Why is G-d often silent when man is in distress? For as long as there has been a belief in a higher being, man has grappled with that very question. (If I knew the answer, I’d run for G-d.) In the Book of Job, the story’s protagonist has everything he values literally disappear in a breath yet he remains steadfast in his faith. What’s the message? Bad things happen to good people for reasons we cannot begin to understand. Perhaps that’s why King David wrote in Psalm 118:5, “From the narrow place I called out to G-d who answered me with the Divine Expanse.” This passage gives us hope that if we remain resolute, G-d will eventually answer our prayers.
This all presumes that G-d will save us when we are following in His ways. But does that include proselytizing or forced conversion? In Martin Scorsese’s latest film, SILENCE, Jesuit missionary, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, HACKSAW RIDGE) discusses the notion of truth with the 17th century Japanese inquisitor, Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata/イッセー尾形). Saying that truth is universal, Rodrigues tells his captor that one day Japan will understand that the Jesuits’ mission was just. The priest, though, is confusing truth with faith. Religion is not about truth because there is no absolute truth to be found here. It’s about faith. To claim that one religion is true and, by extension, others are not, is just plain arrogance… and that’s exactly what Inoue says will be Rodrigues’ downfall.
Based on the highly acclaimed 1966 novel of the same name by Japanese author Shūsaku Endō (遠藤 周作), SILENCE has been something Scorsese has been trying to bring to the screen for close to 30 years. Many, of not most, of his films have dealt with faith and religion in one form or another so it’s not surprising that he would be attracted to this story too. Here, the action begins in the then Portuguese enclave of Macau in the mid-1600s. Italian Jesuit priest, Alessandro Valignano (Ciarán Hinds, Steppenwolf in the upcoming JUSTICE LEAGUE) receives news that Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson, the TAKEN trilogy), a Portuguese Jesuit based in Japan, has apostatized and is now married to a Japanese woman in Nagasaki. In disbelief that their former mentor could renounce his faith even under torture, Fathers Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver, FRANCES HA; INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS; WHILE WE’RE YOUNG; STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS), ask Valignano to let them go to Japan to find Ferreira and learn the truth. Valignano, who is well aware of the reports of both Japanese Christians and religious leaders being hunted down and tortured by the Inquisitor, reluctantly agrees but tells the young men that they will be the last two missionaries the Jesuits will be sending to Japan anytime soon.
The two men make their way to a small fishing village perched on the southwest coast of Japan with the help of Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka/窪塚 洋介), an alcoholic fisherman who earlier fled the country for reasons we soon learn. There, they meet a group of Japanese Christians who are grateful to have the men there even though the risk of them all being outed to the Inquisitor by their non-Christian neighbours has now increased. For Rodrigues and Garupe, their mission is now on hold as they administer the sacrament to their new flock and find more even hidden Christians living on a nearby island. It doesn’t take too long, though, before word gets out and the Inquisitor arrives to take the village leaders away. The two priests can only watch in silence from a distance as the Inquisitor ties the villagers to wooden crosses on the beach where the incoming tide slowly drowns them.
Rodrigues and Garupe decide to split up both for their own safety and for the safety of the villagers but Rodrigues is eventually betrayed and is taken to a prison in Nagasaki. Again, he is witness to the brutal torture that the hidden Christians must face at the hands of the Inquisitor. Inoue knows that if he kills Rodrigues first, he will make a martyr of the man in the eyes of the villagers and Christianity will never be expunged from his country. Instead, he makes Rodrigues watch as the hidden Christians are tortured for their faith. His goal to defeat the young priest is to have him apostatize, just as Father Ferreira did before him.
As someone whose own family fled Portugal in the 1500s under the threat of forced conversion or death, I found it interesting that the very people who persecuted my family were themselves persecuted somewhere else in the world barely one hundred years later. That bit of irony is clearly lost on the Jesuits. But this film is not about how much sympathy we should or shouldn’t feel toward the Jesuits. It’s about silence – G-d’s silence in the face of such adversity to His own people, the priests’ silence as they watched their followers die painful deaths rather than abandon their faith, and even the Japanese Christians who must pray in silence lest they be discovered and turned over to the Inquisitor. And it’s about maintaining one’s faith even when G-d is silent.
SILENCE is not a film that you either like or dislike, though faith-based audiences may have more affinity for the subject matter. Technically, the film is superb, invoking both Macau and feudal Japan from that time. (The film was shot in Taiwan by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who also shot PASSENGERS.) The Japanese cast is uniformly excellent, including Tadanobu Satō (佐藤 忠信), who plays the Inquisitor’s interpreter. (If Satō looks familiar, he’s Hogun in the THOR franchise.) Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Western cast. Although Garfield sports some awesome hair in the film, the role may have been too complex for him and we don’t get a lot of depth to his characterisation. As well, in early scenes both he and Driver do very good Portuguese accents but by the middle of the film he’s using his native British accent. Neeson, meanwhile, doesn’t even try to put on a Portuguese accent.
SILENCE is definitely worth seeing and, no matter if you’re a believer or an atheist, it should result in some interesting discussion afterwards.
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