying suspected believers: forcing peasants to trample on a fumie, a carved portrait of Jesus, to prove they aren’t Christians. This simple act of sacrilege comes to play a pivotal role in the story, as Rodrigues — who dreams of achieving Messianic levels of suffering himself — must decide if it’s morally permissible to stomp on his Savior’s face if it means saving his flock from harm.

His faith is further tested by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a shiftless local who claims to be a true believer yet consistently aces the fumie test. Played by Kubozuka like an emo Judas, Kichijiro’s constant betrayals, each followed by an anguished plea for forgiveness, become downright repetitive after a while.

The same is true of the film’s central theological debate. Rodrigues grapples with Japanese interlocutors whose knowledge of Christian doctrine hints that they were once converts themselves, but their arguments go in circles. Only when the apostatizing Ferreira makes a late appearance — and Neeson is excellent here — do the discussions assume any emotional resonance.

“Silence” struggles to summon the righteous fervor that inflamed Scorsese’s earlier religious epic, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Garfield might have benefitted from a little of the intensity of that film’s star, Willem Dafoe, or even David Lampson, who played Rodrigues in Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 adaptation of “Silence.” Garfield’s Japanese co-stars frequently shine brighter, including Ogata as the lisping inquisitor, and Shinya Tsukamoto, who’s superb as the stoic martyr Mokichi.

Scorsese does well to avoid the Orientalist cliches that have seduced many Hollywood filmmakers when they ventured to the Far East, and the film’s depiction of the more squalid corners of samurai-era Japan — actually shot in Taiwan, by “The Wolf of Wall Street” cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto — is hard to fault. Even its blend of English and Japanese dialogue feels natural, a few dodgy Portuguese accents notwithstanding.

Yet “Silence” never swept me away. For all its heartfelt sincerity, Scorsese’s labor of love has the cumulative impact of a long-winded Sunday sermon: devout and thought provoking, yes, but also a bit of a drag.

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