There’s a baptism scene in “Silence” that speaks volumes. Set in 17th-century Japan, during a period of persecution of Christians by the ruling shogunate, the film centers on a Catholic Portuguese missionary (Andrew Garfield) who has been smuggled into the country, where he has been taken in by peasant converts. As the Jesuit priest Rodrigues christens an impoverished Christian couple’s baby, the mother turns to the padre, as they call him, inquiring whether her baby is now in “paradise.”
No, no, he corrects her, with a smile less patronizing than patiently tolerant of her theological naivete (evidence of the cultural divide that runs, like a deep chasm, throughout this long, philosophically thorny and sometimes brutally violent film). Paradise is the reward that God is preparing for the faithful in the afterlife.
For many of that young mother’s fellow underground Christians - forced to practice their version of an imported religion in secret - that afterlife will come sooner than expected. As Martin Scorsese’s ambitious yet frustrating adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 book makes clear, potential torture and death await those Christians who refuse to publicly renounce their faith by stepping on an image of Jesus.
Slow drowning on a crucifix planted in a rising tide, being burned alive on a pyre, summary decapitation, and bleeding to death while hanging, upside down, over a pit - these are among the fates imposed on Christians by Inoue, the samurai-turned-inquisitor who runs the ruthless, often gruesome campaign of religious oppression.
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“Silence,” to its credit, does not show us this savagery gratuitously, using it rather to further the argument that is the film’s true subject. The struggle between apostasy and martyrdom - not when one’s own death is at stake, but when one’s actions determine the fates of other - is the sharp spearhead of “Silence,” whose title refers to the uncommunicativeness of God in the face of prayer and human suffering. Oddly, God eventually speaks to Rodrigues, quite literally, although it’s open to speculation whether that voice is coming from the deity or from inside Rodrigues’ own head.
That moment comes late in the film, after the padre and several of his flock have been taken prisoner by Inoue, whose cartoonish portrayal of coldbloodedness, by Issei Ogata, borders on caricature. (A second missionary, played by Adam Driver, has already been violently dispatched. That’s a shame. Driver’s performance is richer and deeper than that of Garfield, whose boyish good looks and impossibly lush coiffure undercut his efforts, even under a scraggly beard and mud-caked skin, to convincingly render spiritual agony.)
At the point that God speaks to Rodrigues, the Jesuit is being confronted with a conundrum, one that lends the film an urgency that it previously struggled to maintain. (Scorsese wouldn’t have weakened his film one bit by trimming a half-hour or more of sluggishly redundant footage.)
The conundrum is one that has nothing to do with Rodrigues’ decision whether to lay down his life, but with his reluctance to apostatize, even in the face of others’ deaths. In an effort to force the priest to renounce his faith, Inoue and his interpreter (the excellent Tadanobu Asano) line several Japanese Christians over the pit - ones who have already apostatized, it should be noted - merely to put pressure on Rodrigues. If the priest recants, the peasants live; if he doesn’t, they die.
Rodrigues’ former Jesuit mentor Father Ferreira, a missionary who had apostatized years earlier and now lives as a secular Japanese scholar, makes an 11th-hour appearance (in the Qui-Gon Jinn-esque form of Liam Neeson) to talk his young protege into recanting. But it’s the lives that hang in the balance, and not Ferreira’s words, that lend the talky film drama.
Which of these things, the film asks - in a screenplay co-written by Scorsese and Jay Cocks - is more Christian, in the original sense of “Christ-like”: To steadfastly maintain one’s faith, even if it means that others will die because of your actions? Or to renounce Jesus publicly, while holding true to him in your heart? As Ferreira says, “There are some things more important than the judgment of the Church.”
That’s an argument with which Scorsese seems to agree. It sure takes him long enough to drive that point home - putting the film’s audience through its own kind of torture - but the morale of his story is ultimately both tough and nuanced.
Rated: R for violence and torture. Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson. Director: Martin Scorsese. Running time: 161 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.