By Alicia Powell
NEW YORK (Reuters) - After 28 years of false starts, director Martin Scorsese has finally brought a passion project about faith and religion to the big screen with "Silence."
Based on the acclaimed 1966 novel of the same name by late Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, the drama tells the story of two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, played by Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield, who travel to Japan in the 17th century to search for their missing mentor, portrayed by Liam Neeson.
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There, in an era when Christians were persecuted and tortured, the missionaries face a choice: they can save themselves and Japanese converts from death by crucifixion, burning and drowning but only if they renounce their religion.
"I think it's a beautiful film, it's incredibly thought-provoking. It's one of those films you don't just forget about when you leave the cinema," Neeson told Reuters.
"Whether you're religious or not it's very, very questioning," the actor added.
Scorsese, a staunch Catholic, had been keen to make the film since first reading the book in 1988 after the release of his film "The Last Temptation of Christ."
The Italian-American director has said he was struck by the questions the book raises over faith, doubt, weakness and God's role in the face of human suffering. But getting the screenplay right alone took the Oscar-winning director 15 years, and finding funding proved difficult.
The drama, shot in Taiwan and playing for an unusually long 2 hours 45 minutes, will open in U.S. movie theaters on Dec. 23 before expanding nationwide.
Driver and Garfield lost about 20 pounds (9 kg) for their roles, which Driver said helped put him in the mindset of his weary and frightened young priest.
"You're playing a persecuted 17th century Jesuit priest. So it's good to, I think, have a little struggle. Also you're very tired and hungry, as are the characters," said Driver.
"Silence" has already been screened at the Vatican, where Sorsese had a meeting with Pope Francis in November.
But despite strong reviews and Scorsese's high profile in Hollywood as the man behind such films as "Taxi Driver," "Goodfellas" and "Raging Bull," his latest movie has gained little traction in the current Hollywood awards season.
"Silence" was snubbed by both the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild this week, receiving no nominations for their 2017 awards. Scorsese will have to wait until Jan. 24 to find out whether the movie is recognized when Oscar nominations are announced.
(Reporting by Reuters Television, Editing by Jill Serjeant and Alistair Bell)