There should be no argument that Martin Scorsese has earned his place among the most esteemed directors in Hollywood. His ability to create masterful, thought-provoking films has earned him awards and accolades throughout his long and illustrious career. They haven’t all been without controversy. Audiences of the 70s might have been ready for the uber-violent “Taxi Driver,” but those of the late 80s failed to embrace Scorsese’s vision of Jesus as a flawed and bitter man in “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

In “Silence,” Scorsese has again turned his attention toward an emotional story centering on religion. In this film, the essential issue has to do with dogma and the zeal of the Catholic Church to spread the Gospel to “pagan” seventeen-century Japan. Can one ever set aside religious dogma, forsaking ritual and rules, to embrace love and the spirit if that’s the only option to help people?

The setting’s bleakness provides the tone from the beginning. This is a dark, slow-moving film, far more cerebral than active. This film will not be embraced by everyone, and the final scenes prove relentlessly difficult on all fronts – both philosophically and physically.

It opens with a scene of martyrdom, Christians being boiled alive for their beliefs in Buddhist Japan. The year is 1637. Two priests arrive to advance Catholicism among rural villagers, in spite of the possibility of harsh punishments. Importantly, the two will try to find their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has disappeared.

The more devout of the two, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) has prepared himself to suffer at all costs. Father Garupe (Adam Driver) has a more practical approach to the quagmire they find themselves in.

Disturbing news comes that Father Ferreira has actually denounced Catholicism to save his skin. Even worse, he’s taken a wife. As Rodrigues and Garupe make attempts to administer to the villagers, they risk betrayal to the authorities by an unscrupulous villager Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a cowardly man who witnessed the death of his family, all of whom refused to denounce Christianity as he quickly did so.

The journey of Rodrigues and Garupe will be long and arduous in their quest to discover the whereabouts of Father Ferreira. Answers don’t come readily, and pain and suffering become primary elements of the landscape.

The somber tone becomes relentless, and the final circumstances dare to disturb the universe. Steel yourself if you plan to endure this film. It’s easy to appreciate Scorsese’s masterful direction and the performances of Garfield, Driver, and Neeson. It proves far harder to wrap your head around some of the situations.

Rated R for some disturbing violent content

Marilyn Robitaille has been writing film reviews for the Empire-Tribune since 1999.