The further away from his contemporary American stamping grounds Martin Scorsese gets, the more explicit is his interest in religion – going back to the wellspring for The Last Temptation of Christ and to Tibetan Buddhism for Kundun … here, he pits (Portuguese) Catholicism against (Shinto) Buddhism in an adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s historical novel about the persecution of Japanese Christians in the 17th century and the spiritual journey of a young missionary priest Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) as he searches for answers about the silence of God and the fate of his former mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Rodrigues also has the examples of his comrade Garupe (Adam Driver), unbending enough to be an obvious martyr in the making, and of sundry abused, tortured or murdered Japanese converts to edge him towards the position of Ferreira, who now wears Buddhist robes and has taken a Japanese name, wife and family.
Scorsese is rather sparing in homages to classic Japanese cinema – with its creeping through mists and frequent neo-torture porn scenes, this feels closer in spirit to fringe works like Onibaba or Horror of Malformed Men than the samurai movies of Kurosawa or the miniatures of Ozu. The director Shin’ya Tsukumoto (Tetsuo), an early exponent of cyberpunk body horror, plays one of the Christian martyrs, who is killed in a gruelling crucifixion-by-drowning sequence. Between the starkly-dramatised tortures, the priest is politely grilled by an inquistor (Issei Ogata) and his interpreter (Tadanobu Asano), who seem genuinely to want to make a point that he’s missing rather than just to dole out sadistic punishment to an outsider. In Japanese popular culture, Portuguese missionaries of this period are usually depicted as cynical villains – rapists and thieves claiming to be priests rather than sincere in their faith – but this prunes all but token political context and goes with the spiritual struggle, making great play of the symbolic gestures of apostasy (trampling on an icon of Christ or spitting on a crucifix) even while refraining from mentioning that the whole church was founded by the Christ-denier Peter.
Garupe remains staunch and stern on the question of blasphemy and winds up bobbing dead in the water while Rodrigues advises the persecuted to trample with their feet but believe in their hearts. Rodrigues sometimes sees Christ’s face when he looks at his own reflection in the water – recalling the sometimes arch elements of Last Temptation – and the whole film has a certain Hollywoodishness that other movies on similar subjects (Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe comes to mind) try to avoid. English, American and Irish stars (Ciaran Hinds has a bit as the M-like priest back home who sends them all on this mission) adopt slight accents and false beards to play Portuguese and are always actorly – which may well be part of the job of being a missionary (Garfield, by odd coincidence, is similarly martyr-like in the face of Japanese atrocities in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge) but allows for a few unwanted snickers amidst the earnest, intense suffering. It’s a long haul (161m), of course – and from an agnostic viewpoint is about two brands of god-bothered nutcase arguing while unneeded and untold human misery arises all around.