USA Mexico Italy (159 mi) 2016 ‘Scope d: Martin Scorsese
Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.
— Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield)
— Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield)
A recent student at Oberlin College complained to the university administration about not being warned of the suicide scene in Sophocles Antigone, claiming the play triggered strong emotional impulses, and that he, someone who had long been on suicide watch, should have been warned. Similarly, this is the kind of film that should come with an adult warning attached, as the content is not for everyone, and may cause severe emotional trauma for some viewers, as they will be subjected to witness multiple murders and actual torture techniques for the next several hours. This warning should not be underestimated, as some may find it difficult to sleep afterwards or to rid themselves of many of the predominate psychological images, some of which are utterly horrifying. The Japanese may take great offense to this film, as they are portrayed in much the same vile manner as the Nazi’s in World War II, where they come to personify pure evil in the eyes of the audience, which may be a credible position for their 17th century historic actions towards outsiders, but it is hardly one of understanding or objectivity, where it’s hard to think of another film where one culture is portrayed in such a damningly negative light. Initially screened at the Vatican in a room full of 300 Jesuit priests before it was shown to the rest of the world, adapted from Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel about Jesuit priests suffering oppression and torture in Japan during the 17th century, the film may actually bring this controversial writer a wider audience, as there has long been speculation as to why he never won a Nobel Prize for literature. One theory is that Endō remains too controversial in Japan, where he was always regarded as an outsider, converting to Christianity at age 12 before the war, persecuted as a Christian during his schooling, suffering the prejudicial consequences for having adopted the religion of the nation’s enemy, as even today less than 1% of the Japanese population is Christian. Another is that Endō never shied away from controversial subjects, describing the appalling vivisections conducted by the Japanese military during World War II on captured American airmen in his early 1958 novel, The Sea and Poison, while also probing the dark corners of human sexuality, exploring pedophilia and sexual sadism in his 1986 novel, Scandal. Yet Silence is a novel that captivated Scorsese, a former Jesuit student, having re-read the novel “countless times,” where his version is described as more faithful to the novel than Masahiro Shinoda’s earlier movie version in 1971, one that Endō felt was a travesty and did not do justice to his novel, particularly in the all-important climactic scenes. It should also be pointed out that Pope Paul VI, in a sermon at Nagasaki shortly after the novel was published, urged people “not” to read Endō’s book, calling it blasphemy. With that in mind, Scorsese’s more contemplative rendering shifts the tone, where instead of a straightforward act of heresy, showing a priest cracking under psychological pressure, the imprisoned priests in question undergo a severe personal struggle where they grapple with their faith, forced to doubt the very existence of God, much like Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s questioning the existence of God in Auschwitz, yet that internalized struggle between doubt and faith lies at the heart of what it is to be human.
Given to him by Barbara Hershey and David Carradine, the two stars of Boxcar Bertha (1972), Scorsese first read the novel a year after the release of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988), a film that created a storm of controversy over a dream sequence where Jesus has sex with Mary Magdalene. While religious themes have held a prominent position throughout Scorsese’s films, as early as Mean Streets (1973), where the Harvey Keitel low-level mobster character has a running dialogue with God continually struggling with the idea of trying to be a saint while living in sin. At one stage in the director’s life he considered joining the priesthood, spending a year in the seminary, but this film has been a passion project in development for over twenty years, becoming something of a personal obsession, eventually hiring Rev. James Martin, a highly regarded Jesuit writer and priest, working closely with the writers and actors to maintain religious and historical accuracy, initially gathering the actors for a 7-day silent retreat at St. Beuno’s, a Jesuit spiritual center in north Wales, while the lead actor Andrew Garfield completed a 30-day retreat over a six month period, where according to Martin in an interview with the New York Times (The Passion of Martin Scorsese - The New York Times), “On retreat, you enter into your imagination to accompany Jesus through his life from his conception to his crucifixion and resurrection. You are walking, talking, praying with Jesus, suffering with him. And it’s devastating to see someone who has been your friend, whom you love, be so brutalized.” It is this particular point of view that guides the film, where the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier first brought Catholicism to Japan in 1549, but by the next century the religion is outlawed, suppressed through the torture of missionaries and their followers, who we see crucified on wooden crosses, splashed in the face with scalding water from natural springs as the water is then dripped over their heads in a sadistic measure so that they can feel the pain of every single drip. Part of the film is narrated by an unseen Dutch trader, who communicates by letters with Portuguese Father Alessandro Valignano (Ciarán Hinds), including a last letter recently received, though written years ago, reporting Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), one of the last missionaries sent to Japan, committed apostasy, officially renouncing his religion after being tortured, and hasn’t been heard from since. Two of his pupils, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe this is possible, and against the recommendation of their leader, insist on following Father Ferreira to Japan in order to find him and learn the truth. On the journey, led by Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), an alcoholic fisherman who has fled Japan, reminiscent of Kikuchiyo, the Toshirô Mifune character in Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), the film follows the missionary’s point of view, where much of the interior narration comes from letters written by Rodrigues reporting back to his superior. While we watch men crucified in the ocean, eventually drowned by the rising tide, we learn Kichijiro lost his entire family, as they were burned alive through a ritual known as fumie, under the military authority of the Japanese shogunate, where imprisoned Christians were ordered to step on a religious icon to repudiate their faith, a piece of copper impressed with an iconic image of Christ or the Virgin Mary, while members of their family would be put to death to help persuade them to make the right choice.
