Martin Scorsese‘s Silence (Paramount, 12.23) is a long, sluggish, big-canvas spiritual epic that has obviously been sculpted with precision and passion. Set in 17th Century Japan and beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto, it’s clearly the work of a top-tier filmmaker who’s unloading in a very rooted way, and with great delicacy. But it’s a vast, sprawling thing, and some of it, to be honest, is boring and slow, and some of the violence is difficult to watch.

And yet it does pay off at the end, and I didn’t expect it to, given my feelings about religion and Catholics in particular, and so I was surprised by this. I wasn’t head over heels with what I’d seen and I was deciding around the midway point that it probably should be shorter, but the film (which runs 159 minutes) does sneak up and turn the key during the last 20 or 25 minutes.

But those first 130 minutes…whoa daddy. Quite the eyeful, eloquent writing, handsome design but glum and arduous and snail-paced like a sonuvabitch. But it’s still a fine film for what it is. You just have to say to yourself “this is not a film about my enjoyment…it’s a journey, a meditation, a lesson. Just man up and sit through it.”

Based upon the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endō, Silence is about the 17th Century persecution of Catholics in Japan, and particularly the Jesuits who introduced Catholicism to that country and did what they could to scatter the seeds.

Start to finish Silence is about matters of the spirit, but the visual depictions are about almost nothing other than unpleasant acts and conditions. Cruelty, torture, deprivation, starvation. I’m talking about crucified victims being drowned and burned to death, starved and beheaded and hung upside down with blood seeping out of an arterial neck wound. But the victims take it and eventually die (all but one, I should say) because they believe in the salvation of Jesus Christ.

I was sitting there going, “Man, really? It’s only God, it’s only a myth…the point is to show devotion to the mystical and the wondrous while you’re alive. Dying for a belief or a faith or a refusal to tramp on an image of Jesus…well, defy your torturers if you want, but not this horse. I got enough aggravation.”

Mainstream, scholastically correct critics rarely tell you how it feels to watch a strong, well-made film. They only tell you what the story’s about and whether or not the top guys (director, screenwriter, lead actors, dp, production designers) have created a satisfying whole and how striking some of the pieces are, but they never tell you how it actually feels to watch the damn thing. And that’s what I’m explaining here and now.

Silence makes you feel what it’s like to be a devotional man of God under harsh rule in an exotic country. Or more specifically, what it might feel like to be a man of God who’s given up and said, “I can’t take the burden…I can’t do it…I quit.” And how it feels when you quench that fire.

The irony is that I went into Silence feeling no empathy for the native Japanese Catholics and particularly the two Portugese Jesuits (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who are the cause of most of the trouble, and who are pursued and interrogated and tortured all through the film by Japanese authorities for refusing to become apostates.

One of the lines spoken to Garfield is “the price for your glory is their suffering.” And at the 100-minute mark I was thinking to myself, “The price for Scorsese’s glory is my suffering.” But then I got past that.

I admire the compassionate spirit of Jesuit Catholics (I once worked for a Franciscan communications company in downtown Los Angeles) but I’ve long despised organized religion of all kinds and particularly the arrogance of Catholicism (i.e., we are the best religion, the closest to the true God). And so my attitude about watching Catholics being tortured was basically “I’m sorry this is happening to you, guys, but have you thought about the idea that there are better ways to commune with God and the infinite than through the strict dogma of Catholicism? Has it ever occured to you that the cosmic current might be a non-denominational thing, and that all religious leaders — Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha — have the same father?”

Nonetheless, Silence has a spiritual pollen that floats into you. I felt no allegiance with Garfield’s Sebastiao Rodrigues, who not only suffers for his stubbornness but causes many others to suffer. But something curious and strange happens toward the end — the last 20 or 30 minutes — that really got me. Rodrigues finally relents at the end, and when he does you’re thinking “thank God.” But when he submits (and this a weird thing for me to admit) there’s a certain specific energy that drains out of him — a certain light or feeling or vibe.

Crazy and oppressive as it may be to carry the Christian cross, we’re reminded at the end that there’s something essential about keeping your spiritual fire burning. If you become too practical and accommodating and accepting, something is lost.

Silence is a long, tough, beautiful sit, but it’s one of Scorsese’s masterworks (he’s made a few), and at least five if not ten times better than Kundun. It’s somewhat similar to The Last Temptation of Christ, certainly the last portion of that 1988 film, as both are about devout spiritual crusaders who give up the faith during the last act and then are left to face the consequences. And yet there’s no question that the Last Temptation finale is more satisfying than the one in Silence I’m sorry but it is.

So far Silence is generating a 100% and 84% rating from Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, respectively.