Martin Scorsese (2017)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

It’s no secret that as a boy, before being seduced by the allure of filmmaking, Martin Scorsese wanted to be a priest. And of course much of his work (most obviously The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun) has explored the lives of people grappling with their faith. So in many ways his new film, Silence, dealing with the struggle of two Jesuit priests among persecuted believers in seventeenth-century Japan, is really a very personal film for him. The fact is, Scorsese has been obsessed with this story for more than twenty years, writing and rewriting his adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name, hoping to bring it to the screen. And now, after more delays caused by financial problems, Scorsese has made the screenplay that he completed with Jay Cock into a nearly three-hour epic story of faith, abnegation, and a clash of religious cultures.

The film begins in 1636, when two Portuguese Jesuits, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) resolve to travel to Japan in quest of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has disappeared and who, according to rumors that have reached the Order in Europe, may have abjured his faith and be living among the Japanese as one of them. The background to this is alluded to briefly here and there in the film, but to clarify, Christian missionaries, led by the Jesuit Francis Xavier (now revered as a Catholic saint), had first come to Japan in 1549, successfully converting a significant number of Japanese in the Nagasaki area. There were an estimated 300,000 Christians in Japan by the end of the sixteenth century. But particularly under the Tokugawa shogunate, Christianity came under suspicion for bringing foreign ideas into Japan and subverting the social order, and Christianity in Japan was suppressed and its adherents persecuted. In Nagasaki, twenty-six Christians—mostly Franciscan missionaries—were martyred on crosses on February 5, 1597, and more persecutions followed, including another event in Nagasaki known as the “Great Genna Martyrdom,” in which fifty-five Catholic clergy and laity were tortured and martyred. Christianity was outlawed, Japanese Christians were without any sort of leadership or clergy, though some survived in secret communities. When caught by authorities, they were compelled to step on a small sculpted likeness of Jesus or of the Virgin Mary (called a fumi-e) as a symbol of their repudiation of Christendom. Those who would not repudiate were executed.

This is the world into which Rodrigues and Garupe are led by a Japanese guide named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka) picked up in a Portuguese port along the way. Kichijiro claims he is not a Christian, but is able to lead Rodrigues and Garupe to one of the few surviving Christian towns in Japan. The Christians do not trust Kichijiro, though, and we learn that, when forced to make the choice between stepping on the fumi-e or death, his entire family refused to repudiate their faith and were executed while Kichijiro abjured and saved his life. Once sheltered among the secret Christian villagers, the priests spend their days hiding, sheltered in caves or isolated, hidden in shacks while the brave Christians sheltering them face torture and death if they are discovered. Garupe has the most difficulty bearing this life in the shadows, and it soon becomes clear that the villagers are starving for the sacraments, which have been unavailable to them since they lost their priests years before. Rodrigues and Garupe must put their primary quest for Father Ferreira on hold while they minister to the needs of this congregation. Among those begging to take confession is Kichijiro himself.

Rodriguez and Garupe are sharply delineated as characters: Garupe seems more rigid, less sympathetic toward the Japanese, more interested in finding Ferreira. Rodrigues seems more naïve, more interested in serving the villagers. When he knows some are going to face the choice of trampling the fumi-e or torture and death, he urges them to step on the image of Christ: God is forgiving, after all. But Garupe insists that the faithful must never abandon the faith: Earthly martyrdom is nothing compared to eternal damnation, which in his mind is the reward of abjuration. When the two priests are forced to separate halfway through the film, we must wonder how strong Rodrigues’ faith will be without the rigid Garupe beside him.

The second half of the film focuses on Rodrigues and on his tribulations after he is captured by the local strongman Inoue (Issei Ogata), known as the Inquisitor. There’s an irony in this title, since back in Europe “Inquisitors” had been persecuting “heretics”—those who denied the orthodox Catholic faith—for centuries. And, indeed, at the very moment these events are presented as taking place in Japan, the Thirty Years War was raging in Europe between Catholics and Protestants, two branches of Christians who were willing to kill each other over the interpretation of their own common faith.

