Dir: Tatsushi Omori. Jap. 2005. 107mins.

An unblinking plunge into depravity, blasphemy andviolence, set in the idyllic confines of a Catholic monastery, Tatsushi Omori's debut feature The Whispering Of The Gods falls squarelyinto the love-it-or-loathe-it category.

Screened in competition atthe Tokyo International Film Festival, it evoked fervent praise from some -Japanese film scholar Donald Richie called it'the most powerful Japanese film I have seen during 2005' - andequally fervent damnation from others. It came away from TIFF without a prize, butproducer Genjiro Arato hopestake it to other festivals - beginning with Berlin - and open it in Tokyo on December17.

How confident is Arato of success with this film by first-time director Tatsushi Omori' Well, he has built a theatre for it incentral Tokyo, vowed to screen it there for six months, come what may, andrelease it nowhere else in Japan.

Is he deluded - or acock-eyed optimist' Neither - beginning in 1980 with SeijunSuzuki's Zigeunerweisen,which he screened in an inflatable tent-dome, Aratohas proven himself an imaginative and tirelesspromoter, able to transform even the knottiest arthousefare into hits.

He is also an acclaimeddirector, with his latest film, the 2003 drama Akame 48 Waterfalls, scooping nearly 30 awards at home.

Though filmed in rural IwatePrefecture and based on a prize-winning story by MangetsuHanamura, TheWhispering Of TheGods has a borderless, timeless, fabulistic feel,relying more on iconic images and gestures than words for its impact.

At the same time, it leavesits various crimes and acts open to interpretation, suggesting - but notinsisting. It will thus be a hard sell, not only to fans of The PassionOf The Christ, but also anyone who prefers clearlydefined heroes, villains and resolutions.

That said, the very strengthof the reactions it provokes, as well as the uncompromising quality of Omori'sdirection (lead actress Leona Hirota described theshoot to the press at TIFF as a 'hell' in which she came down with pneumonia,damaged her liver and broke two bones), will raise The Whispering Of The Godsabove the arthouse run. Given the support of keycritics and the right word-of-mouth, it could join the list of Arato's other success de scandals.

At the centre of the film isthe unreadable face and explosive presence of Rou (Hirofumi Ari),a killer of two strangers, who returns to the Catholic monastery and orphanagewhere he was raised to escape the police and revisit his past. One price ofrefuge is to masturbate Father Komiya, while the latter reads the Bible inLatin - and a dog looks on inquisitively. This, we are given to understand, hasbeen Rou's fate since boyhood.

Another price is to bringslops to the monastery's pigs and shovel the droppings of its hundreds ofchickens. When smarmy farm manager Ukawa (Nao Omori) assigns Rou the former and walks away whistling,Rou remembers, and later beats and kicks Ukawa into asnivelling, broken-toothed heap.

More outrages are to come,including sex with a young novice (Megumi Sawara), the attempted rape of a nun(Leona Hirota) and a blasphemous confession thatdrives Rou's elderly mentor, Father Togawa (Kei Togawa), to despair - and death.

Meanwhile Rou attracts apretty teenage boy, another of Father Komiya's victims, and a pudgy scoutmaster (Genta Dairaku). Rou, we see, is not just another sociopath,indulging appetites and urges at will, but a twisted seeker after a privatetruth, who no longer trusts words - only deeds. He does not so much destroy asexpose hidden desires and decay.

Making ample use of longcuts and pauses, Omori gives each of his shots an elemental solidity andemotional weight. Despite a deliberate pace - as seen with the black cattlethat clump single file through the snow during the powerful opening - he keepsthe tension high, mainly because his hero is such a volatile enigma.

Hirofumi Arai plays theprotagonist with little outward expression, yet possesses with an inner forcethat makes his very blankness eloquent.

The photography by Ryo Otsuka (Akame 48 Falls)has an Old Master richness, as in the scene of SisterTheresa cutting vegetables, looking like a subject for Vermeer. But when theviolent or erotic occasion calls for it, beauty gives way to an appropriatestarkness.

What are the godswhispering' Like every other element of this disturbing, provocative film,their message is up to the audience to parse. But first, like Father Komiya'sdog, it has to cock its ears - and listen.

Production companies
Neoplex Inc
Arato Film Inc

Japanesedistribution/international sales
Arato Film

General producer
Genjiro Arato
Executive producer
Akihiro Maeda

Shinichiro Muraoka

Yoshio Urasawa

Ryo Otsuka

Production design
Koichi Kanekatsu

Yoshiyuki Okuhara

Shuichi Chino

Main cast
Hirofumi Arai
Leona Hirota
Megumi Sawara
Nao Omori
Renji Ishibashi
Kei Sato
Genta Dairaku