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January 6, 2017

After working on an adaptation of Endō Shūsaku’s novel for over 25 years, Martin Scorsese has finally produced a film worthy of its source and of the time he has put into the project. Silence is a rich and deep exploration of faith and suffering, which joins the small number of Christian films that aren’t just pumped out to preach to the Sunday afternoon choir.

The story seems to draw from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as did Apocalypse Now, by Scorsese’s contemporary Francis Ford Coppola. Two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) enter 17th century Japan in search of their mentor, Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Their last word from him was a four year old letter, which came along with the disturbing rumor that Fr. Ferreira had apostatized — renounced the Catholic faith — under pressure from the shogunate’s Buddhist inquisition. The plot is recounted in Rodrigues’ letters back to Portugal, spoken in voice-over, echoing the style of the other major contemplative Catholic filmmaker, Terrence Malick.

Sneaking in along with Kichijiro (Kubozuka Yōsuke), an erratic drunkard they pick up in Macau, the pair find a small Christian population hanging on in the shadow of the inquisition. Lacking priests, the people have done the best they can, but Frs. Rodrigues and Garrpe set to administering the sacraments while they seek word of Fr. Ferreira. Even Kichijiro admits he actually was a Christian too, but apostatized while his family refused, and watched them burned alive as martyrs.

We learn, along with the priests, of the brutal tortures the inquisitor, Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata), visits on those he views as heretics. Rodrigues urges them to go ahead and step on the icon the inquisitor presents, if that allows them to survive. Not to do so seems alien to us now, and to Rodrigues, but it echoes the early Christian martyrs from the first centuries of the Common Era. Even to believers, it’s amazing to think of someone clinging so tightly to their faith.

But what faith, exactly, are they clinging to? Even today, it seems that many Catholics are out of touch with official dogmata, blending them with misconceptions and folk beliefs. How much more so an isolated Japanese community, taught by Portuguese missionaries who often barely spoke the local language, and subject to persecution? Even without an inquisition against the Catholic elements, we find syncretisms like Candomblé and Santería. Maybe Inoue is right that Christianity cannot take proper root in Edo-period Japan. Of course, that hardly justifies banning a religion and torturing its adherents. But it does call into question what, exactly, Rodrigues and the Jesuits are doing in Japan, and what they mean to accomplish there.

Of course, Silence contains the answer to this question: it’s easy to minister to good Christians. Serving the needs of a community that’s just barely hanging on is a lot harder. But this is exactly the job of a Jesuit missionary, to teach and serve all nations, scattering seeds on pathways and rocky ground and among thorns as well as on fertile soil, and not to try to guess beforehand which is which.

And for all the grief and suffering Rodrigues witnesses, his most frustrating trial may be Kichijiro. It would be easy to think the most important of the Japanese Christians is the martyr Mokichi (Tsukamoto Shinya, since Shimura Takashi isn’t available), but it’s actually the cowardly drunken reprobate. Following no less a model than St. Peter, he denies his belief three times, and yet returns again and again to ask forgiveness. By the end, much of the audience seemed to treat him like comic relief. His long, unkempt hair triggers a wave of laughter, “this guy again”. But he’s the one most in need of Rodrigues’ help and reconciliation.

Unfortunately, Kichijiro is only the most obvious point that is likely to be lost of most viewers. Scorsese is already catching blowback for his portrayal of the Japanese people. And while some of his choices are true head-scratchers — yes, Inoue was gay, but playing him as something approaching a campy Charlie Chan seems off-key at best — others are regrettable side-effects of the story itself.

Outside of a handful of prominent faces, we engage very little with the local people. They fade into a featureless mass, putting Rodrigues forward as a white savior figure. But that’s exactly how Rodrigues sees himself; playing him that way is the point, so we learn along with him the failure of that approach. To come in and stand up as the priest, in defiance of the inquisitor, is at its heart an act of ego. All it shows is his own desire for importance and glory. The true faith — the true service — is achieved not by pushing Christianity forward into the world, but by carrying it with oneself, in the silence of one’s own secret heart, where it can land on truly deep and rich soil.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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