The film at this point takes on the structure of a medieval saint’s life, like those collected in the popular thirteenth-century collection called the Golden Legend, a work which undoubtedly would have been familiar to someone like Father Rodrigues, presenting him with numerous saints whose martyrdom he might emulate. Invariably these saints’ lives focused on the stalwart faith of the saint, who is imprisoned by local pagan authorities, threatened with torture or death if he or she does not abjure Christianity and worship the local god. The climactic scene of the legend was a trial scene (recalling Christ before Pilate) in which the judge or pagan ruler argued with the saint over the relative merits of their conflicting religions. The saint always bested the judge in this argument, God providing him or her with the right things to say to win the argument. At that point the pagan judge would abandon the argument and condemn the saint to horrible torture or death, which the saint suffered before moving on to eternal bliss. The concept of the saint’s imitation of Christ’s own life and passion is clear, and ordinary Christians were supposed to measure themselves against this ideal. Indeed, at one point Rodrigues looking at his reflection in a pool of water, sees Christ’s own face staring back at him.

Rodrigues clearly sees himself in this saintly role when he comes before the Inquisitor and his surprisingly reasonable and moderate interpreter (Tadanobu Asano). But Scorsese’s version of the trial scene is almost, but not quite, a parody of the traditional saint’s life. Rodrigues’ arguments are all clichés and platitudes, the sorts of arguments that would only convince someone who really didn’t need convincing (indeed, someone like the audience of those early saints’ lives, all of whom were Christians wishing to bolster their own faith). They do nothing to convince the Inquisitor or his interpreter, who are far better informed than Rodrigues is: They know his language, though he hasn’t bothered to learn theirs. They know the details of his religion, while he knows virtually nothing about theirs. (Why should he? His is right and he knows it.—“We have brought you the truth!” he insists.) But as the interpreter says with a shrug, “Only a Christian would see Buddha simply as man. You are ignorant, padre.”

What Rodrigues has to face that differs from the typical saint’s life is the fact that the Inquisitor has threatened to kill all the Japanese Christians imprisoned with him if he will not renounce the faith. Getting a priest to abjure, the Inquisitor knows, will do much to destroy the faith of the laity. The only way Rodrigues can save other lives is to abjure himself. He cannot simply choose martyrdom himself and have a clean conscience. Through it all, Rodrigues prays to his God but receives no answers. “I pray, but I am lost,” he says, adding “Am I just praying to silence?”

In the end Scorsese is silent when it comes to giving us any easy answers. We might think Rodrigues as big a fool as the Japanese do. (But if he is, how do we explain the truly charitable acts he performs?) On the other hand, we might see him as heroic in his defense of his faith. (But if he is, how can we feel good about his allowing so many others to die?). The story is complex, and there are no certainties.

But the one character who may be a key to the film is Kichijiro, who ludicrously abandons his faith at least four times in the film, but keeps coming back and asking Rodrigues to hear his confession every time. The one certainty in the film, in fact, is that Kichijiro will return. He is not a saint and has no desire to be a martyr. He is an ordinary human being, who sins again and again and keeps believing that there will be forgiveness. And Rodrigues keeps absolving him. Finally, the film tells us that, like Kichijiro, we can all be forgiven—seventy times seven times, isn’t it?

Garfield is suitably tormented as Rodrigues. Ogata as the Inquisitor is creepily cruel but rational at the same time, and Asano is surprisingly likeable as the interpreter. As Kichijiro, Kubozuka may be the most memorable actor in the film. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is the one Academy Award nomination Scorsese’s film received, and it is well deserved, showing us the torments of faith amidst beautiful mist-covered mountains. As for the score—well, there isn’t one. By the time you get about halfway through the film, you realize there has been no music, and as the ending credits roll, they roll, very appropriately, in silence.

Some people may find this film slow moving and ponderous. I didn’t find it so, and I’m giving it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare. It’s worth seeing.



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