This is a tale of anti-Christian persecution that speaks loudly and dreadfully to modern times

Martin Scorsese has always had an enigmatic relationship with the Catholic Church. In the past, the rightly revered director has described himself as a “lapsed Catholic”, but during the rounds of publicity for this latest film, he admitted that his “way” has always been Catholic. He could hardly deny it: the evidence has stared back at us from the big screen for decades. Scorsese’s films are clearly the work of a man both at odds with and in awe of the Church. Grand Catholic themes of grace and sin, guilt and confession, underpin many of his masterworks, including Raging Bull, Mean Streets and Goodfellas. He has tackled Christianity overtly too, with his deliberately provocative The Last Temptation of Christ. Now, in Silence (Cert 15, 159 mins), he’s dealing with Catholicism head on once more.

Based on the novel by Shusaku Endo, it’s a fictionalised story set against the historical backdrop of the persecution of Christians in 17th-century Japan. Two Jesuit priests, Fr Rodrigues and Fr Garrpe, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver respectively, are sent to Japan to find Liam Neeson’s Fr Ferreira, who has apparently apostatised and become a Buddhist. With this Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now scenario quickly established, the two young priests travel across a hostile land in search of their former mentor, discovering hidden Catholics and terrible persecution as they go.

Scorsese has wanted to make this film since he first read Endo’s novel in the late 1980s, and the fact that this is a deeply personal project certainly shows.

Rather than serving up a grandiose historical epic, Scorsese brings his camera right up close to his actors, creating an atmosphere of intimacy and claustrophobia as the two priests and the Christians they meet struggle for survival. Garfield and Driver are both fine actors and play their parts here with total conviction and unshowy clarity, and the support they receive from the Japanese actors is uniformly excellent.

The script, written by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, asks a range of questions about Christianity and religion at large, concerning the enduring power of faith and the limits of suffering. This is not, though, a pious, preachy film. Rather, it’s a thoughtful and challenging one. Scorsese eschews the shock tactics of The Last Temptation for something far more considered, and the title is a heavy hint as to the root of his provocation.

We see Japan’s beleaguered Christians forced into silence in the most brutal ways imaginable (in one scene, three men are attached to crosses on a beach and left to drown as the tide washes over them). Rodrigues’s desperate prayers in response to this violence initially go unanswered and what he perceives to be the silence of God leaves him increasingly desperate. When that silence is finally broken, it is done in ambiguous fashion, with Scorsese leaving space for audience members to draw their own conclusions about the nature of God and the resolution of Rodrigues’s story.

This might be a historical drama, but the depiction of the persecution of Japan’s Christians will surely have viewers drawing parallels to the agony of many of the faithful in our own age. Rodrigues’s need to hear God’s voice may chime with the thoughts of some Christians bewildered by what is going on in the world, while for secular audiences this magnificent film should serve as a wake-up call.

The suffering of Japanese Christians is a moment in history, but it is a period that speaks loudly and dreadfully to modern times, all the way from the underground churches of China and lonely prison cells of Pakistan to the blood-drenched deserts of Iraq and Syria.

Five stars