(CNN)Scheduled as late-in-the-year awards bait, Martin Scorsese's "Silence" is good, but not golden.
Martin Scorsese's long 'Silence' is good, not golden
The acclaimed director has periodically wedded his artistry with challenging contemplation of religion, in "Kundun" and most controversially "The Last Temptation of Christ." An epic story of religious persecution in 17th-century Japan, "Silence" adds to that legacy, but doesn't do much to enhance it.
Scorsese has two major issues at play here, the most relevant being a clash between cultures and the perils of colonialism, which he seeks to explore in an almost scholarly fashion. The other alludes directly to the title -- namely, how to explain the silence of God in the face of horrors inflicted on those who devoutly believe.
The point of entry is a 1960s novel, adapted by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, with whom he worked on "The Age of Innocence" and "Gangs of New York." Yet while "Silence" shares a level of impeccable historical detail with those movies, its grueling length (2 hours, 41 minutes) and sluggish pace make the journey to some big, provocative ideas less rewarding than it should be.
In the second role in as many months that hinges on piety (the other being "Hacksaw Ridge"), Andrew Garfield stars, alongside Adam Driver, as a pair of young Portuguese priests who embark on a perilous mission to Japan in 1641. Described as "an army of two," they are seeking to learn the fate of their mentor, Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has gone missing, amid troubling reports of the Japanese torturing Christians and rumors that he renounced his faith.
Still, in terms of excitement, "Shogun," this isn't. Upon arriving in Japan, the priests almost instantly discover how inhospitable the climate has become for Christians, with the local villagers who practice the faith sheltering them -- and hiding their own loyalties, knowing that they'll be sentenced to death if discovered.
The principal architect of that punishment, known as the Inquisitor (Issey Ogata), carries out his duties with almost a sense of resignation, while tormenting the young priest for his naivete in believing that Christianity could ever flourish in Japan.
The Japanese authorities seek a demonstration that someone has rejected Christ and apostatized -- rejecting their faith through a symbolic act, like stepping or spitting on an image of Jesus or the blessed virgin.
As "Silence" drags on, though, it becomes little more than a prolonged series of such moments, with the principal suspense being whether the victim will choose death over apostasy. Ultimately, the question of breaking their wills comes down to whether it makes more sense to simply play along than to suffer, or allow others to do so.
As constructed, "Silence" thus sets up an intellectual exercise -- articulated by Garfield's Father Rodrigues, through narration from his journal and letters -- that's intriguing, but difficult to make dramatically satisfying. Indeed, there's a repetitive quality to the movie up until the final third, which offers a more fully realized and explicit debate, belatedly, of the central premise.
It's possible to admire the movie's ambition and complexity, as well as Scorsese for using his artistic clout to get this made. "Silence" certainly has something to say; it's the method of delivery, frankly, which elicits only muted praise.
"Silence" opens in the U.S. on December 23. It's rated R.