The conversation is heavy stuff. We're discussing life's big topics; religion, spirituality and the conflicting nature of man.

And, because this is Martin Scorsese, the Mafia has also popped up.

Scorsese's new film Silence opens in cinemas today. The movie, a historical drama set in the 17th century, is about two Portuguese priests in Japan who are attempting to discover what fate befell their missing mentor while also attempting to spread the gospel of Christ in the fiercely Buddhist county.

The movie's stars Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) and Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) deliver exceptionally studied and powerful performances as the two priests. Garfield's pious Father Sebastiao Rodrigues and Driver's uncompromising Father Fransisco Garupe.

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Given the hefty subject matter it's little surprise the movie is weighty. It moves at a slow, deliberate and sombre pace, wringing high drama from a simple footstep and escalating slowly from nigh unbearable scenes of cruel torture to intensely awful scenes of much crueller death. The Wolf of Wall Street this ain't.

Director, Martin Scorsese on the set of the film SILENCE by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films
Director, Martin Scorsese on the set of the film SILENCE by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films

The movie is a passion project for the acclaimed director. He's been wanting to make it for 25 years. But why?

"It goes back to my environment I grew up in, the different factors that made me who I am," he says from his office in New York.

Scorsese talks fast and generously. His NYC speech patterns sees him finishing sentences abruptly, clipping them short or missing words entirely as he leaps from thought to thought. He pauses only to clarify meaning and, as befits one of the greatest storytellers of the modern age, is hugely entertaining.

"In the late 40s, early 50s, when I was eight or nine I had severe asthma, was not allowed to play sports, and ended up in a parochial school in the lower east side of New York. The old Italian neighbourhood. But the parochial school was run by an Irish group of nuns. I was introduced into the religion around that time.

"But what I began to notice around me was that the world outside the walls of the school and the cathedral which was there - St Patrick's Cathedral - was very different from what they were talking about inside those walls."

"Let me explain to you; when I was living down in that Italian area they were more Italian than American. And they were more Sicilian than Italian. The language spoken was mainly Italian or Sicilian. It was very tough in the streets. There was a lot of underworld crime, the criminal underworld, and when I say that, yes, it was violent. But the violence was specific. It was not necessarily.. ."

He trails off. Quickly considers and continues.

"Let me put it this way; the violence was more in the thinking of how that world worked. It was almost like being in an occupied country. We couldn't say anything, see anything. And this was the norm! This was the normal."

He laughs, an exasperated yet hearty guffaw.

"In the church they're talking about love and compassion. I thought, 'wait a minute! Is that the way things are? Shouldn't it be that way outside the walls? Shouldn't there be compassion? Acceptance? Love?' All the tenets of Christianity.

"So I always wanted to pursue that - I tried to be a priest and that didn't work. But I wound up pursuing all this by telling stories with pictures. It usually shows up in stories that I do about the underworld. About people who are considered villains, bad characters. I knew a lot of people who were doing bad things. But they were genuinely good people. They were forced into it. Through different circumstances."

L-R: Director, Martin Scorsese and Andrew Garfield on the set of the film SILENCE by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films
L-R: Director, Martin Scorsese and Andrew Garfield on the set of the film SILENCE by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films

Scorsese says the more he thought about the conflicting nature of the world he lived in and the idealistic view of how he was told the world should be, the more questions he had. He's been searching for answers ever since.

"You put somebody in jail then how do you pardon them? Do you think they've changed? Is there essential good inside a person? And could you generate that good into love and make that person change? What's the real nature of being a human being? Evil or good? All these questions came to mind but they never went away. I'm sorry, but they didn't."

Man's struggle with religion and inner battle with faith has been a constant theme of his work - both overtly, like the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ and symbolically like Jake LaMotta's self-forgiveness and redemption at the end of Raging Bull or De Niro's maniacal criminal in Cape Fear who is covered in biblical tattoos.

But has his artistic exploration brought him any closer to understanding?

"Being older and having gone through a tumultuous life at times ... yeah, I think closeness comes. It reaches a point in which you have to find some peace with yourself. Accept yourself. And pardon yourself if you can.

"Really, it's about how you behave and how you act out with the people around you, the people you love and the people closest to you. I think that's the best you can do. It's really up to us. You can't expect anybody or some supernatural concept to take care of it for us."

Still from Martin Scorsese's film Silence. Photo: Kerry Brown.
Still from Martin Scorsese's film Silence. Photo: Kerry Brown.

In Silence the devotion of Japan's "Hidden Christians", so-called because of the fatal ramifications of their faith being discovered, is unshakeable. Even in the face of awful persecution at the hands of the Inquisitor's Buddhist samurai who presents the peasants with a simple test to determine their faith.

To prove they are not Christian, all they have to do is step on a Fumi-e, a mat painting of Jesus.

For the hidden Christians their faith was the only thing of worth that they owned. As Scorsese explains, Christianity appealed because the religion placed value on their souls and their self-worth as human beings.

To step on the Fumi-e meant losing everything they valued. To refuse meant a gruesome death. This dilemma plays out several times throughout the movie and the consequence of decision never gets any less intense.

"I know, I know," Scorsese agrees, his voice dropping to a respectful quietness. "I've had very close friends say, 'two seconds I would have stepped on it. Two seconds'. One, a very wonderful writer, said to me, 'I really firmly understand now that I believe in nothing. I would have been the first to step on it.'"

For Andrew Garfield's character, the Jesuit priest Rodrigues, that decision, that small step, couldn't be any bigger.

Still from Martin Scorsese's film Silence. Photo: Kerry Brown.
Still from Martin Scorsese's film Silence. Photo: Kerry Brown.

"He learns true Christianity by stripping away all his arrogance. His sense of superiority deals with his arrogance as a priest and how that arrogance and pride has to be broken down, ultimately. The Japanese see that in him. They didn't like that. The main thing to do is to hit the arrogance and tear it down.

"What's fascinating to me about the story is when Rodrigues has shed everything and he has no pride in anything - that's when he finds the true Christianity. To learn about true acceptance. Not submission but acceptance and true humility. That's the lesson of Christianity.

"It isn't a matter of stepping on the Fumi-e," explains Scorsese, who described the process of making this film as a "pilgrimage".

"It's the thought process of what you believe in," he says. "And the journey that it takes you on."