Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still loaded with the usual contenders, look a bit closer and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s Scorcese’s sprawling religious epic, Silence.

For most of us, the idea of dying in the service of our beliefs is one with which we’ll likely never have to reckon. Martin Scorcese’s Silence, a years-in-the-making passion project that takes the guts of three hours to tell its bare-bones story, forces both its characters and those watching it to contend with how far one man can be pushed before giving up everything he holds dear.

It’s hardly hyperbole to state that Scorcese’s film is an endurance test in itself, never mind for its two protagonists, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver). The two padres, who volunteer to venture to Christian-intolerant Japan to locate their missing mentor, are subjected to the worst kind of tortures imaginable–all in the service of forcing them to give up their faith.

Silence movie stakesAbout midway through the sprawling, 160-minute epic, it would be understandable if most normal cinemagoers wished to run for the exits, or even vomit into their popcorn buckets. Scorcese doesn’t shy away from showing us the brutality of a regime intent on stamping out Christianity by any means necessary.

We are shown believers being burned alive, strung up on crosses in the ocean, hung upside down over pits while blood slowly ekes out of a tiny cut behind their ears, and, in one clever moment that harks back to the filmmaker’s love of classic samurai movies, a head is swiped off with a massive sword, landing on the ground with a soft thud.

All the while, Garfield’s character watches on in abject horror, the audience surrogate. We’re supposed to be horrified, naturally, but it’s likely genre fans will find some beauty and elegance in the way in which these atrocities are captured in all their bloody, stomach-churning glory. Hostel this is not, but in many ways it’s more effective, and challenging, for stripping things back and not trying too hard to shock.

Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield in SilenceThe tension in Silence comes not just from the absence of any guidance from a higher power, but in how rooted the two padres (particularly Rodrigues) are to the spot as others suffer in their place. The question hanging over the movie is whether, when faced with such unfair and inhumane treatment, the more Christian option is to turn their backs on their faith to save any more blood being shed?

It’s Garfield’s relentlessly pious Rodrigues that will cause more trouble than the actual horrors he witnesses–it will surely take only the most stoic and fiercely committed worshipper to empathise with his inner turmoil. Is the desire to be martyred stronger than that to have one’s faith rewarded by being proven right? Will God’s silence force his hand?

Again and again Rodrigues is told “just give in and it will all stop” but it’s only at the last moment, when Garfield’s great bouffant hairdo is hanging lank against his ragged cheeks (to make him look even more like JC than he already does), that he finally caves. We, as the audience, are left to decide whether he’s pitiful or overwhelmingly arrogant.

Silence‘s true horror, then, lies in whether or not we can understand him and his seemingly great sacrifice.