Martin Scorsese opens his foreword to the latest edition of Shusaku Endo's Silence with a simple, impossible question: "How do you tell the story of Christian faith?" The director isn't presumptuous enough to present his adaptation of that beloved novel as a definitive answer, but his film does read as another step on the filmmaker's path toward making good on his aspiration, early in life, to become a priest.
Silence takes place in 17th-century Japan, when Christians were sailing from Europe to spread the good word -- not that their hosts wanted to hear it. It centers on two such priests, fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) of Portugal, who receive the demoralizing news that their mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has finally relented after years of violent persecution in the land of the rising sun and publicly renounced his faith. And so they set off, bringing with them only what they can carry on their back and in their hearts.
Not since The Tree of Life has Christianity been explored onscreen in such serious, conflicted terms. Silence is restrained, austere, even ascetic; you'll feel guilty eating popcorn as Rodrigues grows ever more gaunt and worn down after willingly subjecting himself to the same harsh treatment at the hands of a Japanese inquisitor (Issey Ogata) that his predecessor endured. "I pray, but I'm lost," he says to a God he hopes is listening. "Am I just praying to silence?" That's the eternal question, of course, and though Scorsese doesn't make it feel new he certainly underscores how real and urgent it is.