by: Douglas Grant
Snubbed by The Academy, the case for Martin Scorsese’s Silence as one of the finest films of 2016…
The historical culture clash between Western and Far Eastern civilization has always been a rich subject for artistic exploration and expression. Feudal Japan in particular, with its stark contrast between celestial beauty and extreme brutality, has proven to be a riveting artistic case study in both literature and film, particularly when it examines the country’s first days of contact with Gaijin, or foreigners. Novels, such as James Clavell’s Shogun or Takashi Matsuoka’s Cloud of Sparrows, and films, such as Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun or Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, have traditionally endeavored to provide a historical lens for those on the outside looking in. In this case, the readers or audience see through the eyes of the Western protagonist, the barbarian, who is also trying to attain an understanding of the mindset of the Japanese and their alien ways. This culture clash is presented unflinchingly by author Shūsaku Endō in his acclaimed novel Silence, which has been adapted masterfully by legendary director Martin Scorsese in his film of the same name.
In the dark journey that is Silence, Liam Neeson plays Father Ferreira, a Portuguese Jesuit priest who serves as a Christian missionary in 17th century Japan. After Christianity is outlawed throughout the country by the Tokugawa government, both the Japanese practitioners of Christianity and the missionaries who instruct them are threatened with excruciating death unless they publicly renounce their faith. The priests, seeing this as yet another test from God, suffer agonizing torture as they remain steadfast in their religious convictions. All of the priests except for Father Ferriera are executed, and word eventually reaches Portugal that Father Ferreira has apostatized and now lives in Japan in an arranged marriage. Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) reads a letter of renunciation from Ferriera to two junior priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), who don’t believe in the letter’s validity. Rodrigues and Garrpe are immediately dispatched to Japan for a dual-mission: minister to Christians practicing in secret and find Father Ferreira and extricate him. The two young Jesuits accept their missions ardently, having no idea just how much they will have their faiths tested in the trials that await them.
The Japan Scorsese shows us in Silence isn’t as aesthetically elegant as the one we are often presented with in films by directors such as Akira Kurosawa. Although the lush countryside itself is accentuated by Rodrigo Prieto’s beautiful cinematography, the rural villages Rodrigues and Garrpe must travail are full of miserable peasants plagued by governmental oppression, pestilence, and famine. Their plight is what drives them to practice Christianity in secret. They are seeking salvation and are all too eager to allow the priests back into their villages clandestinely. Rodrigues and Garrpe are successful with this part of their mission only in that they are able to administer Mass to the villagers without being detected by government officials. This changes when they are betrayed by a village contact to a Japanese Inquisitor.
Rodrigues and Garrpe are eventually compelled to separate, and the story’s focus shifts to Rodrigues’s perspective. Inquisitor Inoue serves as a perfect foil to Rodrigues, providing insight from the Japanese perspective on why Christian theology will never be able to succeed in Japan. The Inquisitor is neither unreasonable nor overly cruel. He points out that it is Rodrigues who’s been caught trespassing on his homeland, who is in violation of Japan’s very strict set of laws. It is Rodrigues who is undermining the government by spreading his faith in secret. Moreover, although the punishment for failing to apostatize after being caught practicing Christianity is horrific, if the accused were to publicly step on some object representing the church, an act symbolic of renouncing the faith, then all would be forgiven and life would return to normal. But failure to apostatize results in brutal forms of execution. And this choice, given to both Japanese Christians and Rodrigues himself, becomes the crux of the film. To the audience, apostasy might only seem like mere words, that true faith lies in someone’s soul, but Rodrigues, modeling his life on Jesus Christ himself, cannot utter the words without seeing it as a complete abandonment of his faith. Andrew Garfield handles this crisis aptly; his character’s strife is palpable in both dialogue and body language. As the plot moves forward and people continue to die, the Inquisitor doubles-down on the consequences: Father Rodrigues must apostatize or Japanese peasants who’ve been caught practicing the faith will be killed. Rodrigues’s torture with his indecision is the emotional heart of the film: renounce the faith and spare innocent people from excruciating torture and death, only to have compromised the very essence of everything he believes in and stands for.
Ferriera’s return toward the end of the film helps to put issues in perspective for Rodrigues. The former priest serves to bridge the gap between the two cultures, explaining to Rodrigues in very clear terms the why of Christianity’s failure to thrive in Japan and the Japanese commoner’s inability to even comprehend the true significance of the story of Christ’s resurrection. And although Rodrigues believes that Ferriera is a traitor to the true faith and rejects his old mentor’s newfound, misguided wisdom, there is no denying that Rodrigues has failed in his own mission to successfully convert the “heathen.”
The conflict in Silence is a battle of wills, illustrating how far a man is willing to go to share his faith, his truth, with others, regardless of the consequences, so that they might attain salvation. The film itself takes no stance on the issue. Although some might point out that Rodrigues does indeed communicate with God in the end, this does not serve as irrefutable proof that the film is subjective, or that Endō and Scorsese are trying to make a claim on one side or the other. Silence presents a collision of two worlds so vastly separated by ideologies that we find ourselves intrigued by the interaction even as we turn away from the savagery of it. There are numerous parallels to be drawn between the film and the novel Heart of Darkness, although Silence favors themes dealing in religious doctrine over ones that discuss the nature of civilization.
The fim’s title, Silence, refers to the absence of God’s voice in Japan, to Rodrigues’s inability to feel the Lord’s nurturing presence in this strange foreign land he’s wandered into. More than a war between religious creeds, cultures, or governments, Silence is an odyssey illustrating one man’s ultimate test of faith, and the harmful ripple effect his convictions can cause when this faith, his very reason for being, perpetuates needless pain and suffering in others. At times it is a testament to the vindication that comes with remaining staunch in the belief systems we cling to, while at other times it can come across as a condemnation of the harm caused when we push our beliefs on others. Silence’s neutrality on the issue, the way in which Scorsese ultimately puts the decision regarding what is right in the hands of the audience, is one of the film’s greatest strengths.