As award season hits its stride, 12-time Oscar-nominee (and one-time winner) Martin Scorsese debuts his latest earnest hopeful, "Silence." While the film brandishes the kind of grim violence moviegoers might well expect from the helmer of "Goodfellas," "The Departed" and "Raging Bull," it's not the brand inflicted by mobsters or boxers. Deplorable tortures -- being crucified before an oncoming tide, hung upside down for hours on end, or scalded with hot spring water -- come at the hands of government officials, seeking to uproot Christianity and its missionaries from 17th-century Japan.
The story is based in part on true events. The persecution the Kakure Kirishitans (hidden Christians) faced was real, as was one of "Silence's" Portuguese priests, Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). But the heroes of the Shûsaku Endô's novel that serves as "Silence's" inspiration stretch into fiction. Andrew Garfield ("The Amazing Spider-Man") and Adam Driver ("Star Wars: The Force Awakens") star as Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe, Jesuit priests tasked with recovering Ferreira, their former mentor, from the grips of the intolerant Japanese Inquisitor. Rumors claim this missing missionary has apostatized, not only rejecting his Christian faith under duress, but also taking up with a Japanese wife. Rodrigues and Garrpe openly dismiss such slander, and strike out for Japan to uncover the truth. But their quest is soon derailed when they meet a community of Kakure Kirishitans hungry for the religious guidance they've been so long denied.
Rodrigues marvels at how these poverty-stricken villagers cling to God and their beliefs, even under threat of execution. He coos over how they clamor to claim a single rosary bead from his strand, and thrills that the faith that is his vocation is so alive in them. His vaguely condescending admiration becomes the focus of one sequence after another as Rodrigues watches the Kakure Kirishitans suffer and die in the name of the God he serves. Like the Stations of the Cross, each set piece in "Silence" is set up as a lesson about faith and devotion. But Scorsese's intention with each isn't a simple-to-discern sermon, but more a cacophony of conflicted thoughts.
Over the course of nearly three hours, Rodrigues -- through many pained expressions and plaintive prayers -- begs to understand what God wants from him, and suffers from God's silence. Under Inquisitor Inouye (a ghoulishly grinning Issei Ogata), the Kakure Kirishitans are repeatedly offered a choice between a brutal death or to publicly denounce their faith by stomping upon a Christian icon. Rodrigues and Garrpe battle over what God requires from them, to value the life he's gifted them beyond this sin? Or to keep true to the faith no matter what? Both will have the chance to take their own advice.
Rodrigues, whose greatest torture is witnessing the torment of others, wails and wonders. He's questioned by the Inquisitor, taunted by his jeering interpreter (a mesmerizing Tadanobu Asano), and plagued by a fainthearted convert (Yôsuke Kubozuka), who stalks the padre in eternal search for absolution. And through all this, Rodrigues -- and Scorsese -- parallel his journey to that of Jesus: His quest, his torments, his moment of doubt in Gethsemane. It's far from subtle. But what bothered me more than Rodrigues' arrogance was how oddly unmoving his journey is.
I spent 12 years in Catholic school, and so I'm well-versed in stories of martyrdom. I grew up pondering Jesus' motivations and feelings as he marched knowingly and painfully to his death. It wasn't just part of the curriculum; it was my faith. In college, I watched Scorsese's daring "The Last Temptation of Christ" in drop-jawed awe. And yet here, I felt nothing for his latest religious hero, despite having asked the same questions in my own journey of faith, though admittedly not under remotely similar circumstances.
My indifference is not a matter of performance. Garfield, surrounded by a halo of unruly curls and scruffed up with a sickly beard, solemnly and adequately expresses Rodrigues' thirst for answers and his guilt over the suffering of others. And Driver -- playing the more fiery of the pair -- roars with intensity that plays well off Rodrigues's feigned meekness. Yet I empathized with the Kakure Kirishitans, who sought no glory, just peace. Shin'ya Tsukamoto is heart-wrenching as the pious and brave Mokichi, who's forced to pay a terrible price while the priests look on helpless. Kubozuka is unnerving as the mercurial and fearful Kichijiro. Others, whose names are lost in the story, look to Rodrigues for hope, and I looked back wondering what their stories were before they became guilt props for a vain priest.
As "Silence" lumbers toward a muddying and indulgent epilogue, Rodrigues debates the finer points of faith and ministering in Japan with the finally found Ferreira. And while this scene is fascinating for its philosophical verve and none-too-subtle Western culture bias, I walked away unclear on what Scorsese wanted us to take from it. Perhaps he intended to create a visual striking but thematically confusing religious epic, hoping to spur discussion. If so, he's done that. I've spent days talking about this movie with other critics, and seen few settle on the same message from its tale. But it's vexing to spend so much time with a movie and be left mystified by what it's even trying to say.
"Silence" is a long film. It is a slow film, marinating in the silence for which it's named, wallowing in the longing and pain of its Christians. Scorsese takes a big gamble with the patience and faith of his audience. For some it will surely be a riveting exploration of the faith. For me, it was a ponderous journey with an underwhelming destination.
"Silence" is playing in limited release. It expands Jan. 6 nationwide.