Paramount Pictures          2 hours and 41 minutes     R

This film has been called Director Martin Scorsese’s “passion project.” It’s a film he’s been trying to make for nearly 30 years. There were many reasons he couldn’t get it together, but finally, with the success of The Wolf of Wall Street, he was able to get the go ahead spiritually, fiscally and in reality.

This is one painful movie that the audience must endure along with the characters. Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks have scripted a passion play that calls out to spirituality while not neglecting the human side of the equation. The Japanese landscape is filled with fire, boiling water, mud and rain, yet it is also beautiful and lush. The duality of life is always lurking behind the next turn in the trail.

This is the iconic director’s  tribute to Christianity as adapted from Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s 1966 book Silence, about Portuguese missionaries who were trying to  spread The Gospel in Japan in the 1630’s. Scorsese was given the book by Protestant Episcopal priest Rev. Moore in 1988. Scorsese, himself, once considered the priesthood as his calling. His passion, devotion and reverence for the source material and what it represents are clearly on display. The opening scenes start with Christians being boiled alive at a volcanic spring. Be warned; these snapshots of Hell are played out many times in many different ways during this film.

Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play determined, devout Portuguese Jesuit priests Rodrigues and Garupe . They plead with their superior (Ciarán Hinds) to sneak into Japan to find out what happened to their mentor. Liam Neeson is Father Ferreira. He has been missing for 7 years and is rumored to have renounced his faith. Rodrigues and Garupe endure 2 years of deprivation just to reach Japan. Garfield and Driver lost a combined 110 pounds during the filming! They both lost more than 30 pounds before and another 20 during the 73 day shoot. Garfield went through extensive preparation for his role, culminating in a 7 day retreat of silence at St. Bueno’s Jesuit House in Wales. He still says nothing could fully prepare him for the role.

Rodrigues and Grape enlist the help of Kichijiro, played by Yôsuke Kubozuka, to smuggle them into Japan. Kichijiro comes to represent mankind, meaning he wants to do the right thing, but is weak of heart and spirit. He connects the priests to an underground Christian village and turns up in their lives as both hero and villain many times again.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto shot the film in 35mm so the texture and “feel” of the movie is intimate. In scene after scene there are methods of torture so horrifying it will make you squirm in your seat. The people of Japanese villages, small as they were, were punished horrifically, in too many creative ways. One scene has three men tied to crosses at the sea as high tide is coming in. It is very hard to watch them slowly drown.

All the Christians have to do to save themselves is renounce Jesus by placing their foot on a plaque bearing the Savior’s or The Virgin’s likeness.These scenes are repeated over and over again. Just step on the plaque and save your life. Not everyone had the courage to resist.  

This was all orchestrated by The Inquisitor, Inoue, played frighteningly low-key by Japanese actor Issei Ogata. He delivers a magnificent, multi-faceted character. It’s easy to write him off as a cartoonish villain with his buck teeth, sneering grin and guttural voice. But we also see political savvy, quick wit, sharp intelligence, and even human understanding under that demonic outer shell. Look for one scene when he’s talking to Rodrigues and actually deflates in front of our eyes. It was a little moment turned extraordinarily memorable.

To avoid capture Rodrigues and Garupe split up. The focus turns entirely to Rodrigues. Andrew Garfield is stoic and mostly heroic when he is eventually captured and endures the psychological torture of seeing others suffer for his faith and for his not giving in. As Inoue tells him, “We learned from our mistakes. Killing priests only makes them stronger.”  

Andrew Garfield certainly puts in the effort and the physical labor to play this part, but he never becomes a commanding presence in the story or on-screen. He may be a bit over-matched at this stage of his career for a role like this. In Hacksaw Ridge, though, his stoic Christian character was on the mark.

The progression of this story really ends about a half hour before the end- credits roll. Of course, we can’t tell you what happens, but the denouement  feels way too long and drawn out.

This is a movie that has been created from deep feelings and belief. Scorsese also asks the audience to take this journey into pain and suffering with no guarantee that prayers will be answered. When the lights came up at the end of our screening there was not a sound in the house. This long, painful testimony of faith is Scorsese doing his great filmmaking. But his hope for it delivering a great religious experience is hard to watch, so his prayer for it’s impact may not have been answered.