“Am I Just Praying to Silence?”

I couldn’t stop noticing the hands. Clasped in prayer, crossing the body, reaching out, grasping and grabbing. The hands of priests, the hands of villagers, the hands of power. There’s so much powerful imagery in Silence, but that keeps sticking in the brain.

It’s that reaching out, everything there about reaching out to try and answer the central question of Martin Scorsese’s Silence.

“Am I just praying to silence?”

And I mark specifically that this is Scorsese’s Silence. It’s based on Shusaku Endo’s masterwork novel of the same name, and it’s certainly as faithful as any piece of cinema could be to that novel (though I will admit I haven’t seen Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 adaptation). But a filmmaker raised as an auteur isn’t going to do anything but bring his own perspective to the adaptation, and Scorsese alters Silence to his own perceptions.

I mean, not too far, both keep the same premise. Two Portugese priests, Rodrigo (Andrew Garfield) and Garrupe (Adam Driver) take the mission to spread Catholicism in Japan as they seek to find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who has seemingly apostatized. They step into high danger, as the Christian faith is banned and persecuted, under the fearsome reign of the Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata). The resistance is more fierce than they could have known, coming from not only the Japanese seeking to keep the religion out of the country, but from the priest’s’ own doubts in the presence of God in the face of immense suffering.

Endo, a lifelong outsider as a Japanese Catholic, was intensely interested in the former difficult, the “swamp of Japan.” Why could the Christian faith never take root there, was Christ and Yahweh a universal truth?

Scorsese finds much more to chew on in the latter. His Silence certainly does ask those questions, challenging the “White Savior” narrative that this film certainly invites getting saddled with. What salvation, after all, does this white man bring to a group of people who suffer so much, who find strength in a religion they never fully grasp? Does Rodrigues, pressing on by refusing to take the formality of stepping on the fumie (a brass plate bearing the image of Christ, which the Japanese took as a formal renunciation of faith if those arrested would simply take a step on it), bring salvation out of his own arrogance and desire for glory?

“Your glory is their suffering.”

But all of that is secondary to the question that Scorsese can’t stop ruminating on: Where is God in the silence? What is the meaning when God isn’t speaking back to me, when I suffer to no answer. This shouldn’t surprise for a man who spends so much time in the heads of evil men, to wonder what it’s like to simply not hear back from God.

I can’t help but think of the last great work of Christian cinema from Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ. In its most powerful moment, Willem Dafoe’s Christ gets off the cross and chooses not to die for our sins. We see the life he could have lived, the love he could have had. But he sees the destruction that he would have wrought, and chooses to die. We see it was a fantasy, a last moment of temptation when God seemingly was not there.

Scorsese brings that back here, the question of how God can be silent when we suffer, how he can not seem to answer our pain. It’s finding meaning in that, how that can be an expression of faith and mercy, and how to navigate belief in doubt. Scorsese here argues that the greatest operation of faith is in suffering and in asking God if he’s really there, to be able to find him.

In other words, no Pure Flix/Alex Kendrick film is this that turns American Christianity into a tribe, desperate to destroy doubt and keep out the outsiders. That turns belief in a specific Evangelical Christianity into a totem and reinforce the evil of those not Christian. This is not so shallow, it expresses God’s presence as powerful and difficult in equal measures, something to reckon with and not just accept (and of course, buy workbooks and group tickets to). Which is why I suspect the Christian Film community keep its distance, despite this film reckoning with Christianity in a more beautiful way than any God’s Not Dead or Fireproof could dream of. I understand the divide between Catholicism and Protestantism in these cases, but it’s unfortunate that we can’t look at the merit and the power of using art to ask the tough questions.

I get it though. This is a difficult film, shades of Bergman and Bresson and desperate ambiguity that often seems like more questions that even our author can’t begin to answer. It’s a film of physical and psychological torture, I earnestly felt spent leaving it. Hell, it’s a 3-hour picture with almost no music, that alone is a challenge to the audience.

One worth undertaking though. Forget every challenge and reckoning this has with faith and the faith film. It’s a reminder alone that Scorsese still makes more vital film art than many contemporaries half his age. A man in his 70s can still produce moments that make me gasp (I think specifically of when Rodrigues sees the face of Christ overtaking his own in the water) and can still bring a theater to a pin-drop silence.

He can still wring performances out of actors that you wouldn’t expect and performances that are well-worth making actors worth reconsideration. Liam Neeson and Adam Driver are both predictably excellent here, though Andrew Garfield perhaps suffers as the lead.

Garfield has never been properly cast, he’s always either too young to be old, too old to be young, or too innocent to be rough.  Here he is stuck looking too beatific and innocent to pull off the possibility of corruption. He plays well in some scenes and seems out of place in others. It’s a remarkably talented performance, but he never visually all gets all there. It doesn’t wreck the film, but one imagines the perfect version would have a different look in the role.

It’s his Japanese cast that likely holds the most surprises for Western audiences. Tadanobu Asano plays an interpreter between Rodrigues and the Japanese officials, and he gives that role a beautifully knowing vibe, with more sympathy and astonishment at the plight Rodrigues puts himself through. Yosuke Kubozuka plays their guide Kichijiro and does an incredible job conveying the complexity of Kichijiro’s faith, a man who “would be a perfect Christian if he was born in a different time.”

But the true titan here is Issey Ogata, a Japanese comedian, as the inquisitor Inoue. It’s a marvelously arch performance, wearing this character in every motion, making clear the line between what he’s doing and the good he believes it does. There’s a moment where he seems to actually deflate from Rodrigues’ stubbornness that’s simply masterful. In a just world, Ogata would be alongside Mahershala Ali in the conversation for Best Supporting Actor this year.

Silence is a film that’s had a hard time finding a footing this year, and I understand why. But I urge the faithful and the non-faithful to give this a shot. A powerful meditation on doubt and a reminder of why Scorsese is still one of our most important filmmakers.

Grade: A