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Scorsese's longform saga of faith, 'Silence,' aims to endure 

It's a nearly three-hour epic set in 17th century Japan.

click to enlarge SUFFERING IN 'SILENCE': Adam Driver portrays one of two Portugese Jesuit priests on a dangerous journey to find their mentor in this three-hour movie.
  • SUFFERING IN 'SILENCE': Adam Driver portrays one of two Portugese Jesuit priests on a dangerous journey to find their mentor in this three-hour movie.

Martin Scorsese's latest, "Silence," is a nearly three-hour epic set in 17th century Japan — perhaps an unlikely but long-awaited directorial follow-up to "The Wolf of Wall Street." And it's a slog. Two Portuguese Jesuit priests travel in search of their mentor, who rumor holds has forsaken Christianity to live among the Japanese. The stakes could scarcely be higher; at a time when Christians were being tortured and murdered for their beliefs by the Shogunate, the punishment for being discovered — or for being caught harboring Christians — will be brutal and final. The two priests implore their superior to be allowed to make the journey on only a thin basis of missionary work. More insistently, they hope to rescue their former mentor (Liam Neeson) from the ranks of the damned. With theirs among untold numbers of lives on the line, they take the grave risk hoping to rescue one friend's soul.

That calculus — the weight of a soul against that of a life — drives the tension of "Silence" in what is, essentially, an adventure travelogue with two priests: Andrew Garfield as Rodrigues and Adam Driver as Garrpe. They're relentlessly serious, alas; the screenplay by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, adapting Shusaku Endo's novel, has them ducking and hiding on their way into and around Japan. There's no room for any but the most gentle of respites — a drink of water, a moment spent out of a spider hole and lolling in the sunshine.

Suffering and martyrdom run as twin threads throughout. They bear hardships as they struggle to understand and minister to the few Japanese who, under pain of torture and death, hold to Christianity. Those who are caught who do not renounce Christ — symbolized by their stepping on an icon — are killed in ways that recall the torments of European inquisitions. One standout among several: the men strapped to crosses and planted chest-deep in the ocean, such that the waveline breaks over their heads, left for days till they slump off and die.

Scorsese, a Catholic himself, does not gild the religion. He offers a version of Catholicism that veers between a fairy tale salve for uneducated peasants who welcome death as their ticket to paradise, and a gateway to madness. Garfield's Rodrigues, held in capture and urged toward apostasy by Japanese officials, turns repeatedly to God to guide him through the crisis and hears, as the film's title would imply, nothing in reply. He is left with only his love and his teachings to guide him, and pays for his faith with misery heaped upon misery, not the least of which is a sense of abandonment.

Yet a startling enough transformation takes place in the final chapters of the epic, and as it pulls its protagonist out of his depths, a fuller vision of faith emerges. The temptation would be to call this passion project overindulgent by half, too long and too cruel for the good of itself or for what will largely be secular audiences. But one would do well to remember the power that Christianity has always found in stories of pain and isolation and, indeed, torture. (What other major religion takes as its very symbol an implement of barbaric execution?)

"Silence" must be considered a fine story, powerfully and disturbingly told, that seeks to enter a more enduring pantheon of art than whatever else may be coming through the cineplex this weekend. Versions of this story have been told on tapestries and in oil paintings and in stained glass since at least the Middle Ages, and now we have Scorsese telling it from 1640 Japan in 2017 America. This style of Christian story endures because it works. And it works because its characters endure.

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