Martin Scorsese’s latest epic, Silence (based on the book by Shusaku Endo) centres on the character of Father Sebastião Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit priest who travels to Japan along with his friend Father Francisco Garrpe, to find their former mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira. Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson) is rumoured to have apostatised; to have denied Christ in order to save his own life, an action rendered worse by the fact that he’s a priest and the head of the Jesuits in Japan. The action takes place in the context of an extraordinarily violent and cruel repression of Christianity in Japan in which the victims are burnt alive, doused with boiling water, hung in pits full of excrement and drowned in the sea tied to wooden crosses.
Silence begins in boiling water and ends in burning fire. The first is the boiling water of hot springs applied to the living flesh of captured Japanese Christians and the Franciscan friars who minister to them. The last is the flames that leap up around the coffin of the Father Rodrigues as he is laid to rest in the traditional Japanese-Buddhist manner. This elemental imagery necessarily repeats itself throughout the film: again and again mist and smoke clouds the view, whether at the boiling springs of Untzen in the opening shot, or the smoking pyres used to burn the bodies of the martyred villagers. The fire recurs as well, often in unexpected places. A vivid memory for me is the moment when Father Rodrigues is hiding behind a rock on a mountainside, beside himself with awful anxiety as he contemplates the supposed silence of God in the face of his children’s suffering. The green grass which encloses him has a vividness like green fire, almost as if it echoes the fire of the Holy Spirit; even the sea appears to be burning bright when Father Garrpe is martyred. I don’t think this focus on the elements is entirely accidental, it conveys a message throughout the film, echoing the dialogue and the meaning of the plot. Mud also plays its part: when the Japanese inquisitors arrive to take hostages, the village is almost drowning in deep, sticky mud and when some Christian prisoners are forced to dig their own graves later in the film, they do so in driving rain and soupy mud. I’m certain that this imagery is designed to supplement the constant references to Japan as a ‘swamp’ where Christianity cannot take root. It drives the message of the Buddhist authorities home: Japan is no place for Christianity, it is a tree that will wither in the swamp of Japan.
Ostensibly, the narrative focuses on the journey, both internal and external, of Father Rodrigues, from devout Jesuit missionary through apostasy to becoming a paid lackey of the Japanese state. We are encouraged, through the use of blindingly beautiful imagery (the secret mass, where the host is illuminated by a beam of sunlight breaking through the rafters is a notable moment), to view the priests as central to the story and the lay Japanese Christians as somewhat incidental. I think the film is a celebration of the priesthood and the bravery of the Jesuit missionaries but that more than this, it attempts to bring the great sacrifice of the Japanese Christians themselves to the fore. The heroism (if there were a greater word than ‘heroism’ I would use it here) of the simple Japanese martyrs, the Kakure Kirishitan ‘hidden Christians’ is contrasted with the complex cowardice of the Jesuits who have come to shepherd them. Late in the film, when Rodrigues finally meets his old mentor, Ferreira, the older man attempts to convince him that the Japanese peasants knew nothing of the Faith and were dying to no purpose. But the supposed ignorance of the peasants is not only a lie, it is a lie born of arrogance and self-deceit: both Ferreira and Rodrigues, faced with martyrdom or apostasy, imagine themselves in the position of Christ. The Japanese peasants have no such lofty illusions, they are humble enough to die for their faith; the priests are far too proud.
The film is many layered – layer upon layer of ambiguity and truth that deliberately avoids easy categorisation: it is vague and ambiguous like the mists that inhabit the screen for much of the film. Is this an encouragement to apostasy, or a rebuke of it? Is it about the priests or a celebration of the heroism of the peasants? Is this a refutation of the universality of the Gospels; the Faith that cannot survive in Japan? Of the Truth that Christ gave to the world? Or is it an affirmation that Christ conquers all? Take, for instance, the very last shot before the screen fades to black: a crucifix in the dead hand of Rodrigues as the flames begin to consume him. This could imply that everything is OK, even after his apostasy, he still, in some small way, kept the faith – the sort of faith that the Japanese authorities wanted, private and powerless. Or it could be a reminder of the suffering of Christ, who did die an innocent for what he believed, who in seemingly losing Himself, truly found Himself and vindicated his mission.
