Ever since Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo published his 1966 novel Silence, film-makers and others have been fascinated by its themes of religious doubt, martyrdom and apostasy.
Although set in the 17th century, when mainly Portuguese Jesuit missionaries were actively converting the Japanese to Catholicism, the novel’s legacy is about efforts to suppress belief and faith.
Just as the early Christians faced opposition in Europe and the Middle East, Japan and its belief system felt challenged by the outside world when traders and missionaries first arrived.
The early reaction wasn’t hostile, but this reversed with the Edict of Expulsion (1614), forcing hundreds of thousands of Christian converts to go underground.
Endo’s novel starts about two decades later when two priests, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe, venture to Japan to search for their mentor, Fr Ferreira, who has disappeared and is rumoured to have forsworn his faith. Their mission is to find him and establish the truth.
Once there, they find small communities of Japanese Christians worshipping in secret under the threat of terrible persecution.
Endo explores the problem of doubt, as the priests observe what the faithful have to endure and find their appeals for mercy go unanswered. Indescribable forms of torture include slow drowning on crosses in the sea.
“Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God,” Endo writes, “the feeling that while men raise their voice in anguish, God remains with folded arms, silent.”
A Japanese film version of Endo’s fictional account was made in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda but it has taken one of Hollywood’s giants, Martin Scorsese, to bring it to western audiences.
God’s silence in the face of human suffering is not a new theme — Swedish director Ingmar Bergman made The Silence in 1963 at the peak of the Cold War.
Scorsese has long wanted to make his version of Silence (Transmission), attracted by the flawed central character, Fr Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield).
(He also resembles the many anti-heroes in Scorsese’s long list of films about gangsters, entrepreneurs and even religious figures — The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, about the Dalai Lama.)
Garfield is cast in Biblical tradition as Rodrigues, who agonises over his failure to protect himself and his flock from a persuasive and ruthless inquisitor (Issey Ogata).
The denouement occurs when he finally meets Fr Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has become a wealthy merchant.
Fr Garupe (Adam Driver of Paterson) has a more truncated role in a large cast comprising Japanese Christian villagers and the Shogunate authorities.
All are authentic and believable, if thinly drawn. They include two who provide welcome tangential interest — a translator (Tadanobu Asano) and a Judas- like serial betrayer (Yosuke Kubozuka).
Viewing this film is as daunting as the material. Only the serious will want to see the scenes hinted at here or sit through nearly three hours of unrelenting misery with only a few episodes of relief.
Yet Scorsese has created an impressive visual and verbal masterpiece — the screenplay (co-written with Jay Cocks), photography (Rodrigo Prieto) and production design (Dante Ferretti) are all faultless.
Rating: Restricted to audiences over 16. 161 minutes.