Posts Tagged Shûsaku Endô

Film Review: Silence (2016)

Before the release of Silence in 2016, Martin Scorsese already had form when it came to questions of God and Religion. 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ had caused huge controversy when it was first released, and the 1997 movie Kundun, based on the life of the current Dali Lama, makes for a loose ‘spiritual’ trilogy.

Indeed, pre-production for Silence began only two years after the release of Last Temptation, shortly after Scorsese had first read Shusako Endo’s original 1966 novel, upon which the film was based. It would take almost a quarter of a century, substantial re-writes, years in ‘production hell,’ court actions and threatened court actions, before the film finally went into production proper. Scorsese, who was himself raised a Roman Catholic and still acknowledges the influence of Catholicism on his work, has described Silence as ‘Passion Project’ and a film that ‘had to be made,’ and has spoken of it in terms of it being a part of his own spiritual quest, a quest that he believes naturally grows more urgent as we humans reach the latter part of our natural life-cycle.

Last Temptation had ben attacked as blasphemous by many Christians, largely by the type of fundamentalists who had also denounced Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 in a similar manner. The line of attack on Last Temptation rested mostly on the scene towards the end of the film where Jesus is depicted as having a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. In fact, this scene forms part of a form of dream sequence, where Jesus on the cross, having chosen the path of self-sacrifice on behalf of humanity as a whole, imagines what it could have been like had he chosen to deny his Divinity and live out his life as a normal man, a man who marries, produces and raises a family. I don’t pretend any great expertise in the field of Theology, but from the limited understanding I do have, it would seem to me that the clash between the human and divine aspects of the figure of Jesus, between Jesus the man and Jesus the Christ, a clash that arguably also takes place within all of us, would seem to be pretty central to the Christian message, and thus ripe for artistic exploration. In addition, the righteous, angry, proto-socialist firebrand Jesus who expels the money changers from the Temple in Last Temptation is a Jesus who is closest to how I like to think the actual Jesus would have been.

Silence is not a film that, as far as I’m aware, has given any grounds for attack on the blasphemy front, and seems on the whole to have been well received amongst Christians.

It is worth mentioning here though a little of my own history with the film, and with Christianity itself. I have never been a believing Christian, but have at times defined myself as ‘Culturally Christian’, which has in turn led to sporadic periods of fairly regular church attendance. The release of Silence in the UK happened to coincide with one of these periods, and it was through the vicar at my local Anglican (Anglo-Catholic to be precise) church that I first heard of the film. It was raised when our regular Thursday night discussion group turned towards matters of the treatment of Christianity in modern literature, film and television. This vicar happened to have read Endo’s novel, and to have recently seen the film. His criticism of the latter was that although the movie was relatively faithful to the novel (the very last scene was an entirely cinematic, auteur decision, I would later learn), he felt it was unnecessary to show so graphically the gory torture and violence suffered by the Japanese Christians, brutality that is apparently only implied in the novel. Inevitably, the discussion then turned to Mel Gibson’s ultra-blood-fest, The Passion of Christ, a film that I believe gets an unnecessarily bad press, and is required Easter viewing, though this is not the place to discuss this.

Silence is indeed a very violent film, certainly not for the feint of heart or weak of stomach. Having not read the novel, I’m not in a position to compare the two, but having watched the film on the big screen shortly after that Thursday night discussion, and twice more on the small screen since, I believe that the subject matter entirely justifies the degree of violence depicted. In the hands of a great filmmaker, and Scorsese is right up there with Kubrick, Hitchcock, Chaplain, Ozu and Eisenstein amongst the greatest filmmakers of all time, the cinematic form need not be entirely devoid of subtlety and implication. But is a visual medium in a way that literature simply is not.   

I won’t give away too many spoilers in this review. Silence is a film that reached a relatively small audience, and is well worth seeing without knowing too much about it. But the central story, loosely based on real-life events and characters, concerns two seventeenth century Portuguese Jesuit priests, Sebastiao Rodriguez and Francisco Garupe, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver respectfully., who set off for Japan from the then Portuguese colony of Macao (now in China) in order to discover the truth concerning their former mentor Cristovao Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson, after word has reached them that Ferreira has committed apostacy, gone native, and has taken a Japanese wife. Ferreira is a legendary figure within the Jesuit order at this point, known for his devotion to spreading the Word to the Heathen Japanese, and the idea that he has renounced his Faith and is living in this way is simply unthinkable to the young priests.

Without going too deeply into Japanese history, which is there for those who wish to discover it, the action takes place in the early days of the ‘Edo-Era’ period, when Christianity was being brutally suppressed, creating what are today known as the ‘Hidden Christians’, groups of Japanese believers forced to practice their Faith, in as much as this is possible at all, in secret. This had followed a relatively brief period under the previous ‘Tokugawa Shogunate’ when a relatively relaxed attitude had existed towards this new spiritual import, making open missionary work possible, work that had proven successful in creating a small but growing and apparently devout Japanese Christian community.   

The film thus centres upon Rodriguez and Garupe’s journey to Japan from Macou through rough seas, assisted by the untrustworthy but complex figure of Kichijiro, played by Yosuke Kubozuka, a Japanese fisherman and Christian, whose own spiritual journey sees him swing wildly between deep faith and betrayal, and who at this point is seeking redemption after abandoning his religion in order to save his own life whilst members of his own family were put to death for their belief. After their arrival in Japan, we follow Rodriguez and Garupe as they search for Ferreira and assist the beleaguered, desperate, underground Japanese community, until they finally do discover the whereabouts and truth concerning their former teacher and his current life in Japan.

