Silence full movie review - A Dark Masterpiece
Christianity was first introduced into Japan in the 16th century by European missionaries, who at first enjoyed considerable success in winning converts to their faith.
After 1620, however, the Tokugawa Shogunate issued an edict forbidding Christianity, following which the Japanese authorities initiated a ruthless campaign of persecution against the new religion. Foreign missionaries were banned from entering the country, and Japanese converts were forced to renounce their faith upon pain of torture or execution if they refused. The only outsiders allowed to enter Japan were Dutch traders, and they were only tolerated on the strict understanding that they did not attempt to proselytise; Protestantism was no more welcome to the Shogun than was Catholicism.
These events formed the subject-matter of the 1966 novel "Silence" by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo. Ever since the early nineties Martin Scorsese has had the ambition of turning Endo's novel into a film, and this is the result. In the 1640s two Portuguese Jesuits, Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, secretly enter Japan on a mission to the country's underground Catholics. They are also hoping to learn the fate of their missing mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira who is rumoured to have committed apostasy under torture. The two men, however, are betrayed by their Japanese guide and arrested.
I note that the film has been criticised on this board by some reviewers who accuse Scorsese of justifying European colonialism and of "demonising" non-Christian religions. Such criticisms, however, strike me as misguided, given that Scorsese's source novel was written by a Japanese novelist, not by a Westerner, and that the persecutions described by Endo are a matter of historical fact, not Christian propaganda. Now it is perfectly true that the Japanese may have had good reasons for being unwilling to import Christianity into their country; this was, after all, the period when the savage sectarian conflict known as the Thirty Years War was raging in Europe. 17th-century Catholics may have seen the persecution of their Japanese co-religionists as a great evil, but at this time their Holy Inquisition was persecuting Protestants with equal zeal and equal cruelty. (The Dutch, who had bitter memories of Spanish rule, made sure that the Japanese were kept informed of these events). Endo's theme, however, was not the iniquities of 17th-century Christianity, so I think that Scorsese was right not to deal with these matters directly. (He does, perhaps, hint at them by referring to Inoue, the Japanese official charged with rooting out Christianity, as "The Inquisitor").
Endo, in fact, was more concerned with the motivation of the two Jesuits, especially Rodrigues, than he was with the political justification for the persecution. Like the great American-born Anglo-Catholic writer T S Eliot in "Murder in the Cathedral" he was interested in the psychology and theology of martyrdom. Many Christians would insist that a martyr dies the most glorious of all Christians, but Eliot recognised that there can be bad reasons for seeking martyrdom- vanity, stubbornness, spiritual pride and the desire to be foremost in the Kingdom of Heaven. Rodrigues comes to a similar realisation in the course of this drama. If he sacrifices his own life to satisfy his desire for glory, this will only increase the suffering of his Japanese flock, while if he follows Ferreira into apostasy their sufferings may be mitigated. (Endo's title refers to Rodrigues' perception that God is remaining silent while his faithful servants are persecuted).
Scorsese's original choice for Rodrigues was Daniel Day-Lewis, who I am sure would have been excellent; he has been excellent in just about every film I have seen him in. By 2016, however, the director clearly considered that Day-Lewis was too old to play the relatively youthful Rodrigues, so cast a much younger actor, Andrew Garfield. This was the first time that I had seen Garfield in a film, and I must say that he was excellent in every way as the tortured Rodrigues, a man facing an unenviable dilemma; he can only save his friends from further suffering if he denies everything which has hitherto given his life meaning.
Two other key roles are played by Liam Neeson as Ferreira and Yosuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro. Like the Fourth Tempter to Becket in "Murder in the Cathedral", Ferreira offers Rodrigues the temptation to "do the right thing for the wrong reason". He claims to admire the Japanese, but attempts to justify his own apostasy in terms which reveal his secret contempt for them. For him Japan is a "swamp" and its inhabitants are ignorant, backward people incapable of understanding true Christianity (by which he means European Christianity). He wrongs the Japanese martyrs, claiming that they died not for the true faith but for some distorted, dimly understood, perversion of it, possibly because he is ashamed that these humble people proved themselves more faithful Christians then he did.
Kichijiro, a drunken, cowardly fisherman and a nominal Christian, is the guide who betrays Rodrigues and Garupe. Although this is far from being his only act of betrayal, he finds himself unable to abandon Christianity altogether. When we last see him he is being arrested for possession of a Christian amulet, protesting unconvincingly that he won it at gambling without realising its true nature.
Scorsese's visual style, in keeping with the overall mood of the film, is dark and sombre. The film has been criticised on account of its length (160 minutes) but I felt that a longer running-time was needed here to allow its ambitious themes to be dealt with fully. This is an epic movie- not an action-drive epic like, say, "Ben-Hur", but an epic of faith and ideas. It is also a masterpiece, one of Scorsese's greatest works, ranking alongside the likes of "Taxi Driver", "King of Comedy", "The Aviator" and "Shutter Island". 10/10