Birdsong fills a black screen at the start of Silence, thousands of tiny wings beating ever louder, obscuring our vision.
This assault on the senses is a fitting start to Martin Scorsese’s new film, which examines in painstaking detail to what degree external forces can shatter a person’s spirit.
The action centres around Andrew Garfield’s Rodrigues, a 17th century Jesuit priest who leaves his native Portugal with his friend Garrpe, played by Adam Driver, to search for their mentor. The last the pair heard, Ferreira (an unnervingly sanguine Liam Neeson), was doing missionary work in Japan, but publicly renounced God and converted to Buddhism.
Unable to believe it, they embark on a quest to find him, discovering along the way just how creative methods of torture can be in a land notorious at the time for its brutal Christian killings.
Yet the real danger doesn’t come from the thwack of a samurai sword or the screams of Christians being burned alive; all that is background compared to Rodrigues’ internal struggle, as he prays for his persecuted fellow converts only to be met with silence.
Compelling and emotionally fraught, Silence is completely transportive – here, Japan is a cruel and unforgiving land of wind-hewn rock and unforgiving seas. As our knowledge of what’s right and wrong becomes cloudy, so does the landscape, which is obscured by rolling mists and long grass.
The Japanese cast are exceptional, too, especially Issey Ogata as Rodrigues’ nemesis Inquisitor Inoue, a slimy civil service sort, who sees exterminating Christianity as necessary to protect Japan from European influence.
A boldly philosophical film that’s just as thrilling as it is thoughtful, Silence is positively screaming out for Oscars.