Martin Scorsese's new passion project, Silence, shows the danger of confusing faith with folly

This labour of love from the legendary director is no more a movie than a pile of ingredients is a picnic.

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Passion projects always make me nervous. Labours of love can be such hard work. That much has been proved by Martin Scorsese, who wanted to film The Last Temptation of Christ from the moment he was given Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel on the set of his second feature – the exploitation thriller Boxcar Bertha – in 1972.

With its crucifixion imagery, Boxcar Bertha was as vital as the more personal projects between which it was sandwiched (Who’s That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets), in the way it allowed Scorsese to nail his colours to the mast, or to the cross, as a film-maker addressing faith in a turbulent world. But by the time The Last Temptation of Christ materialised, after 16 years of thwarted attempts, it felt as ineffectual as a piece of biblical fan-fiction. Scorsese had worried all the life out of it.

As one obsession ended, a new one took over. Immediately after finishing that film, the director’s imagination was captured by Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, Silence. This other study of faith, and the part played in it by doubt, provided the inspiration for a second arduous pilgrimage to the screen. A full 26 years elapsed between Scorsese snapping up the rights to Endo’s novel and finally calling “Action!” though that word doesn’t really apply here. If ever there was a film that was both thought-provoking and deathly dull, it is this one. A string of philosophical questions debated in assorted locations is no more a movie than a pile of ingredients is a picnic. And Silence is no picnic.

It begins with an image worthy of The Fog. Dense mists gradually disperse to expose a ghastly spectacle: severed heads loll on a makeshift shelf while figures lashed to wooden posts are burned with water ladled out of hissing geysers. This is 17th-century Nagasaki; the victims are Jesuit missionaries and the Japanese villagers who follow them. Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has described these sights in a letter to his church in Portugal shortly before going missing. Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrupe (Adam Driver) insist on travelling to Japan to find him, not knowing whether there is any truth to the rumours that he has apostatised, or whether he is even alive. They only know their help is needed.

Both these gangly actors have been on the El Greco diet. Driver in particular has lost huge amounts of weight, so that his nose and ears protrude extravagantly, to the point where he could play the BFG without CGI. Rodrigues is the battleground where the film’s war between faith and reason takes place, and Garfield is the subject of much careful scrutiny by Rodrigo Prieto’s camera. His face is a landscape ravaged by storms. His hair is like a tidal wave on the brink of breaking; as the film goes on, he seems to recede behind his own facial hair –it devours him like creepers on a gravestone.

He can be monstrous, bellowing in his bamboo cell like Jake LaMotta at the end of Raging Bull, and he can be touchingly exasperated when confronted with the down-at-heel Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), who always comes back pleading for confession, even when it is Rodrigues against whom he has sinned. The priest can’t see that Kichijiro in all his fallibility is a more potent image of faith than the Jesuits in their resolution. During the tetchy encounters between this shepherd and his lost lamb, there is a sudden dynamism, a feeling of ideas shaped into drama rather than recounted like minutes at a meeting.

After Rodrigues is inevitably captured, the urbane Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), who niftily swats flies and irksome assistants without breaking a sweat, makes it plain to him that if he should apostatise, the suffering of the villagers will be curtailed. A man, tied to a post in the sea and drowned, swings from one arm like a faulty dangling Christ. It is in Rodrigues’s power to halt this. All he has to do is to step on the fumi-e, a copper plate bearing the image of Christ. And yet he won’t do it. Having fretted that the villagers prize religious paraphernalia more highly than their faith, he is in danger of making the same error.

Garfield works hard to express his character’s torment but Scorsese hasn’t found an emphatic visual language to articulate what this apparent surrendering of faith would mean to Rodrigues. (“It’s only a formality,” his captors tell him.) His turmoil is kept remote, and for once I missed the director’s trademark whooshing zoom shot, which rushes breathlessly toward a subject. If he can drench us in the toxic world-view of a sociopath such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, it seems bizarre that he can’t find a similarly immersive approach to Rodrigues. Almost three hours is a long time to spend in the company of a man whose actions are likely to seem perversely bloody-minded from the outset to a modern audience.

The movie presents a potentially provocative reversal – the Japanese, for all their willingness to settle an argument with an impromptu decapitation, are shown to be the more dexterous party, happy to debate the merits of a religion before outlawing it; whereas Rodrigues is an unyielding stick-in-the-mud who won’t budge from the terms and conditions of his teachings. Late in the day, another priest tells him: “Pray –but pray with your eyes open.” It’s good advice. If Scorsese had gone into Silence with his own eyes open, unclouded by the fog of his obsession, he might have realised that 17th-century Jesuit priests aren’t the only ones who can confuse faith with folly. It can happen to film-makers, too.

Other cinematic options are available this Christmas, even if they haven’t yet been screened to critics at the time of writing, and the most high-profile ones will be far noisier than Silence. Rogue One: a Star Wars Story is the first stand-alone, spin-off movie from that mighty franchise. Last year’s sequel-cum-reboot, The Force Awakens, felt like a comforting greatest hits package (don’t take my word for it: ask the Star Wars creator, George Lucas, who complained it was “retro”) but early signs are that Rogue One at least has its own look. Trailers showed some rough-and-ready documentary-style camerawork, as well as the use of Canary Wharf Station as a futuristic setting, though if the film-makers were looking for a vision of dystopian chaos, they could have chosen anywhere served by Southern rail.

Distributors have sensibly cleared most other releases from the marketplace for fear of being trampled by Star Wars fans, but Sony is bravely putting out its own science-fiction adventure, Passengers, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt as intergalactic travellers mysteriously awakened from hyper-sleep 90 years ahead of schedule. What’s gone wrong? Whatever it is will involve explosions, special effects and much frantic running along corridors.

If you want peace and quiet over the festive season, I’d suggest finding a cinema that isn’t showing either Rogue One or Passengers. How’s that for a Christmas-tree needle in a haystack?

“Silence” (15) is released on 1 January

“Rogue One: a Star Wars Story” and “Passengers” (both 12A) are out in cinemas now and are reviewed on the NS website

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016