After debauched stockbrokers and an asylum, only Martin Scorsese would see it fit to venture to 17th century Japan. Or perhaps penance is needed after the cocaine-snorting antics of The Wolf of Wall Street, therefore there’s no topic more appropriate than God-fearing priests. It turns out that while accumulating Oscars with the likes of The Aviator, Hugo, and Wolf – diverse, epic explorations and celebrations of cinema that show no indication that the 74 year old director is about to put down the camera – there’s one story he wanted to tell, having been enamoured with Shusaku Endo’s telling for 25 years, that of Jesuit priests trying to propagate Catholicism at a time where it was banned in Japan.
Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are priests Sebastiao Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, who travel to Japan after hearing their mentor Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced his faith after being tortured. It’s Garfield who carries the film, an appropriate role for an actor who often feels underused and misunderstood Initially, they’re disbelieving, wondering how could someone turn their back so easily until they witness the atrocities themselves. From there, there’s introspection – Rodrigues looks into a river, and for the first time sees himself (or is it an idol?). At nearly three hours, the film, while it’s consistently engaging and unsparing and juxtaposes brutality with beauty, feels absent of passion or purpose when it needs to deliver emotional heft. Scorsese liberally piles on feelings of guilt and self-punishment, that at times they feel woefully unsubtle, detracting from the emotional core of the story. It’s a film of undeniable commitment, but sadly devoid of passion.