“This is not the sort of film you “like” or “don’t like”. It’s a film that you experience – and then live with” (Matt Zoller Seitz).
“…wandering here over the desolate mountains – what an absurd situation!…I knew well, of course, that the greatest sin against God was despair; but the silence of God was something I could not fathom” (Rodrigues [Endo: 90]).
Martin Scorsese’s 28-years’ “passion” project culminated in the film “Silence“, based on the acclaimed novel by Shusaku Endo. The film is about two 17th century Portuguese Catholic priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) who decide to travel to Japan in search of their former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who, most believe, betrayed his holy cause in the foreign land. Touching delicate moral and religious issues, the film is powerful both in its vision and in its message, achieving its desired cinematographic goal to awe, thanks to Scorsese’s dedicated and masterful direction, breath-taking cinematography and inspiring original material. Although the plot is uncomplicated and could even be considered “thin”, underneath every action and thought of the main character lies (and could be sensed) a myriad of contradictory emotions; culturally-divisive inner turmoil; and dormant causes for the later spiritual/religious re-awakening.
The first thing to note is that Scorsese’s film is very faithful to the original novel by Shūsaku Endō. The book opens with the following sentences: “News reached the Church in Rome. Christovao Ferreira, sent to Japan by the Society of Jesus in Portugal, after undergoing the torture of “the pit” at Nagasaki had apostatized”. Thus, in the opening scenes, Scorsese wastes no time showing Father Ferreira and the torture by boiling water. In the book, there are three priests who set out on the journey, while the film only focuses on two: Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe, who, on hearing that their former mentor gave up his faith, travel to Japan to confirm the veracity of the news and preach Christianity. Before the journey, they meet Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a lazy, weak and often drunk Japanese who agrees to be their guide in the foreign land. What follows is the priests’ welcome meeting by a small Japanese village amidst the severe oppressions, including random water tortures, of Christians throughout the country. At one point, Rodrigues is forced to separate from Garupe, and when he meets him again, Garupe meets a terrible end. When Rodrigues is finally captured, it is because of Kichijiro, who had “sold” him. Then, Rodrigues’s dreams of a “glorious martyrdom” turn on their head as he is treated with decency, and, eventually, threatened with the lives of his fellow Christians and persuaded by Father Ferreira, gives in and “tramples on a fumie”, i.e. apostasies, publicly denounces his faith.
Here, it is interesting to mention that Shūsaku Endō, the book’s author, was himself both Japanese and a practising Catholic, who underwent his own crisis of faith, and was finding it hard to reconcile his Catholic faith with the Japanese culture. His book, which is based on actual historical facts, is a difficult material to adapt, because it deals very subtly with the gradual inner emotional and spiritual transformation of the main character. Given this, perhaps this film will be enjoyed more by people who had actually read the novel, because they would instinctively know what Scorsese was trying to achieve in every scene. It is also interesting to think that Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks wrote the first draft of this film back in the 1990s, because this film could not be more relevant than it is now, in the age of globalisation, when our fundamental beliefs and traditional values are continuously being challenged.
Both in the book and in the film, the character of Sebastian Rodrigues is an intriguing one. At first, he appears an optimistic idealist with a big heart, saying at one point: “I want to let [Christians] know as quickly as possible that they are not utterly abandoned and alone” (novel), and also “I cannot picture myself at the moment of capture by the Japanese; in our little hut I have a feeling of eternal safety” (novel). However, as time passes, Rodrigues grows more and more impatient about the people around him, and doubtful about his journey and his faith. For example, at one point in the film (as in the book), Rodrigues lashes out on his fellow captive Christians asking them why they are so calm when they are all about to either undergo a horrible torture or a very painful death. Andrew Garfield really embodies the inexperience and uncertainty of the character, and his onscreen relationship with Kichijiro is an interesting one, although Kubozuka is really too handsome-looking to play such a negative person as Kichijiro.
Rodrigo Prieto (“The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013)) is responsible for “Silence”’s beautiful cinematography. The film was largely shot on film and in Taiwan, and there are more than a couple of breathtaking scenic views and original shots. One of the most emotional scenes in the film is Rodrigues’s renunciation of faith, and here the camera opts for a slow-moving effect, when all we hear is – nothing, total silence. It is easy, then, to see why this film was nominated at the Academy Awards in the Best Cinematography category. Also, because of the Japanese setting and the stunning cinematography, “Silence” somehow and briefly reminded me of Clint Eastwood’s film “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006).
