Two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) struggle to hold fast to their beliefs as they witness how cruelly Christians are persecuted in 17th-century Japan. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

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The silence in “Silence” is deep and profound.

“The weight of your silence is terrible,” the main character declares in tones of wrenching despair in Martin Scorsese’s latest and most heartfelt work. It’s the silence a man of the cloth hears as he tries to divine why God seems indifferent to the sufferings of Christians being mercilessly persecuted in 17th-century Japan.

Based on a best-selling 1966 novel of the same name by acclaimed Japanese writer Shusaku Endo and scripted by Scorsese and his friend and longtime writing collaborator Jay Cocks (“Gangs of New York,” “The Age of Innocence”), “Silence” (“Chinmoku” in Japanese) chronicles a crisis of faith. It’s a natural subject for the deeply religious Scorsese, a kind of companion piece to his “Last Temptation of Christ” and one he’s been trying to get off the ground for close to 30 years.

Movie Review ★★★½  

‘Silence,’ with Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Issey Ogata, Yosuke Kubozuka. Directed by Martin Scorsese, from a screenplay by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, based on novel by Shusaku Endo. 161 minutes. Rated R for some disturbing violent content. Several theaters.

Portuguese Jesuit priests Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) have themselves smuggled into Japan to minister to the faithful and to learn the fate of their revered mentor, Father Christavao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has disappeared and is rumored to have renounced his calling. Such apostasy, if true, would be a staggering development. The younger priests simply cannot believe it is so. They’re men with a mission, fired by religious zeal, but the reality they encounter in Japan shakes them to the core.

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The very nature of belief itself is at the heart of “Silence.” Rodrigues and Garupe struggle to hold fast to their most deep-seated beliefs as they witness how cruelly Japan’s Christians are mistreated by the samurai enforcers of the nation’s cultural orthodoxy. Christianity is viewed as inimical to Japanese traditions, and a grand inquisitor (Issey Ogata) resorts to tortures of many different kinds — drownings, burnings, crucifixions; all depicted in appalling detail — to forcibly convert or, failing that, to exterminate the Christians.

Appropriate for a picture about a dark night of the soul, Scorsese, director of photography Rodrigo Prieto (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) and his longtime production designer Dante Ferretti set much of the action in caves and dank huts — hiding places where the priests conduct rituals for their furtive flocks.

Fear is ever present: fear of physical punishment and fear of spiritual desolation. Garfield’s Rodrigues is the tormented conscience of “Silence,” and he spends the picture seeking to triumph over his fears. He believes he would welcome martyrdom. But the inquisitor (played with something approaching lethal glee by Ogata) demands he become an apostate to save members of his flock from the martyr’s fate. He agonizes, and waits for God to break his silence and offer guidance out of the priest’s dilemma.

And waits.

The silence is deafening.