The trouble with passion projects is that sometimes the passion isn’t felt beyond the small group of die-hard creators involved.
So it is with “Silence,” a film Martin Scorsese has wanted to make for at least 25 years.
This epic (almost three hours) adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel takes on the issues of faith and mortality Scorsese raised with his first major film, 1973’s “Mean Streets,” issues he has returned to often during his long and celebrated career.
This story of Jesuit priests risking their lives to bring Christianity to 17th century Japan is visually beautiful and impeccably mounted.
But it is less an emotional experience than an intellectual one — and by the time the film enters its third hour, more than a few viewers will be wishing for the simple pleasures of a samurai sword fight.
Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) cannot believe reports that their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has spent years in Japan, has committed apostasy, rejecting the church’s teachings.
They convince their superiors that they must travel to Japan — where an anti-Christian purge is in full swing — to both learn the truth about Ferreira and to minister to Japanese converts, who for the better part of a decade have practiced their religion in secret.
Their mission is filled both with inspirational moments and abject terror. They spend most of their time hiding from troops under the command of the Inquisitor (Issei Ogata), an arthritic old fellow with a steel trap mine.
Suspected Christians are given the opportunity to renounce their faith by stepping on an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary. After this token display of rejection, they are free to go on privately practicing their religion.
Those who decline to take this easy way out, however, are executed by any number of creatively excruciating methods.
Eventually, Rodrigues is captured and almost looks forward to a gruesome fate. But the canny Inquisitor has no intention of providing the priest with martyrdom. Instead, Rodrigues’ Japanese converts will be tortured and killed. The horror will stop the minute he recants.
And that’s the conundrum at the heart of “Silence.” It’s one thing to sacrifice yourself; do you have the right to sacrifice others?
Unlike most religious films, “Silence” — the screenplay is by Scorsese and his frequent collaborator Jay Cocks — is morally ambiguous. There’s no convenient good guy/bad guy conflict.
The film may open with a savage portrait (Catholic priests are tortured with boiling water), but by story’s end we view the Japanese of that era as so culturally different from the West that there’s no point in judging them.
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that back in Europe, the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) was waging its own cruel war against Protestants, Jews and anyone else who didn’t toe the official line.
The film’s title refers to the captive Rodrigues’ desperate prayers for divine guidance — and the silence that meets his entreaties.
The acting is fine, with the two most interesting performances coming from Japanese cast members:
Ogata’s Inquisitor is a savvy old bird, a psychologically sophisticated opponent who never lets his reasonable demeanor be tarnished by anything so crude as sarcasm, cruelty or anger.
Even better is Yosuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro, a profoundly flawed Everyman who saves his neck by repeatedly denouncing the faith yet tries to assuage his abraided conscience in the confessional.
But in the end, “Silence” offers scant comfort and little uplift. And did it really require 2 hours and 41 minutes to state its dour case?
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated R. Time: 2:41.