While we learn that the Japanese Christian believers represent the backbreaking poverty of the Japanese peasantry who have lost all other faith, evidently hoping for a peaceful afterlife, the film plays out as a hellish prison drama, like the Siberian gulags, or concentration camps, as both Rodrigues and Garupe separate in order to have the most influence, but both are immediately arrested and their influence minimized. Like something out of the Roman Colosseum, the Japanese toy with these Christian missionaries for sport, as personified by the psychological mind games from an Old Samurai (Issey Ogata), the man pulling the strings behind the scenes, also known as the Inquisitor, in a reference to Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor from his novel The Brothers Karamazov, an imposter to the throne who has all the power but no moral ethics, along with his henchman, a Satanesque interpreter, Tadanobu Asano from Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu) (2016), sadistically dangling their followers, who are murdered one by one, as an incentive for the priests to renounce their faith, calling them vain and arrogant, “The price for your glory is their suffering!” while ridiculing their beliefs, “Our Buddha is a being which man can become. Something greater than himself, if he can overcome all his illusions. But you cling to your illusions and call them faith. Your Creator is all-loving and all-merciful, so you believe. Then why does he give people so much suffering on the way to heaven?” Reminiscent of the Cambodian scenes from APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), few films express human atrocities as raw and graphically as this one, where the unending torture and explicit murder scenes may be too much for some, as the gruesome human nature depicted is heinously grotesque and as atrociously vile as anything you’re ever likely to see. Why the viewers are subjected to this degree of graphic horror on display is a subject of speculation, as there are certainly more poetic ways of depicting the same without resorting to such relentlessly graphic means, where the only other film that comes to mind is the gory spectacle of Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004), a bloody debacle of human wretchedness on display, where in each case whatever meditative or religious spiritual value the film potentially offers gets overwhelmed by a dominance of endless brutality, where tens of thousands of Japanese Christians were persecuted, tortured, and killed over the 250 years that the religion was outlawed, as the ban was not lifted until 1873. That’s not to say there aren’t poetic moments in the film, but they are lush expressions of scenery and landscape, such as the tribute to Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari) (1953) when the priests are initially brought to Japan, becoming engulfed in an expressionist fog bank where they take on the spirit of a ghost-like floating vessel suddenly lost in the gloom. If ever there was ominous imagery to describe becoming lost along the way, this is it, and it precedes everything else that follows. The procession of torturous incidents all lead to a climactic moment where Rodrigues, the last remaining priest, becomes the only person that can put an end to the atrocities, but only by renouncing his faith, where they pull out all the stops by unveiling an ever serene Father Ferreira to help persuade him, as he’s a man of consciousness who has already accepted this reality. It’s a grim moment of hellish rectitude, where many more will be slaughtered, where the repeated prayers by Rodrigues remain unanswered, continually wrestling with the idea of God remaining silent in the face of so much wretchedness and misery, as the barbarism of the human condition feels like a stronger, unstoppable force. The priest believes it is his destiny to suffer a Christ-like martyrdom, but is greatly surprised to learn he will also be undermined by a Judas-like follower. The question then becomes, does Christ allow an essentially evil act, a religious denunciation (as the apostle Peter once denied Christ three times before his resurrection), in order to obtain a greater good, an end to human slaughter? If it is done to save himself, then the answer is a resounding no. But if it saves the lives of others, isn’t that what Christ would do? Rather than ending the film on this precipitous moment, more follows, where they remain under Japanese control, never allowed to leave the island, forced to repeat this act of apostasy over and over again through the years, yet they are given back their own lives in cooperation, where Dutch merchants describe them as “the lost priests,” muted and restrained, seemingly communicating with no one, resigned to living their last days in a silent daze, retaining some semblance of inner solitude where in the end, their questionable acts can only be answered by God.