The Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo once said he considered his Catholic baptism the equivalent of receiving a “ready-made suit,” infant size. Only in adulthood did he realize “it had become a part of me after all.”
Endo’s 1966 novel “Silence,” a stern, exquisite piece of historical fiction about Portuguese Jesuit priests persecuted for their beliefs in 17th century Japan, walks a thin line separating West from East, religious fervor from spiritual skepticism. It could only have come from a conflicted Christian, asking monumental questions about God’s existence and humankind’s suffering.
This brings us to the American director Martin Scorsese. Every single one of his movies, even the least overtly religious of them, returns to the iconography and biblical longing of his ingrained, unsettled, fervent Catholicism, his attraction to the meaning and power of martyrdom.
Now we have Scorsese’s long-gestating screen adaptation of “Silence,” and it’s a frustrating paradox: a carefully considered, dramatically blinkered chamber epic, written by Scorsese and his occasional collaborator, former film critic Jay Cocks. It has some remarkable images and shot sequences, and two very crafty supporting performances. The easiest thing you can say about “Silence” is that it’s a labor of love, made by a valiant soldier for his chosen storytelling medium.
I gave it two viewings to figure out why I don’t respond more strongly to it. Is it my agnosticism? My problems with Andrew Garfield, a talented and affecting actor but also a very needy one? Maybe, and yes. And maybe it’s also simply methodical and stately to a fault.
“Silence” can’t have been easy to adapt. On the page it’s told largely by way of letters written by Father Rodrigues (Garfield in the movie), one of two Jesuit priests — Adam Driver, eerily gaunt, plays the secondary character, Father Garupe. They convince their superior (Ciaran Hinds) to let them travel to let them Japan on a final mission.
The whereabouts of their colleague, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson, invaluable), are unknown; his last letter, smuggled out of Japan, tells of priests and believers dying in horrifying ways at the hands of the Japanese authorities, formerly tolerant of Christianity, now determined to drum it out entirely. Is Ferreira alive? In Macao, Rodrigues and Garupe meet their broken-down guide, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), and from there “Silence” brings the priests to Japan. They encounter a village of secretive converts, desperate to connect with the fathers, justly fearful they’ll be murdered for their beliefs.
The region is controlled by the Inquisitor, a smiling devil played by the splendid Issey Ogata. At one point, sitting in his chair, he hears news that displeases him, causing him to slump and then visibly (and comically) deflate before our eyes. If he weren’t in “Silence,” well, “Silence” would be even more daunting and difficult than it is.
In close-up, Neeson’s anguish holds the screen like few other sights in modern cinema, and a comparatively late scene in “Silence” pits Neeson against Garfield in a stimulating, discreetly combative war of words, and beliefs. Too much of the film surrounding that scene struggles to find a motor. Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, working with editor Thelma Schoonmaker, try a little of everything visually, and individual shots are stunning. The editing in the expository passage featuring Garfield, Driver and Hinds keeps us off-balance and listening, and when the violence comes later, Scorsese handles it like a grown-up who does not blink yet who treats suffering and pain seriously.
Garfield’s role involves a difficult amount of murmuring prayer in voice-over. In popcorn movies (the “Spider-Man” reboot) and high-type efforts like this one, the actor is often on the verge of tears, sometimes movingly, other times in ways that seem like bids for audience sympathy. A little more less would’ve been wise here. The film proceeds dutifully, and I don’t think Endo’s novel, filmed twice before and barely 200 pages in its original form, responds well to Scorsese’s more expansive tack. Endo’s perspective in the novel, at once questioning and urgent, has been replaced by what I read as a less complicated martyr’s travail in Scorsese’s hands. Rodrigues sees himself, at weak moments, as both Jesus and Judas, enacting his own Passion Play, but by that point in “Silence” I found myself thinking back to Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ,” a far more complex and dynamic spiritual inquiry.
Abiding faith is no easy subject for the movies; too often it comes out pious and insufferable. Scorsese has lived with his love of this material for a long time. Maybe too long.