‘Silence’ Review: Martin Scorsese’s Passion Project Is a Fascinating, Flawed Endurance Test

Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver star as Jesuit priests in feudal Japan in a long, evocative and beautifully shot trial of the soul

The wait for Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel “Silence,” about a pair of Portuguese missionaries on dangerous footing in Christian-unfriendly 17th century Japan, has been so long that the eventual offering has an unmistakably devotional air. That isn’t always a good thing, but it mostly is: it’s an invitingly austere movie, designed for both searching believers and curious others. The film can be cinematically rigorous, but it’s never ritualistically flashy.

Decades after angering many faithful by portraying Jesus as human in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Silence” marks a controversy-stoking, difficult-viewing return to form for Scorsese. The subject matter alone, at a running time of over two-and-a-half hours, is likely to ward off plenty who’d rather see him deal with matters more profane than sacred.

But after years of kneeling at the altar of Oscar-bait filmmaking (“The Aviator,” “The Departed”) and operatic entertainments (“Shutter Island,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”), he’s back to demanding and obviously personal filmmaking. Co-adapted with Jay Cocks, “Silence” deals explicitly with the pain of doubt, God’s silence in the face of suffering, and apostasy versus martyrdom; it’s a welcome change of pace, even if it’s not always effectively rendered.

Endō, a Japanese Christian who struggled with how the Western mantle of his religion fit over his innate Easternness, set his story during a time when a newly unified Japan was viciously cracking down on Christians with persecutions and torture, forcing believers into hidden communion. In Portugal, hearing that their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has renounced the faith under such conditions — a prologue shows Ferreira stricken by a mass crucifixion — Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) smuggle themselves into Japan to learn the truth and to continue a perilous ministry.

Secretly ensconced in a mountainside hut, and tending to wretched yet hopeful “kirishitan” (hidden Christians) grateful for the outlawed Catholic rituals (baptisms, confessions)  they offer under cover of night, the pair struggle with impatience and hardship but thrive in another sense: the villagers’ neediness renews them. But after the martyrdom of some of those faithful — in a chillingly visualized seaside crucifixion sequence involving waves that crash and cover the victims, and corpses burned afterward — the moral weight of their journey becomes achingly real, and all the more so when they face the option of forced apostasy (trampling on a carved image of Christ) or certain death. For Rodrigues, that sensation only compounds after he’s caught himself by the feared Inquisitor (Issey Ogata, “Yi Yi”) and subjected to a campaign of coercion and cruelty designed to break him.

Technically, the movie is another triumph for Scorsese’s imagemaking acumen, with Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s sets and costumes grounding a beautiful yet harsh land of mountains and mist, village poverty and feudal wealth. The cautious camerawork and tone is exactingly attuned to the intertwining of grace, peril, and suffering in a beautiful yet harsh land.

Whether filming a conversation, or private distress, or open torture, the movie is hushed to the point of off-putting reverence. But if Scorsese isn’t exactly Ozu when it comes to effortlessly capturing the unseen, he’s also not Mel Gibson making bloody physical agony the star. With “Silence,” Scorsese’s ambition to dramatize a relentless inner struggle is always admirable.

It also makes the unfortunate casting of Garfield feel like more of a blunder with each passing, stakes-raising scene. Early on, the “Spiderman” star’s youthful arrogance pings well off Driver’s prickly frustration, the pair sliding nicely into their roles as underground heroes for the persecuted. But as events separate the two, and Rodrigues becomes the central figure of faith-tested heartbreak, Garfield’s emoting falters. His anguish looks childish, not soul-threatening, and his locks are distractingly lush, as if he had a prison coiffeur. Faring better is Neeson, who emerges Kurtz-like to theologically spar with the shaken Rodrigues, projecting a cowed giant for whom matters of life and death have become resignedly practical.

The movie’s true breadth of performance is in the Japanese actors, however, starting with Yosuke Kubozuka (“Ichi”) as the priests’ weak-willed, opportunistically Christian guide Kichijiro, and continuing with Yoshi Oida (“The Pillow Book”) and Shin’ya Tsukamoto (“Tetsuo, the Iron Man”) as devout villagers. Among the persecutors, Tadanobu Asano (“Thor”), as the imprisoned Rodrigues’s interpreter, turns smiling exchanges into a wily form of oppressiveness.

Most thrillingly, veteran actor-comedian Ogata brings rascally zest to the wizened Inquisitor, bureaucratically orchestrating Rodrigues’s fate, and treating the invasion of Christianity like an annoyance not unlike the flies he routinely swats at with his fan. When he taunts Rodrigues about his country’s hostility to outsiders by referring to Japan as a “swamp,” it’s with a perverse pride as thick as any of the Christian characters’ exhortations of faith.

“Silence” ends its battle of cultural/theological wills with a time-spanning conclusion and a final image that indicates ever-adaptable Christianity has a way of getting a last word. But in an age of geopolitical tensions tied to religion and intolerance, is that the right message?

However you feel about the non-contextual portrayal of Japan as culturally defensive to the point of systematic execution — and Catholicism has its own long sinful history — or the movie’s portrait of priests as establishing roots or perhaps changing a country’s very soil, “Silence” is sure to offer plenty of grist for post-viewing conversations. Reactions aren’t likely to be quiet.