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Copyright Paramount 2016

Copyright Paramount 2016

Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam-era adaptation, Apocalypse Now, Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” is the story of men who take a journey to find a former leader who has disappeared into the untamed natural world. It is the mid-17th century. Two Portuguese priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) go to Japan in search of their teacher and mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). After receiving disturbing reports that he has publicly abandoned his faith, they say, “We have no choice but to save his soul.” They leave with “no luggage except our hearts.”

Ferreira had gone to Japan as a missionary and he and his colleagues had some success in converting Buddhist peasants. But Japan has now outlawed Christianity in any form, and as we see immediately, the officials have decided that the best way to eradicate it is to torture believers, forcing the priests to watch. Early efforts to fight Christianity failed because killing the priests made them martyrs, showing the strength and power of their faith when they refused to renounce it, even under torture. So the officials responsible for eradicating Christianity have had to develop a more subtle approach. Instead of torturing the priests, they torture and murder their followers, telling the priests that all they have to do to stop it is recant. It can be as simple as putting a foot on an icon of Jesus. “It’s a formality,” the Japanese official says in a soothing voice. “You don’t have to believe it.”

The priests have a choice: deny their faith in Jesus and Christianity or allow the suffering and death of innocent people. What should they do? Who has the answer?

For Martin Scorsese, who co-wrote and directed, this movie has been a passion project for three decades, since he read the award-winning novel by Shusaku Endo, inspired by the true stories of 17th century priests in Japan. Scorsese, who once thought of becoming a priest grapples here with the big questions about the letter and the spirit in the context of a time and a faith that traditionally has put a lot of emphasis on the letter as a frame and a discipline for the spirit. It is also a faith tradition that understands suffering as a part of faith practice, whether a way to appreciate the suffering of Jesus or to test one’s faith or to better understand others’ experiences, or to earn the rewards of heaven. The gorgeous visual scope and striking images are as powerful in telling the story of the clash of culture and religion as the narrative.

When it comes to performances, the film is off-balance, probably unintentionally, as the Japanese characters are more complex and completely realized than the one-dimensional priests. Garfield seems at sea as an actor, not just as a character, except in a few scenes where he has a chance to debate the “Inquisitor” (a wry, clever Issey Ogata). This movie about silence is at its best in the verbal jousting on faith, culture, truth, and power.

Translation: Extremely tense scenes of torture and brutality with some very disturbing graphic images, characters injured and killed

Recommendation: Mature teens-Adults

Family discussion: Were you surprised by the final shot? In the debate with the Inquisitor about culture and faith, who was right?

If you like this, try: “Unbroken” and “The Last Temptation of Christ”

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