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Scorsese wrestles with questions of faith in ‘Silence’

Tadanobu Asano, left, and Andrew Garfield star in “Silence.”
Tadanobu Asano, left, and Andrew Garfield star in “Silence.” Photo credit: Kerry Brown

There’s a baptism scene in “Silence” that speaks volumes. Set in 17th-century Japan, during a period of persecution of Christians by the ruling shogunate, the film centers on a Portuguese missionary, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), who has been smuggled into the country. As the Jesuit priest christens an impoverished couple’s baby, the mother asks whether her baby is now in “paradise.”

No, no, he corrects her, patiently tolerant of her theological naïvete. Paradise is the reward that God is preparing for the faithful in the afterlife.

For many of that mother’s fellow underground Christians, that afterlife will come sooner than expected. As Martin Scorsese’s ambitious yet frustrating adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 book makes clear, potential torture and death await those who refuse to publicly renounce their faith.

Slow drowning on a crucifix planted in a rising tide, being burned alive, decapitation —these are among the fates imposed on Christians by Inoue, the samurai-turned-inquisitor who runs the ruthless campaign of religious oppression.

The struggle between apostasy and martyrdom — not when one’s own death is at stake, but when one’s actions determine the fates of other — is the sharp spearhead of “Silence,” whose title refers to the uncommunicativeness of God in the face of prayer and human suffering. Oddly, God eventually speaks to Rodrigues, literally, although it’s open to speculation whether that voice is coming from the deity or from inside Rodrigues’ head.

That moment comes late, after Rodrigues and several of his flock have been taken prisoner by Inoue (Issei Ogata), and the Jesuit is being confronted with a conundrum, one that lends the film an urgency that it previously struggled to maintain.

The conundrum has to do with his reluctance to apostatize, even in the face of others’ deaths. To force the priest to renounce his faith, Inoue and his interpreter (the excellent Tadanobu Asano) line several Japanese Christians over a pit — ones who have already apostatized — to put pressure on Rodrigues. If the priest recants, the peasants live; if he doesn’t, they die.

Rodrigues’ former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a missionary who had apostatized years earlier and now lives as a secular Japanese scholar, makes an 11th-hour appearance to talk his protege into recanting. But it’s the lives that hang in the balance, and not Ferreira’s words, that lend the talky film drama.

Which of these things, the film asks, is more Christian: To steadfastly maintain one’s faith, even if it means that others will die because of your actions? Or to renounce Jesus publicly, while holding true to him in your heart? As Ferreira says, “There are some things more important than the judgment of the Church.”

That’s an argument with which Scorsese seems to agree. It certainly takes him long enough to drive that point home — putting the film’s audience through its own kind of torture — but the morale of his story is ultimately tough and nuanced.

Movie review

“Silence”

Rated R for scenes of violence and torture. 2:41. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Hamburg, Nicholasville.

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