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Word has reached Portugal of Father Ferreira. Lost for years, in 1640 a trader’s tale accompanies the last message from the vanished missionary (Liam Neeson). It is a tale so stunning that his most devoted students, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), refuse to believe it. Could Ferreira, their wise and noble Ferreira, who brought them into the faith and cloth, have really apostatized and assimilated into the culture and religion of Japan? It could not be. And so they go to Japan, guided only by the cowardly and mysterious drunkard Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), to tend to souls, spread the faith, and hopefully determine the true fate of their lost mentor.

Silence, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s challenging, ambiguous novel of the same name, gazes unsparingly at the trials placed – by Japan? God? the writers? – before its two priests, as well as the Japanese Christians they intend to serve. The escalating physical, emotional, and spiritual brutality of those trials serve as increasingly urgent yet unanswerable interrogatories, dispelling certainties and revealing frailties in characters and audiences alike while being bold enough to leave nothing in their wake.

As an example of cinema craft, Silence is unambiguously not merely the work of a master, but a focused and dedicated one, working with a clarity of purpose and vision that has not always been true of Scorsese as of late. It is not simply to say that it exceeds the sum of its parts, though those parts are of exceptional quality and consistency. The performances are terrific, including an ingeniously-cast Garfield; but the standout is Issey Ogata’s Inoue, instantly an all-time classic screen villain. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is glorious, both embracing and challenging the strengths and limits of video at every moment in a way that stuns without ever crossing into ostentatiousness. And Scorsese’s careful and structured camerawork, as always stitched together virtuosity by Thelma Schoonmaker, never chooses the obvious route.

Silence is, to put it far too pithily, about a lot of things. The tensions between the West and the rest of the world, surely, but more acutely the tensions between universalizing ideologies/doctrines of all kinds, as well as the the cultural chasms between their particular places of origin and the particulars of all the places they may want to spread, especially those with organized and deep-rooted resistance. It is about agonizing choices, and difficult circumstances placed by real humans, with real weakness and real limitations. It is about the impossible balance between the ideas that give life meaning, and real, concrete human sufferings and irreplaceable human lives on the other. It is about silence, yes – but the silence of God in the face of men’s trials, or about whether a certain kind of silence is the highest form of devotion?

Silence often feels elusive, but on deeper introspection, it is a film that is surfacing questions and emotions that are hard to articulate or respond to. This is not a film of answers, of guidance, of admonishment. This is a film that articulates many questions, but cares more about those that roil just beneath its deceptively-stolid surface. It is trite yet true to call its choice of both subject and approach genuinely brave; it is similarly trite but true to say that this is a film that is difficult to watch and difficult to love, even as its systematic puncturing of one’s defenses leaves an impact both visceral and spiritual. Silence is so determined and holistically what it intends to be, and its intentions are so particular and anathema to what we expect from Hollywood, that straightforward adjudication or recommendation feels wholly inadequate. I won’t tell you to see Silence; instead, I’ll tell you that you probably already know whether you should go see Silence. That in-and-of-itself is a very special, albeit hard to define, cinematic achievement.