If God exists, why is he silent? When we’re suffering, why doesn’t he intervene? These questions are at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s painful, personal Silence; a moral labyrinth that nearly gets lost on the way to some kind of answer to one of religion’s biggest questions. Adapted from the novel of the same title by Shūsaku Endō, the production history of Silence has been long – having started shortly after Scorsese’s other religious epic, The Last Temptation of Christ (which had a pretty turbulent reception), 27 years ago. Silence’s nature as a passion project for Scorsese is crystal clear, and not always to the film’s advantage if accessibility is a goal. Still, Silence is filled with fantastic performances and gorgeous cinematography, finding a compelling lead in Andrew Garfield as Portuguese Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues.

Embarking on a dangerous mission of his own free will, Rodrigues and his fellow priest Francisco Garrpe (a typically great Adam Driver) seek out their former mentor Cristóvão Ferreira (a real life figure, played by Liam Neeson) following news that he has apostated (in other words, publicly given up his faith). What follows is a miserable, trying 3 hours of human suffering both physical and emotional, as the priests bear witness to the anti-Christian purges of Japan in the 17th Century; the very people they set out to save put into harm’s way by their continued teaching of the Christian faith. This is where the film’s moral dilemma comes to light – what is faith worth? Is it better to die faithful, or to live under someone else’s regime? The torture of the Japanese peasants is brutal and unrelentingly cruel, and increasingly so in the face of the Christians’ defiance. The worth of religious freedom is a difficult thing to measure, and much like Garfield’s sympathetic, emotional character Rodrigues, the doubt in the worth of this freedom comes quickly in the face of such cruelty.

The struggle between Rodrigues’s desire for glory and martyrdom, and his need and want to help the people who make up his church is surprisingly involving. Garfield’s character is occasionally shown to be single-minded in his consideration of other religions, and sometimes vain and prideful in his holy mission – it’s suggested that he suffers for glory rather than faith; to be revered as Jesus was/is. While he struggles with this, he also grapples with the question of God’s silence in response to his prayers, Scorsese very effectively opening the film with silence, and placing moments of disturbing quiet throughout.

At points the film threatens to retread ground it already covered in regards to this struggle, but it moves slowly and consistently forward without getting too bogged down in these questions, perhaps until the third and final act. It’s a technically elegant film, as is to be expected from Scorsese, but on the way to its conclusion it threatens to become meandering, straining to create a thoroughly detailed conclusion when it could already do with a shorter running time. However, there’s an important shift in point-of-view that makes the film’s message somewhat clearer, and it manages to end on a powerful note. This is not to say that the film is a drag at any point.

Driver and Garfield’s characters compliment each other well, one led more strongly by rules, the other by the conflict between his sympathies and the desire to be great – the Portuguese accents may be questionable, but it’s hardly the focus of the film (Neeson doesn’t even bother with an accent, but his presence is authoritative nonetheless). It all comes together to become the most compelling film about religious faith that I’ve ever seen, and not because it’s gloomy – but because it provides challenges to people on either side. It’s not cut-and-dry Jesus Is The Best fare like most religious films, but takes great pain in trying to understand the facets of religious faith in general, not just Christianity.

Silence isn’t perfect, but it comes closer to answering this all encompassing question of faith as I can imagine any film getting. It’s utterly sincere in its Christian faith, but not entirely to the point of shutting out other religions entirely. It’s not a film that seeks a simple resolution, and it’s the rare religious film that questions the very faith it’s based on. Silence is a beautifully made, surprisingly challenging film; full of raw emotion and technical prowess.

Dir: Martin Scorsese
Scr: Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds
Prd: Barbara De Fina, Randall Emmett, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Gaston Pavlovich, Martin Scorsese, Irwin Winkler
DOP: Rodrigo Prieto
Music: Kim Allen Kluge, Kathryn Kluge
Country: United States
Year: 2016
Runtime: 161 minutes

Silence is out in UK cinemas now.