For me, the cruelty and cunning of the Japanese inquisitors stood out against the simplicity of their victims. Throughout the film and between all their horrid tortures, they encourage apostasy by saying that it can be a merely external formality. In short, they encourage a dismemberment of soul and body which would make the old Gnostics blush. There they are, faces plastered with cruel smiles as they use the argument of ‘mercy’ to persuade Rodrigues to apostatise. All regimes which have attempted to destroy Christianity have done so in this way, trying to split action and belief into discrete quantities. If a man strongly believes he is clean and yet never takes a shower, he is not clean: the belief requires the action. Indeed, this dialogue serves as an archetypical representation of a scene which has played out for 2,000 years, under the Romans or the regime of Henry VIII. It is obvious what happens to you if you try to live by beliefs which you do not practise. Fulton J. Sheen perhaps said it most eloquently: “If you do not live what you believe, you will end up believing what you live.” Ferreira himself is an apt illustration of this, for when Rodrigues meets him, he is a mere shell of man – dead inside, going through the motions for the benefit of his Buddhist masters, forced to write treatises attacking Christianity, forced to trample on the fumie (representations of Christ or the Holy Virgin) to signal his apostasy, forced to take a Japanese wife and a Japanese name. He is, in short, a slave.
Alongside the main case, there is one character who deserves a special mention: Kichijiro. Kichijiro (played brilliantly by Yōsuke Kubozuka) is the Japanese fisherman who lead Rodrigues and Garrpe to Japan. It is later revealed he is an apostate Christian who disavowed his faith and watched the rest of his family burn, an instance which leads to his disgrace and huge inner turmoil. In a particularly touching scene he tearfully begs for Rodrigues to hear his confession which he does, on a green mountainside overlooking the sea. Now, throughout the film he betrays the priests and his fellow Christians and yet every time he returns seeking forgiveness from those he has betrayed and that reconnection with God that he needs. By about the third time of this, most of my fellow cinema-goers simply found it amusing. I’ve not doubt they found his ‘pathetic weakness’ (as Father Rodrigues puts it) and perhaps his supposed insincerity, amusing. They also tapped into a feeling that is widespread, that Confession is simply too good to be true. Why should Kichijiro be forgiven so many times? Why should he get off so easy? But that is the whole point of the sacrament of Reconciliation and, I think, of Kichijiro’s character: Kichijiro represents the fact that we sin over and over again, often the same ones repeated ad infinitum – but this repetitive falling teaches us more and more about God and ourselves, it is the returning to God that gives us perseverance and the Grace always to turn to Him. It teaches us that our sins are vanishingly small compared to the mercy of God.
Usually, I would have something perceptive (haha) to say about the soundtrack. I often find the soundtrack to be the most emotive part of a film, mainly because music is my favourite art form. At their best soundtracks provide a film with the right atmosphere; they ready the mind and heart to take the plunge into whatever particular reality the film exists. The score underscores moments of emotional importance and enhances them, lodging them forever in your memory more than mere words and images ever could. Yet, for the life of me I can’t remember a single piece of music in Silence. Now, either I’m suffering from aural amnesia, or Scorsese has made a film so engrossing that I simply ignored the soundtrack throughout. I’m certain it is the latter.
There is no single performance that stole the film for me, indeed, a number deserve a special mention of appreciation: Adam Driver as Father Garrpe was moodily brilliant, he ends up so thin by the end of the film you vaguely worry about his health, so credit to him for commitment. Andrew Garfield as Father Rodrigues cut a gawky figure, but his portrayal of this tortured soul was essentially a lesson in genius. Indeed, one of the most moving scenes in the film is Father Rodrigues’s inability to stop the death of his friend Father Garrpe – Garfield delivers a heart-rending performance here. Shinya Tsukamoto as Mokichi and Yoshi Oida gave more than solid performances. Oida as the village elder, brought an authority and quiet courage to the screen which made the death of his character all the more tragic. Issey Ogata as Inoue the Inquisitor was both disturbing and excellent, especially as he was playing a character perhaps twenty years his senior. Strangely, Ogata even appears to manipulate his physiology at one point in the film. As for Tadanobu Asano, playing the crafty interpreter, I suppose it must be a compliment to his skill that I wanted to punch him in his smirking face within thirty seconds of his appearing on the screen.
I found the film compulsive viewing, at no point was I bored and, given the content and the source material, the pacing of the film was masterful – just enough time to contemplate the horror, not enough time to get distracted. Silence easily slips into my top twenty films. Imagery, acting and subject matter all combine to make it an unforgettable experience and certainly the best religious film in recent years. 4/5.