(director/writer: Martin Scorsese; screenwriters: based on the novel by Shusaku Endo/Jay Cocks; cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto; editor: Thelma Schoonmaker; music: Kim Allen Kluge, Kathryn Kluge; cast: Andrew Garfield (Rodrigues), Adam Driver (Garupe), Liam Neeson (Ferreira), Tadanobu Asano (Interpreter), Ciaran Hinds (Father Valignano), Issey Ogata (Old Samarai, The Inquisitor), Shinya Tsukamoto (Mokici), Yoshi Oida, Yosuke Kubozuka (Kichijiro); Runtime: 161; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Randall Emmett, Barbara De Fina, Gaston Pavlovich, Irwin Winkler, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, David Lee; Paramount; 2016)

A slow-moving but an arresting religious film that questions God’s silence in the wake of so much suffering.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Martin Scorsese (“Kundun”/”The Last Temptation of Christ”) presents a slow-moving but an arresting religious film that questions God’s silence in the wake of so much suffering, and asks the right questions without necessarily revealing the right answers. It tells the story of two arrogant Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), who face the deadly test of faith when they travel to 17th century Japan, during the isolationist Edo period, when Japan bans other religions but the country’s Buddhism.

The Jesuits are in search of their missing mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) and to heroically bring the Truth (Christianity) to Japan. It’s based on Shûsaku Endô’s acclaimed 1966 novel, set in 17th-century Japan (with the Taiwanese landscapes used to re-create the period), and is brilliantly co-written by Scorsese and Jay Cooks. The Edo period on display was a time when only a few foolhardy European Christians were attempting to proselytize the Buddhist faith of Japan despite facing a death sentence if caught. The two inexperienced Jesuits on the perilous hopeless mission are accompanied from the Portuguese island of Macao by boat to a secret Japanese Christian community by the unreliable, skittish and confused Christian Japanese guide Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), who soon will become another Judas. At the remote and hidden village, the Christian cult lives in constant fear of being discovered by the law. When they are caught, the Inquisitor, Inoue (Issei Ogata), threatens death by torture or freedom by apostasy as he acts to purge Japan of Christianity. If the priest refuses apostasy, all his cult members promised paradise by his religion, will violently die by various forms of crucifixion. Using the biblical examples of the crucifixion, the cult and the priests are asked in a ritual ordered by the Inquisitor to no longer be Christians. All the villagers refuse apostasy and are tortured to death. The imprisoned priest is given time to mull over his decision, as the priest and the Inquisitor debate the matter. The focus of the film becomes on the dilatory Garupe, who is prepared for the glory of martyrdom until in the third act he meets Ferreira, who eventually renounced Christianity to live the quiet life of a Japanese Buddhist, with a wife and a ready-made family. The apostate, now a defeated man, lives a comfortable life writing on astronomy while trying to justify his renunciation of his faith. We only wait to see how Garupe resolves the jam he’s in, as we are left hearing arguments by the wily Inquisitor why Christianity “is of no use in Japan,” as the country is compared to a swampland where nothing new can take root. The adversaries are playing a wicked philosophical chess game, as the older man is trying out of vanity to convince the adamant prideful young priest to commit apostasy despite his seemingly unwavering belief in Christian dogma. We are lulled into a rather ponderous but heartfelt provocative arthouse film that is gorgeously photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, well-acted (especially by Ogata and Kubozuka) and well-crafted by the director, as it takes us boldly on a long intricate ride to finally confront personal examples of religious fervor revealing how much soul-searching, conflict, questioning and commitment go into holding devout religious beliefs in the face of rational and irrational challenges. The enigmatic adaptation also shows how difficult a task it is to make such a film on religious fervor feel vital and timely in today’s world facing the usual problems of poverty, sickness and war. To capture even more the moving religious experience observed on film, perhaps, more stylized shock and awe moments were needed to surface rather than to rely solely on so many repetitive dramatic moments in the form of torture and witty arguments (as pleasing as the debates may be).

Nevertheless this is a challenging and unique visionary film, with a few lapses, by a great filmmaker, who is willing to take risks to say something meaningful about a subject where silence means there’s room for endless explorations by a filmmaker who is willing to defy his faith to get things off his chest he has held for a long time that may have been limiting, confusing and bewildering.