Film Review: Silence – A Film By Martin Scorsese
Sometimes silence is the deadliest sound!
Based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Martin Scorsese’s film ‘Silence’ is the third adaptation of the novel following ‘Chinmoku’, a 1971 film adaptation by Masahiro Shinoda, and the 1996 Portuguese version ‘Os Olhos da Ásia’ (The Eyes of Asia) by João Mário Lourenço Bagão Grilo.
Directed by Martin Scorsese, with a screenplay by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, it is set in the historical ‘Kakure Kirishitan’ (Hidden Christian) period of 17th century Japan. The main story takes place between 1640-1641, a few years after the four month long predominantly Japanese Catholic Shimabara Rebellion which was savagely put down by the Government Forces of the vehemently anti-Christian and anti-European Shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu. After the rebellion was put down and 37,000 insurgents beheaded Iemitsu’s decree of Sakoku (National Seclusion) was increasingly forcibly implemented. Except for the Dutch, at Dejima Island in Nagasaki Bay, Japan was effectively closed to foreigners for the next 220 years and the Japanese were forbidden, on pain of death, from leaving Japan. Christianity was banned, a ban that was strictly enforced, and the Portuguese were expelled from Japan and lost their hold on the trading port of Nagasaki which, prior to their expulsion, had become a city that was, ostensibly, governed by the Portuguese.
The introduction which sets the precedent for the rest of the story takes place in 1633 when a Jesuit priest, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), bears witness to the torture of other Jesuits in order to force him to recant his Christian faith.
Some years later Ferreira’s last letter to the outside world has been received by the Jesuit Order the contents of which have given cause for great concern about the survival of Christianity in Japan and Ferreira’s possible apostasy. For two young idealistic priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), this issue is of paramount importance and they are dispatched to Japan to see if they can find any evidence of the fate of Ferreira and establish whether or not he has renounced his faith.
After finding a drunken Japanese man Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) stranded in Macau who agrees to act as a guide in return for passage back to Japan, they set sail and, making landfall in Japan, meet the local villagers who, it turns out, are secret Christians to whom they minister and who hide them away from the eyes of the authorities. Eventually they are discovered by peasants from the neighbouring village who are also in need of their ministry.
As the story progresses the dilemmas and debates that the film throws up about absolutism, faith, compassion in the face of great suffering though the abjuration of belief, and religious colonialism to name a few are brought into relief. One wonders whether the arguments being made on screen are in favour of the Japanese or the Roman Catholic Church at the time but this is not made explicit and with this it would seem that the audience is left to make up its own mind about some of the most complex theological, sociological and cultural debates of the period affecting Japan without sufficient background knowledge, though whether this could be done without making the film into a docu-drama is debatable.
With the involvement of a second village the film seems to affirm the view of Rodrigues and Garrpe that the extreme suffering of the peasants only, both in general and for their Christianity, is analogous to the suffering of Christ which misses the historical point that even Christian Daimyō and their families and militias suffered for their beliefs during the persecutions of Christians in Japan and that the Shōgunate was not cruel for cruelties sake to its own population but out of what it perceived as an absolute patriotic necessity to rid Japan of Christianity. And the parallels with the cruelty of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, or the Inquisition as it is otherwise known are not lost with the senior most Japanese official, Inoue Masahsige (Issey Ogata), being referred to as the Grand Inquisitor.
The character Inoue Masashige’s insouciance to the importation of foreign knowledge, known to the Japanese at the time as Dutch Studies, is a reflection of the facts surrounding the historical person, someone who though with a lead responsibility for the persecution of Christians was a sympathetic adherent of the aforementioned Dutch Studies and a foremost shudō (gay) personage of the period. With this background knowledge it is far easier to understand in a more nuanced way Issey Ogata’s studied interpretation of the character.
Kichijiro makes many appearances continually betraying his faith and ultimately the Jesuits but also continually drawing on what Rodrigues and Kichijiro both see as the boundless grace of God, eventually betraying Rodrigues to the authorities in a way that is obviously analogous to the actions of the Biblical Judas.
The scenes of torture are daunting and may elicit perceptions of the Japanese at the time as innately cruel but the first of the Tokugawa Shōguns, Ieyasu, who had previously been cautiously supportive of contact with outsiders because it suited his purposes and power plays, and who eventually began their expulsion and the forced mass apostasy of his own subjects in 1614, had a not undeserved reputation as a man of the people. It is not that peasants were subjected to torture and tortuous executions because of some imagined innate cruelty of the Japanese but that in exercising absolute control the cruel exhibitionary executions were intended as deterrence to the two million Japanese Christian converts, about 10% of the population at the time and perceived as a dire threat to the Japanese Government.
The continual intimidation and mental torture of Rodrigues brings out the self-delusional arrogance born of a theological absolutism in his character, an attitude that pervaded the Jesuit Order at the time, to the extent that the Order was feared even by the Papacy. Yet the film does not acknowledge or make clear the Order’s political intrigues in Japan with the aim of overthrowing the Japanese Government or the aggressive persecution and intolerance of Buddhism by Japanese Christian converts at the instigation of the Jesuits, with the burning of Buddhist Temples and slaughtering of Buddhist Priests which resulted in Tokugawa Ieyasu’s first anti-Christian edicts.
The denouement involving Ferreira, Rodrigues and the Japanese interpreter assigned to Rodrigues (played with obvious relish by Tadanobu Asano) once again bring to the fore issues of debate around Christianity and Buddhism and how Japan at the time was being affected by the interpretations of those beliefs.
Overall it is an interesting and theologically complex movie but one which, as Scorsese’s grand opus, is ultimately flawed. There is some indistinct dialogue and Andrew Garfield’s valiant attempt at a Portuguese accent fails in a way that verges on comical, though overlooking this his interpretation of Rodrigues is convincingly played as is Liam Neeson’s sympathetic Ferreira, though Issey Ogata’s Inoue is the most intriguing and multi-faceted character on screen.
For a film of 161 minutes it is probably a bit too niche and gloomy for the general audience and more of a draw for those interested in this period in Japanese history and for the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Japan at the time.
A difficult story which could have been done better, though nice try.
Additional background information
The characters of Father Cristóvão Ferreira, Giuseppe Chiara (Sebastião Rodrigues) and Inoue Masashige were historical figures on whom the characters in ‘Silence’ were based.
Father Cristóvão Ferreira was the head of the Jesuit Mission in Japan and, after having been tortured for five hours, became a ‘fallen priest’. He took the Japanese name of Sawano Chūan
Giuseppe Chiara, on whom the character of Sebastião Rodrigues is based, was a Jesuit who landed in Japan after the Shimabara Rebellion. His last name was changed to Okamoto and he died in Edo
The Grand Inquisitor and Imperial Commissioner Inoue Masashige, who had a lead role in the persecution of Christians, was most likely one of the male lovers of the shudō (gay) Shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu and was the Commissioner for the Nagasaki based Dutch East India Company a Swedish member of which he allegedly tried to sleep with. He was pro-Dutch and an advocate of Dutch Studies (Western knowledge) but played his hand very carefully considering Iemitsu’s attitudes. At least one source states that he was himself at one time a Christian convert
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Running time: 161 minutes
Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.