Martin Scorsese has been attempting to make a film version of Endo Shusaku's 1966 novel Silence since the early 1990s (an earlier Japanese-language adaptation, directed by Shinoda Masahiro), was released in 1971). After a quarter of a century, he has finally succeeded, and the emergent Silence very much feels like a movie that was the subject of that much intense, focused passion for that long. Not because it feels fussed over; not only because it feels fussed over, at any rate. But because it's easy to tell how much care has been lavished on it.

To be blunt about it, I think the director has been having a problem with his films in the 21st Century, where they frequently seem to have been left incomplete in some way, like he hadn't quite figured out what the finished movie was supposed to be before he started, and had to fake it in a few places. Like The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street, neither one of which have ever felt to me like a final cut; like Hugo (which I do genuinely love), with its shapeless pacing; like Gangs of New York, whatever the hell it is. Silence is nothing like those: it feels quite precise and perfect, calculated down to the smallest choices to do exactly what Scorsese and his invaluable editor Thelma Schoonmaker wanted it to do, even when those things might seem annoying and unfriendly to the audience. It is self-evidently a passion project, not necessarily because that passion radiates off the screen - in fact, in many ways Silence is implacably stern and emotionally cool - but because is the work of an incredibly gifted film director with incredibly gifted collaborators very effortfully trying to do their very best and most disciplined work. Whatever else is true of it, I think that Silence must surely count as Scorsese's most careful, well-built movie since the 1990s.

Given that, I wish I liked it more. Or indeed, that I particularly liked it at all, instead of just admiring it from a far remove. The thing is, and this is going to sound just terrible of me, and small-minded, but it's so Catholic. Obviously, that shouldn't be disqualifying: Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ is also immensely Catholic, and it's one of my favorite among his films. And there are plenty of other examples of highly religious films that cannot conceivably be understood without reference to the filmmaker's spiritual philosophy. Carl Theodor Dreyer practically built his entire career on that. No, it's notjust that Silence is Catholic, but the specific ways in which it is Catholic, and how it grapples for its very slow-paced 161 minutes in impressively complex and nuanced ways with issues of morality and the practice of faith that are, to me at least, completely inert.

It is a fact-based story of the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in Japan in the 17th Century, during a period of intense persecution of the local Christian populations (the film is surprisingly uncritical of European missionary activities in Asia and the whole business of colonialism, though I suppose it's hard to imagine how the story could have been told any other way). A brief prologue in 1633 sets the scene: Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) watches in impotent horror as his fellow missionaries are tortured, tied to posts as inquisitors for the Togugawa Shogunate pour acidic, boiling water from hot springs on their naked flesh. He recounts this story in a letter that arrives in the hands of Father Alessandro Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) in Macau seven years later, along with the news that Ferreira has since committed apostasy. This is shared with two of Ferreira's protégés, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, whose all-over-the-place "Portuguese" accent is a constant distraction) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver, who clamps like a pit bull on an accent bad enough to make Garfield's look good), who are immediately struck with the inspiration to sneak into the deeply hostile country to find Ferreira, confident that he would never have betrayed his faith. They hire an alcoholic Japanese wanderer, Kichijiro (Kubozuko Yosuke), to help them land in the Goto islands, from whence they plan to begin their search.

The film that results from all of this is many things. Massively unhurried, for one: the plot unfolds with a remarkable and at times tremendously rewarding lack of hurry, letting individual moments unfold in the most gradual way; one would almost be able to call it "peaceful", if only the plot wasn't so full of violence and terror against the Japanese Christians. It's also spellbindingly beautiful, shot by Rodrigo Prieto to emphasise the inherent beauty of the landscape (the film was shot in Taiwan), and the strong qualities of the sunlight, which blows out many a shot with unstinting intensity and creates lovely shadows that add a strong graphic quality to the compositions. Scorsese and Prieto obviously studied their Japanese cinema; there are several places throughout the movie, particularly once Rodrigues has been captured and is placed in a prison for unyielding Christians, that flawless evoke the pageant-like staging and strong geometry that dominated Japanese filmmaking in the middle of the 20th Century, in everything from the most prestigious epics down to the kids' movies about giant fire-breathing turtles.

If there's a point to this besides being absolutely lovely, I think it's to create a sense of being-in-place; the film's themes are layered and difficult to piece together, but part of it is certainly to remember that a focus on the spiritual life should not blind us to the truth of the physical life, the world surrounding our bodies and in which our bodies reside. The Japan of Silence feels in many ways like a cinematic construct, a fictional thing called "Tokugawa Japan" filtered through Scorsese's knowledge of classical Japanese jidaigeki, but it also feels like a powerfully real world, full of fire and water, dust and grass, all unbearably physical. Silence is, if it is anything, committed to a strong evocation of physical sensation: while its depiction of torture is relatively mild and only rarely graphic, the snatches we see, and the extremely vivid descriptions in dialogue, draw maximum attention to the fragility of human flesh.

The cinematic experience of the film is exemplary, if hardly "fun". It's magnificently slow, absolutely refusing to concede an inch to any but the most patient viewer's attention span; the sound mix (which I think is one of the best of the year, honestly), takes the title quite literally, and dials everything down to the point that the whole film is covered in a solemn hush, letting the ambient buzz of nature fill in the gaps where the humans are speaking in breathy whispers. The film is enormously serious about itself, but it has the craftsmanship to carry it off. That being said, it's a film that I find virtually impossible to emotionally engage with. The central crisis of Rodrigues's moral code - should one publicly renounce faith if doing so will help to alleviate suffering? Even if it will embolden the oppressors of that faith in the cruelty? - seems to be almost entirely academic for anyone who's not a Jesuit missionary working in a country with anti-Christian laws. I'm sure that's me being reductive, but there are ways of presenting these kinds of stories in a way that makes them universally accessible. Just this same year, we've had another film with Garfield playing a man trying to decide between the behavior that alleviates suffering and the dictates of his religious conscience, Hacksaw Ridge, and while I think that Silence is easily the better-made of the films, Hacksaw Ridge is easily the more effective (it also has the better Garfield performance, but that's not hard, given how weirdly monotonous and flat he is in Silence). And effective surely ought to count for something.

Without a doubt, Silence explores its themes with great complexity and aesthetic vigor, and I'm sure it was enormously cathartic for Scorsese, as it would probably be cathartic for any other viewer who has grappled with these questions of when faith becomes arrogance and when it matters that you do the right thing rather than think the right thing, and what "the right thing" is. But that's just it: it demands an audience that already shares its preconceptions to generate any interest in its themes. A Hacksaw Ridge or a Last Temptation of Christ explain to us why we should care about their tormented religious questions; to this particular nonbeliever, Silence is handsome, sophisticated, and completely ice-cold as a story about humans.