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Review: 'Silence' is a masterful theological mystery from Martin Scorsese

In Silence, Andrew Garfield, center, plays Father Rodrigues, a priest searching for another priest in 17th century Japan. [Paramount Pictures]
Published Jan. 12, 2017

Only Martin Scorsese could shepherd a theological mystery like Silence to life. Only a devoted yet questioning Christian would try.

Silence is a provocative measure of the quality of faith, as relevant now as its setting four centuries ago. Scorsese pinpoints a timeless cultural chasm between religions that can be brutal. Whose deity is bigger? Whose faith is stronger while sacrificial lambs are slaughtered? Who blinks, and how tightly?

Based on Shusaku Endo's novel, Silence is about Catholicism morally colonizing 17th century Japan, welcomed by many and persecuted by a powerful few. The extent of that persecution is displayed in Scorsese's opening scene, in which Portuguese priest Ferreira (Liam Neeson) witnesses the crucifixion of his fellow priests.

Ferreira may have been next or may have renounced his faith, converted to Buddhism and married. Learning the truth becomes the task of Ferreira's students Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), who convince the monsignor (Ciaran Hinds) to send them to Japan.

Smuggled onto the island, the priests are paired with Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a stumbling Catholic convert who'll manifest one of Scorsese's several moral queries: How much does confession matter when a sinner is bound to sin again? Kichijiro's betrayals are as dependable as sunrise, as pathetic as survival. Rodrigues knows this but faith compels forgiveness, to an anguished degree as Silence proceeds.

Doubt is accumulated as the priests burrow into what they've been taught is primitive culture. Crucifixes are forbidden; genuflection is a safe signal. Hidden in a deep forest hut crawlspace, they minister at night to natives shaming them with devotion: starving but praying before meals, offering their lives to gruesome ends in exchange for the priests'. How can allowing such horror further the word of God? Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks present such questions, contemplating them clearly with believers' curiosity.

"Why do the answers I give them seem so weak?" Rodrigues' inner voice asks, perhaps the central question Scorsese wants to but can't answer.

At stake is a simple yet profound act repeated often in Silence: stepping on a tile portrait of Jesus, renouncing faith. Whether Ferriera did or the young priests will is blasphemy Scorsese holds in quiet suspense. We see enough natives "trample" as it's known and not survive.

Every spiritual tale requires a serpent, an agent of temptation. Silence offers an eerie, alluring example in Inoue (Issey Ogata), an inquisitor realizing more benefit in Rodrigues renouncing his faith than making him another martyr. Inoue's high-pitched purr and wheedling manner masks a cruel despot, a surprising source of wit and an amazing moment when he seems to shrink like a wicked witch melting.

All paths lead to Ferriera, as Silence veers into what can be described as Apostatize Now, a descent into madness that only faith rationalizes. Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto create disturbing images to ponder as fine art: closeups of hands clasped in forbidden devotion, high tide torture, fog seeping through executions, corpses peacefully floating. All in the name of one god or another.

Silence is a monumental achievement in Scorsese's career, a project three decades in development, and his passion shows. It's the unofficial conclusion of Scorsese's theological trilogy, although disconnected in theme and form from The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun and superior to both.

What the films have in common is an artist guided by spiritual curiosity and practically exclusive means of making art happen. Only Scorsese could craft a film of such moral gravity for multiplexes and fascinate for nearly three hours. That's what Hollywood calls a miracle.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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