SilenceFebruary 17, 2017
Religion is a dangerous subject for any filmmaker, but for Martin Scorsese it’s an obsession. Silence is his third religious movie after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), but almost all of Scorsese’s films have been religious at heart. One has only to count the number of crucifixion scenes. Like so many lapsed Catholics, Scorsese cannot get the Church out of his mind, constantly returning to problems of faith and doubt.
Silence is the film Scorsese has been wanting to make since 1989, when he first read Shusako Endo’s novel of the same name. He had just weathered the controversy over The Last Temptation, which had been dropped by Paramount but picked up by Universal. Scorsese directed without taking a fee.
It’s an irony that The Last Temptation flopped at the box office, while Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), 16 years later, would be an outlandish success. The moral may be that audiences like their religious films cut-and-dried, not riddled with doubt.
The lesson was lost on Scorsese who struggled to get funding for Silence. Once again he has directed without taking a fee, using actors who agreed to work for rock-bottom rates.
This is not the first time the book has been made into a movie. Masahiro Shinoda’s version of 1971, co-scripted by Endo, is a savage affair, with unknown western actors, pervasive darkness, and a jangling score by composer, Toru Takemitsu.
Scorsese has given us a more polished product, but the essential themes remain the same. It’s only at the end that the two approaches diverge, Shinoda’s vision being the more bleak and uncompromising.
Silence tells the story of the persecution of Christians that took place in Japan in the 17th century, when authorities decided this foreign sect was dangerous and inappropriate. The Portuguese Jesuits, following the pioneering trail of Francis Xavier, had found Japan to be fertile ground for missionary work. At its height there were 300,000 Japanese Christians.
By the mid-1600s, when the movie begins in an orgy of torture, the numbers had been decimated. Tens of thousands of Japanese Christians had been mangled and martyred, and the Jesuits driven from the country.
Two young priests, Rodrigues and Garupe, (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), are begging their superior, Valignano (Ciarán Hinds), to be allowed to travel to Japan to investigate the disappearance of their former mentor, Father Ferreira, whose letters to head office came to a sudden halt. Ferriera is rumoured to have apostatised – turned his back on his faith, and gone over to the other side.
Rodrigues and Garupe will not believe this, and insist on undertaking a dangerous mission against Valignano’s advice. They need a Japanese guide to get them from Macao to Japan, and the only candidate is a wretch called Kichijiro (Yosuke Kobozuka), who sprawls in a filthy, sozzled heap at a tavern.
Kichijiro agrees to help them, but his personality is so weak and repellent that Rodrigues and Garupe never feel they can trust him. As the story progresses, Kichijiro will keep returning, like a chorus, as a constant reminder of the imperfect way Christianity was planted in the “swamp” of Japan.
Rodrigues and Garupe settle in a dirt-poor village full of fervent, secret Christians. Their presence is at first a great comfort to the peasants, then a danger. When the Inquisitor’s men arrive, disaster follows, and the priests have to leave and follow separate paths. We stay with Rodrigues, whose letters provide the narration in the novel.
After a few days wandering, like Christ in the wilderness, he is captured and brought to Nagasaki to confront Inoue, the Inquisitor. The second half of the film deals with Rodrigues’s physical and spiritual ordeals while in captivity; with his discussions with Inoue (played like a Bond super villain, by Issei Ogata), and his eventual meeting with Ferreira (Liam Neeson). This is the true drama of the movie – Rodrigues’s relentless grappling with his conscience, as he struggles to reconcile doctrine and the demands of the moment. The silence is that of God, who refuses to intercede on behalf of the persecuted.
Endo the novelist comes from a different direction to Scorsese. He was born and raised a Catholic and chose to remain with the faith after a long period of doubt. Yet the issues he dramatises are hardly an advertisement for the Church in Japan.
It becomes increasingly apparent to Rodrigues that Japanese Christianity bears little resemblance to Catholic orthodoxy. The believers identify God with the sun, and see martyrdom as a way of escaping the undending misery of their lives by ascending to Paradise. Kichijiro, whose whole existence is one long cycle of treachery and guilt, believes that by undergoing Confession he will be free to sin again with impunity.
Rodrigues also becomes aware of his own religious vanity, a point made early on, when he gazes into a pool of water and sees his image alternating with that of Jesus Christ. As the suffering around him escalates, he struggles to maintain his confidence in a God that remains resolutely mute. For viewers it may be a struggle to get to the end of this magisterial, brutal movie.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese, after a novel by Shusako Endo
Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Ciarán Hinds, Yosuke Kobozuka, Issei Ogata, Tadanobu Asano, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida
USA/Taiwan/Mexico, rated MA 15+, 161 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 18th February, 2017.