Clash of the spirit

An impressive yet understuffed epic from Scorsese

Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson.
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cinemark 14. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

Silence, Martin Scorsese’s film version of the novel by Shûsaku Endô, is an impressive accomplishment, but—quite necessarily, perhaps—not a particularly entertaining one. It’s artful and admirable, but also rather laborious.

Novel and film alike tell the story of Catholic priests encountering persecution in 17th century Japan. Two young Portuguese priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver in the film) get themselves smuggled into Japan in a time (circa 1635) when European priests and their Japanese converts are suffering violent repressions at the hands of the shogunate. Rodrigues (Garfield) and Garupe (Driver) are on a mission to find their one-time mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has disappeared amid rumors that he has publicly renounced his faith.

The on-screen Silence is partly a low-key adventure tale, a dark and dangerous journey, and partly an austere drama of character and faith, a spiritual journey with a harsh, near-mystical twist. The two kinds of journey begin to merge well before they reach more conclusive form by way of Rodrigues’ unexpected discoveries concerning Father Ferreira.

In the meantime, both of the young priests have increasingly stark interactions with a smiling samurai/inquisitor (Issei Ogata), who is both nemesis and guide to Rodrigues in particular. There are also encounters with the groups of beleaguered peasants, themselves Christians in hiding, who protect the two priests but also need protecting. The roguishly fallible Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) and a lordly interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) are special standouts among the Japanese characters.

The film is probably at its best when its priestly characters, especially Rodrigues, are wrestling with questions of faith and moral action. And that includes the final sections of the film where the multiple meanings of “silence” get their ultimate workout in the choices for action that Rodrigues and others embrace. But the meandering narrative path of this longish film (161 minutes) seems to diminish the impact of its most resounding themes.

Ultimately, the film takes its soul-searching to a rewarding finish, but much of its bulky midsection seems to wander in terms of drama and thematic focus. The odd mixture of morality play, parable and epic adventure seems almost pointless here, and plainly topical issues—torture, intolerance, nationalist tyranny—come into view but only in passing, only for show.

The spiritual journey part of the story has great interest, but I found myself somewhat distracted by questions about those peasant converts who lead a clandestine existence rather than renounce their newfound faith. They’re key players at every level in the priests’ story, but the nature of their spiritual lives goes unexamined.