IN AN ARTICLE published in the now-defunct Continuum, the Trappist monk and Catholic theologian Thomas Merton describes St. Francis Xavier’s early missions to Japan in the 16th century. Though he acknowledges that “a genuine dialogue between the Jesuits and the Zen masters was no simple matter,” the encounter, he writes, was “relatively easy on the cultural level.” In fact, Merton describes a kind of burgeoning Japanophilia in St. Francis, who wrote that “in their culture, their social usage and their mores, they surpass the Spaniards so greatly that one must be ashamed to say so.”
But whatever goodwill existed between the Jesuits and their hosts did not last long, historically speaking. A century later, during the Edo era (or what is sometimes called Japan’s Golden Age) the early converts to the Catholic Christianity of St. Francis Xavier and the missionaries who followed him were violently and cruelly suppressed, to use what seems an inadequate word, following the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion against the Tokugawa shogunate. It’s this persecution of the Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”) that the Japanese Catholic and “Third Generation” writer Shūsaku Endō depicted in his 1966 Tanizaki Prize-winning novel Silence.
The rendering of the novel Silence into film was a Scorsese project that went back decades. According to Scorsese, a lifelong and almost-lapsed Catholic, he first read Endō’s magnum opus when the master director Akira Kurosawa invited him to play the part of Vincent Van Gogh in his 1990 magical realism film Dreams. Thus began what Scorsese himself described as a “passion project” and later as an “obsession” when asked why, after twenty-six years, he still intended to make the film. Scorsese and long-time collaborator Jay Cocks had first written a script for Silence in 1991 but were frustrated by their inability to capture the book’s spiritual essence. After years in what is often described––perhaps fittingly, in this case––as “development hell”, Scorsese announced that production would go begin in 2014, in the aftermath of the post-production of The Wolf of Wall Street. (You feel that perhaps the excesses of that film’s characters had, so to say, caught up with the director, and inspired him to do something entirely different.)
The rendering of the novel Silence into film was a Scorsese project that went back decades. According to Scorsese, a lifelong and almost-lapsed Catholic, he first read Endō’s magnum opus when the master director Akira Kurosawa invited him to play the part of Vincent Van Gogh in his 1990 magical realism film Dreams.
Silence begins in a Japanese landscape, where steaming hot springs emit bursts of foam and fog and half-nude Japanese converts to Christianity lie battered and bloodied on the ground or hang from wooden posts. The pale and bloodless faces of other converts, recently beheaded, gape from the tops of spikes. Among these watching is the large but horrified and terrified figure of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), whose face suggests distress not only at the barbarity itself but at his inability to help those he himself brought over to his faith. Later, at St. Paul’s College in Portuguese Macau, an Italian Jesuit priest, Alessandro Valignano (in a brief cameo by Ciarán Hinds) tells his two Portuguese pupils, the wide-eyed Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and the slight but determined-looking Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) that Ferreira has committed apostasy; he has, in other words, renounced his Christian faith. Rodrigues and Garupe, who were taught in part by Ferreira, are unable to accept that this took place and after calmly but firmly articulation their protestations to Valignano, the older man yields, and gives them his permission to be smuggled into Japan by a drunk and an outcast called Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) so they can try and find him.
The creation of Silence, which is Scorsese’s third religious film and follows his 1988 epic drama The Last Temptation of Christ and the biopic Kundun, which was released in 1977, reflects the director’s lifelong preoccupation with matters of the spirit. It perhaps bears remembering that he himself was dismissed from the seminary as young man. He had once intended to enter the priesthood, citing the influence of his mentor, Father Principe, who “opened [his] eyes to a lot intellectually” through the novels of Dwight McDonald and Graham Greene. (Greene, incidentally, once hailed Endō as “one of the finest living novelists”.) In Silence, Scorsese is able to capture and express and represent the spiritual substance of the novel that, in his words, eluded him for so many years in the early drafts of the script. But it is a film, if nothing else, about anguish in all its forms. In Scorsese’s take on Endō’s masterpiece, he deftly depicts the dilemmas of faith and the uncertainty that necessarily lies underneath the teachings of all religions, and under a beautiful pale-blue sky masterfully made vivid by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.
In Scorsese’s take on Endō’s masterpiece, he deftly depicts the dilemmas of faith and the uncertainty that necessarily lies underneath the teachings of all religions, and under a beautiful pale-blue sky masterfully made vivid by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.
At the same time, Scorsese also depicts in the vulnerable form of Sebastião Rodrigues a more personal kind of crisis that is easily divorced from its religious content and relatable to all. Rodrigues undergoes an exhausting interior battle to maintain his beliefs as the pressures of the surrounding world endeavour first to persuade him not to do so and then to force it out of him. But Scorsese is only able to accomplish this because of Andrew Garfield’s own masterful portrayal of Rodrigues, which is amplified and intensified by the superb supporting Japanese cast. Credit is due in particular to Tadanobu Asano, who plays the deliciously silver-tongued and smiling and mocking interpreter to the hated “Inquisitor” (Issey Ogata)––the man chiefly responsible for the persecution of the Christians. Meanwhile the infrequent but effective musical injunctions of husband and wife Kim Allen and Kathryn Kluge suggest a disinterested and chaotic natural world and reflect the oppressive and repetitive sense Rodrigues has that his God has fallen “silent”, and is therefore watching the suffering of his children with, to steal a phrase from Christopher Hitchens, folded arms.
The film is memorable from the first for its striking tableaux and its graphic scenes of creative and sadistic torture, cheerfully administered to the assorted Christians who refuse to renounce their faith. Both of these things are filmed with great care and skill on 35mm film by cinematographer Prieto, who emphasises the striking brightness and intensity of the colour around his subjects and the natural landscape. There’s a cold and bleak and hostile quality to the scenes that take place during the day; warmth seems to come only at night, when Rodrigues and Garupe and the suffering Japanese Christians have some peace, if only until dawn.
With its quiet strength and simplicity and patience, its considerable running time and its grand themes, Silence feels like the final work of a master director and if Martin Scorsese were to hang up his director’s beret and put the camera away, so to speak, that is what it would be. In a body of work that is so rich and diverse it’s hard to place Silence, although you feel, instinctively if nothing else, that its rightful place is near the top, among Raging Bull and Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. Silence is nothing less than a masterpiece of filmmaking and one that doesn’t look to capture the spirit of the age but rather to tell a story that has profoundly affected its creator. Perhaps that is why Silence carries so much power.