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Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Japan may sound like an unlikely subject for Martin Scorsese, a director known mainly for films about Italian-Americans in 20th-century New York. “Silence,” his 24th feature, manages to connect the two. Its protagonist, Father Sebastian Rodrigues, isn’t that far away from Charlie Cappa, the Catholic hoodlum of Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” Both men wrestle with faith, sin and violence, albeit in very different ways.

“Silence” begins with a scene of slow torture — one of many we’ll see — that establishes Japan as an earthly hell for any Christian who dares enter. Back in Portugal, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) hears that his beloved mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has renounced Christianity and now lives among the Japanese — a horrible and demoralizing thought. Determined to find him, Rodrigues and his colleague Father Garrupe (a fascinating and too-brief Adam Driver), set out for Japan.

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What follows is a test of faith that seems to come from all corners. Converted villagers beg for sacraments yet turn against the priests, just as a disloyal drunk, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), repeatedly betrays Rodrigues yet demands forgiveness. It sometimes seems as if Japanese Christians don’t fully understand the faith — and it’s this notion that haunts Rodrigues the most. The young priest is mentally and physically exhausted by the time he is captured by the fearsome Inquistor (Issey Ogata, mixing villainy and comic relief into a brilliantly weird performance).

Based on Shusako Endo’s austere novel from 1966, “Silence” can be a riveting and forceful film. Still, it feels more about abstractions than emotions. As Rodrigues wrestles with his thoughts — specifically, whether apostasy under duress is a sin, or just an empty gesture — we often wish something more personal, more immediate, were at stake. (Obviously, there’s no room for a romance in this story, and the film’s near-total lack of women is noticeable.) Garfield delivers an impassioned performance, but the soul of Rodrigues — his essence, really — never quite materializes before our eyes.

Fans of Scorsese may miss the wild energy and visceral violence of his classic films, but there’s much to admire in “Silence.” It’s the work of a director grappling with familiar themes in a fascinating new way.