Silence (Paramount Pictures, R)

Silence is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen in recent years.

It’s 1636, and Japan is ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate, which has outlawed Christianity. Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a Jesuit missionary serving in Japan, is reported to have renounced his faith, but two of his former students, Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe this could be true. They receive permission, granted somewhat reluctantly by Father Alessandro Valignano (Ciaran Hinds), to travel to Japan to find out what happened to him.

Rodrigues and Garupe are driven both by their personal connection to Ferreira and by the certainty that they represent the one true faith. The thought that they might be acting in support of Western colonization or that the local Japanese population might be better left to worship in their own ways, does not occur to them. That those thoughts will undoubtedly occur to you, although they are never stated directly, is one of the strong points of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which raises a number of intriguing ethical questions while also delivering up a beautifully-shot and often gripping film based on Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name, which is in turn based on historical events.

Rodrigues and Garupe don’t face an easy task: The few remaining Japanese Christians must conceal their faith to avoid brutal torture, while the two Fathers haven’t a clue about either the country or its language. Fortunately, while in Macao, they acquire a native Japanese guide/translator, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), who is not entirely reliable but without whose services they would be almost entirely helpless. Still, they soon separate, and we follow mostly the story of Rodrigues, who is captured by the shogun’s agents.

The shogunate treats Japanese Christians brutally (there are graphic scenes of some particularly inventive types of torture), but also offers them an easy out—step on a religious image, spit on a cross, thus publicly renouncing the faith, and all is forgiven. Of course, getting a priest to renounce his faith would be an even bigger coup for the government, and they try a different technique on Rodrigues—not torturing him directly, but forcing him to witness other Christians being tortured on his behalf. This adds a new wrinkle to the ethical questions posed by this film, because it’s one thing to be willing to suffer for your faith, and another to make other people suffer for it. Rodrigues also begins to worry that he’s becoming overly proud, considering himself the equal of Jesus and the martyrs, rather than acting out of pure faith.

The shogunate’s attempts to eliminate Christianity are led by the perhaps ironically titled Inquisitor, Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), who proves to be a more than a match for Rodrigues in terms of clever argument and reasoning. (If you feel horrified by the methods used by the Shogunate against Christians in this film, just consider what the other Inquisition was doing in Europe at the time to people who were not Christian, or not the right kind of Christian.) Eventually Rodrigues is taken to meet Ferreira, where they have some intriguing discussions about faith, missionary work, and cultural specificity.

As is the case at many points in this film, Scorsese leaves you free to decide who in this conversation is making the most sense. Even the ending is open to multiple interpretations, making Silence the kind of film that is sure to spark lots of interesting discussions, even while it will frustrate the kind of viewer who prefers films that deliver clear and unambiguous answers to the questions it poses.

Philosophical interests aside, Silence is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen in recent years. It was shot in Taiwan, with absolutely stunning cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and was skillfully edited by longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. The soundtrack, by Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge, is also worthy of note: It blends natural sounds, wordless vocalizations, percussion, and electronic sounds into an unconventional soundscape that is never intrusive and always appropriate. | Sarah Boslaugh

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