Four stars

A moment of silence can be awkward, meaningful, baffling, revelatory, suspenseful or soothing.

Writer-director Martin Scorsese’s passion project Silence – a labour of love since 1990 – possesses many of these qualities but above all, it is a test of physical and mental endurance that will be beyond the tolerance of most audiences.

Set in a beautifully rendered 17th century Japan, this sprawling sermon on faith and endurance of the human spirit is easy to admire for its technical precision and production design, but difficult to love for a lack of engagement with the characters.

The 161-minute running time is punishing and Scorsese’s script, adapted from the novel by Shusaku Endo and co-written by Jay Cocks, adopts a deliberately contemplative and pedestrian pace. The filmmaker gives us plenty of time to draw our own conclusions about the persecution and torture of Christian priests.

He opens with the harrowing image of five captured holy men, stripped to the waist, whose skin is red raw from splashes of scalding water from a nearby hot spring.

Other Christians are burnt alive or tightly bound, pushed overboard and left to drown in choppy seas. Scorsese has previously ruminated on matters of faith and dogma in The Last Temptation Of Christ and Kundun.

Here, he muses on self-sacrifice, literally and figuratively, through the eyes of a selfless man, whose pleas for a sign from his Lord are met with deafening silence.

And our occasional yawns.

In 1640 Macao, Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) receives a letter which suggests Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has publicly denounced God and surrendered his faith in Japan.

Young priests Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), proteges of Ferreira, refuse to believe the correspondence and persuade Father Valignano to allow them to seek out their mentor.

“From the moment you set foot in that country you step into high danger,” Valignano reminds them grimly.

Unperturbed, the priests sail to the coastal town of Tomogi in the company of a disreputable guide, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka).

“We must be careful. There’s a price of 300 pieces of silver for you,” he explains.

“Three hundred? Judas only got 30,” replies Rodrigues.

Aided by God-fearing villagers including Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) and Ichizo (Yoshi Oida), Rodrigues and Garupe secretly tend to Japanese flocks.

Silence is anchored by Garfield’s committed central performance that offers fleeting glimpses of his character’s anguish.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who was Oscar nominated for Brokeback Mountain, artfully composes each frame for maximum impact. Scorsese is completely invested in his subject matter, but he refuses to let us in with him.

The filmmaker keeps us at a distance from Rodrigues and Garupe, even when they are being hunted by the notorious Inquisitor, Inoue Sama (Issei Ogata).

Their torment is a whimper in the dark.

Director: Martin Scorsese Running time: 161 mins