The film is indeed very violent. The punishments for those Japanese, and foreign, Christians who refuse to renounce their faith include being burnt alive, being beheaded, and being tied to raised wooden posts in the blazing sun without food or water, until they are eventually enveloped and drowned by incoming tides. After this latter prolonged and terrifying death, they are then cremated, and thus denied the full bodily burial demanded by their religion.

The movie spares nothing in showing the horrors that face those who refuse to renounce Christ, an act which is made visual in the film by the demand that his followers literally trample on an image of Jesus, are subjected to.

Silence explores themes such as Faith, Martyrdom, whether it is permissible to demand the martyrdom of others, the proselyting nature of Christianity, and also the possibility of what might be called Spiritual Imperialism.

It is this last point that I found most interesting in the film, and it is one explored powerfully through encounters between the Jesuit priests and the fascinating figure of The Inquisitor, played by Tadonobo Asano. This character, the most interesting in the entire film to me, combines supreme cruelty with righteous Japanese Nationalism and a keen wisdom and intellect. Through his words we see the possibility of doubt being sown in the minds of the devout priests, and also perhaps in the minds of those Christian viewers who may otherwise have been inclined to see the conflict in the movie as a simple one of ‘Good’ versus ‘Evil’. At one point, the Inquisitor says simply ‘Japan has its own religions. But you failed to notice this.’

This is of course true. Japan at this time already had its own longstanding spiritual traditions in the form of its national, pagan religion of Shinto, and of a form of Buddhism that had begun as an offshoot of another pagan religion, that of Hinduism in India, travelled to China where it’s encounter with Taoism produced Ch’an Buddhism, and then on to Japan where it became what we today know as Zen.

Without for a moment excusing the extremities of torture that Japanese Christians were subjected to, or of diminishing the heroism of all who have been, and in many places still are, prepared to sacrifice and suffer for their faith, the question of whether or not western Christians had/have a right to allow the implantation of their own belief system into other cultures to go unchallenged is certainly one worth thinking about. Marxist historians have been amongst those who have pointed out that in the development of Western Imperialism, the appearance of the gunboats was often proceeded by the appearance of the missionaries.

At one point, one of the Jesuit priests points to the growth of Christianity in Japan in the years before its repression, as a means of showing that many Japanese were prepared to freely choose this religion over their own indigenous traditions. Again, the Inquisitor casts doubt, this time on what he thinks the Japanese really understand by the teachings they have given, suggesting, for instance that when the priests talk of ‘the Son’, their Japanese congregation interpret this as ‘the Sun,’ the Sun of course being of such importance in Japanese history and culture that the name of the country literally means ‘Land of the Rising Sun.’ I’m not sure how well this suggestion works linguistically, given that we are dealing with issues of translation from Japanese to Portuguese to English, but this did make me think about how well religious ideas have and do translate from one culture to another.

Christianity itself of course emerged from Judaism in the Middle East a little over two thousand years ago, reaching Europe through the power of the Roman Empire a couple of centuries after that. Greater minds than mine have wrestled with the problem of trying to navigate as closely as possible backwards towards the original teachings of the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, but there can be no doubt at all that these teachings were changed by their encounter with western thought, most obviously of its encounter with the giants of Greek philosophy who were retrospectively claimed by and merged with the Christian tradition, despite their own pagan origins.

I myself, as well my periodic periods of ‘Cultural Christianity,’ attend a Zen Buddhist group here in Liverpool, and have done so on and off since first moving here twenty years ago. I’m in no doubt that Zen ‘Just Sitting’ meditation has had very positive benefits in my own life, but I’m also under no illusion that it has much to do with Zen as it is taught and practiced in Japan, either today or many centuries ago.

It is also perhaps worth mentioning that, even in the modern age, when Christianity can flow freely towards Japan, unhindered since at least the end of the Second World War and the final defeat of the Japanese Imperial tradition, and assisted by the most modern means of mass communication, and also no doubt with many billions of dollars spent on its propagation, only around 1% of modern Japanese citizens identify themselves as Christians. Shinto and Zen still reign in the hearts and minds of the Japanese people, and have proved to be remarkably adaptable, despite the massive changes Japanese society has undergone in recent decades.

Anyway, a fairly lengthy digression, but these were the main thoughts that the film brought out in me. Others may see different themes to these, themes I have missed, or indeed may see the story as simply a ‘Heroes Quest’ coupled with the enduring power of the Christian Faith and the Christian message. This is entirely legitimate also.

In closing, I’ll say simply that Silence is a powerful, thought-provoking film that looks great, is superbly acted by all the principal players, and has a great musical score by Kim Allen Kluge. It was a flop at the Box Office, and will no doubt long, and perhaps forever, remain one of Martin Scorsese’s lesser known works. That said, it is a work well worth seeking out.

I should mention that, prior to Scorsese’s version, there had already been a 1971 movie adaptation of Endo’s novel, though I have yet to see this.

Reviewed by Anthony C Green

Martin Scorsese
Jay Cocks(screenplay by)Martin Scorsese(screenplay by) Shûsaku Endô (based on the novel by)
Starring: Andrew Garfield (Sebastiao Rodriguez), Adam Driver (Francisco Garupe), Liam Neeson (Cristovao Ferreira), Tadonobo Asano (The Inquisitor), Claran Hinds (Alessandro Valignano) Shinya Tsukamato (Mokichi), Yosuke Kubozuka (Kichijiro)
2 hours 41 minutes


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