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After the venal bacchanalia of The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese turns his attention to spiritual matters in SilenceThough reaching desperately for profundity, it proves guilty of excesses of its own.

In the 17th century two Portugese Jesuit priests travel to early-Edo period Japan; a perilous place for Christians.  Having had word that their mentor has been captured and has subsequently renounced his faith, they resolve to find him while also ministering to the hidden Christians in the rural areas around Nagasaki.

Adapted from Shūsaku Endō‘s novel of the same name, this is a passion project long in gestation.  It is shot with a stillness and solemnity not often found in a Scorsese film, reminiscent of the stately panoramic images of Akira Kurosawa and the darkly satirical take on the Shogunate system of honour of Masaki Kobayashi‘s Harakiri. As one would expect, internal metaphysical wrestling is at its core, with Andrew Garfield‘s Rodrigues confusing religious steadfastness with a burgeoning Messiah complex.

It’s a difficult role – one that would have been tailor-made for the intensity of Christian Bale had it been made a decade ago – as it requires enough spiritual traction to haul those without any faith along for the duration.  Garfield doesn’t quite achieve it.  Presented as an internal struggle between  faith and pragmatism, or God and nature as represented by Japan; from a secular perspective it feels like a no-brainer to renounce.  This becomes especially obvious when the martyrdom Rodrigues yearns for is denied him and foisted in terrible ways on several other poor souls as a result of his steadfastness/ stubbornness.

That’s not to say Silence is a bad film.  In fact, in its ambition and scope it’s unlike very few films being made these days, particularly in a mainstream production.  There are scenes of aching beauty, and the moments of horrendous mortification of the flesh come come close to achieving the religious transcendence they aim for.  Scorsese, perhaps better than anyone, knows how to film violence, and there is enough restraint demonstrated to refute any accusations of the kind of pious exploitation of which Mel Gibson was guilty in The Passion of the Christ.

The excess in Silence comes from its sheer length, and the somewhat circuitous story-telling that occurs after Rodrigues is inevitably captured.  Despite great turns from Japanese genre-legends Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer), and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), Scorsese relies too much on expository voice-overs from Rodrigues on God’s unending silence, and an inconstant Judas-figure (Yosuke Kubozuka), who flip-flops repeatedly between betrayal and pleas of penance.

If there was more ambiguity in its storytelling, particularly towards its finale, and it was trimmed of some of its more languorous, purely decorous moments, Silence could well have been a masterpiece.  As it stands, it’s an impressive but flawed film that can’t avoid being the first real disappointment of the year.