'Silence': Why This Martin Scorsese Film About Christian Martyrs Is Tipped For Oscar Glory

Liam Neeson as Fr Ferreira in Silence.Paramount

The official trailer for the Martin Scorsese film Silence has just been released, and it's got film fans very excited.

On the face of it, it's an unlikely subject. Based on Shusako Endo's great novel of the same name, the story tells of the experiences of early Christians in Japan and of the Catholic missionaries who converted them. After a period of rapid growth, the government turned against them and they were savagely persecuted. Many were brutally tortured. Among the techniques used to prove their apostasy was to force them to trample on an image of Christ.

Inevitably, there are echoes in Silence of another film about Jesuit missionaries, The Mission – also, coincidentally, featuring Liam Neeson. In Silence his is the starring role as Father Cristóvão Ferreira, who in Endo's book is faced with a terrible decision: should he deny his faith and trample on the face of Christ in order to save others from their suffering?

The theological questions raised in Silence are profound. How should Christians live when God is silent? And does silence mean absence?

Scorsese has been working on Silence for several years, though the project has been delayed by legal disputes. Because of budgetary constraints the actors worked for very little and the film was shot in Taiwan because it was cheaper there.

Asked in 2013 why he was making the film, Scorsese told Deadline Hollywood he grew up as a Roman Catholic. "Yes, the cinema and the people in my life and my family are most important, but ultimately as you get older, there's got to be more. Much, much more," he said. "The very nature of secularism right now is really fascinating to me, but at the same time do you wipe away what could be more enriching in your life, which is an appreciation or some sort of search for that which is spiritual and transcends?"

He continued: "There are no answers. We all know that. You try to live in the grace that you can. But there are no answers, but the point is, you keep looking. Because people tell you science tells us everything. Science doesn't! ...We've progressed on the outside, but what about inside? What about the soul and the heart? Without trying to sound pompous and ridiculous, I can tell you this is where my interest is."

The story of Japan's near-annihilation of Christianity in the 17th century – and the miraculous survival of its 'Hidden Christians' into our own times – is not well enough known. The trailer for Silence promises a mesmerising treatment from a master of cinema who understands not just drama but faith. It's already tipped for Oscar wins.

Silence will receive its first public screening at the Vatican, in front of an audience of several hundred Jesuits. It will be released in the US on December 23, followed by a wider release in January 2017.