Silence (2016)

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, Issei Ogata, Tadanobu Asano, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Ciarán Hinds

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

The Last Temptation of Christ is one of my least favourite Scorsese films. Despite its stellar cast and committed performances, somehow I just didn't find it convincing – after all, when it comes to depictions of what Jesus was really up against, nothing beats The Life of Brian (seriously!). So it was with some trepidation that I approached a 160 minute epic about faith under fire – without even the presence of Leonardo DiCaprio to sweeten the deal.

To be fair, I had reason, because Silence is a bit of a gruelling ordeal. Long, intense and deeply, deeply serious, yet punctuated by painful violence, it's not an easy watch. Nor, in these heathen times of throwaway beliefs and 140 character opinions, is it easy to comprehend the fervour of the characters and the dilemma they face.

Andrew Garfield as Rodrigues in Martin Scorsese's Silence

The year is mid-1630s. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) are two young, eager, idealistic Portuguese Jesuit priests who volunteer to travel to Japan in search of a fellow brother, Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who's rumoured to have renounced Christianity in the face of persecution, and assumed the Japanese way of life. Bright yet naive, the pair plunge into a hostile, alien country with woefully little understanding of what they're up against, and their faith that their way is the only true way is soon sorely tested by a harsh regime determined to stay strong and stable by quashing foreign influences. Can they resist the temptation to betray their faith? Should they, if it saves lives? Which matters more, outward show or inner conviction? And, at the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker, what would Jesus do? (Which, after all, was the question Scorsese posed in The Last Temptation, bringing down the opprobrium of the Church for his answer.)

Liam Neeson as Ferreira in Silence

Performance-wise, Silence is quite a tour de force: Andrew Garfield is really rather marvellous, out acted only by Issey Ogata's pragmatic, steely and utterly compelling Inquisitor Inoue. Liam Neeson also exudes quiet dignity: if he is the Kurz at the Heart of Darkness he is no conquering warlord, more defeated victim.

Committed, complex, yes, at times, a bit too slow, yet beautifully crafted, ripe with Christian symbolism, and utterly convincing, Silence is a challenging, thought-provoking film that tackles centuries-old issues of faith and intolerance that are still grimly relevant (and often just as difficult to understand) today. An ambitious historical epic that's well worth seeing – if you have the stamina.

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