In “Silence”, Scorsese not only tries to tell of Rodrigues’s exciting, physically-exhausting and culturally-confusing voyage to Japan, but also to demonstrate Rodrigues’s spiritual, emotional and psychological transformation. It is here, arguably, that “Silence” could be so misunderstood. This is because to show such a deep and gradual religious re-awakening and to present it vividly and powerfully, the film stretches its allocated time and relies on the audience’s inner beliefs, patience and understanding about difficult moral choices. As the film progresses, Rodrigues’s starts to doubt his purpose in life and his faith, and eventually starts to see his faith in a new light. His spiritual transformation can be roughly divided into the following:
- Beginning: Rodrigues’s self-comparisons with the Christ: in the book, Rodrigues constantly compares himself with the Christ and his journey, and this is also evident in the film. For example, in the book, when Rodrigues enters the city on a donkey for his trials, he recalls Jesus entering the city on a donkey too and makes detailed comparisons. Like the Christ was “sold” by Judas, thinks Rodrigues, he is also “sold” by Kichijiro. In the film, Rodrigues’s own reflection in the water also brings him the face of Jesus.
- Re-thinking I: Faith in the context: In the film, Rodrigues slowly realises that by his coming to Japan he threatened the lives of many Japanese, and his guilt grows. In the end, he is told that Japan is a “swamp” where no roots of Christianity could grow, and that Japanese Christians only believe in a distortion of the Christian God, with some Japanese giving their lives for Fathers rather than for their faith. Rodrigues himself says at one point: “[Japanese Christians] value signs of faith more than faith itself” (novel).
- Re-thinking II: The nature of evil: Rodrigues comes to realise that the nature of evil is not black and white. Rodrigues realises at one point: “the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt”, and does not initially understand the Christ’s confusing behaviour towards Judas, and his own feelings towards Kichijiro , whom he regards as being unworthy to be called “evil”. Rodrigues also begins to understand that: “‘sin is not what it is usually thought to be: it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind” (novel). More importantly, Rodrigues is shocked to find out that Inoue, the “devil” magistrate fond of torture, presents himself as a meek, polite old man who reasons well and treats him with respect. The lesson here is that evil works intelligently, and that one should not necessarily fear the most forceful presence, but the one that works quietly, cloaked in benevolence, and the one that knows you better than you know yourself.
- Resolution: The silence of God: Rodrigues stars to question his belief in God early on in the novel, saying at one point: “no matter how strong one’s faith is, physical fear can overcome one completely”. He is most perplexed about the silence of God, and asks why God is silent when so many Christians, with their complete devolution and faith in Him, die painfully for Him? This is a fundamental question. After his public faith renunciation, Rodrigues finds a new meaning in previously taught religious concepts: His God was never silent, He suffered beside him. He was never betraying His Lord. “He loved Him now in a different way from before” and “everything that had taken place until now has been necessary to bring him to this love”. The message here is that one’s relationship with God could be completely private, personal and unique, and one can still continue to pray and believe in his heart, even if one’s own public actions are viewed by the society as opposite of that.
Linguistically, “Silence” is a little disaster. The original material is written in Japanese and there are two Portuguese characters involved. Yet, in the film, there is not a line of Portuguese spoken, and we have two American actors mumbling their prayers in barely recognisable Latin. Moreover, Rodrigues (Garfield) seems to lose his “Portuguese” accent completely as the film progresses, and seems to prefer his British accent for his off-screen narration. This is all the more painful to watch because this is supposed to be a film where the fight for authenticity, and language and cultural barriers are such important elements of the story.
The cast of “Silence” is also doubtful. Adam Driver may pass for a Portuguese priest. However, Andrew Garfield, with all his exemplary acting, does not cut a wholly convincing figure, largely because of his almost Germanic rather than Spanish/Latin American-tradition looks and a wobbly accent. The original cast included Daniel Day-Lewis as Father Ferreira, as well as Gael Garcia Bernal and Benicio del Toro, and this would have been a really perfect cast, which, due to this project delays, never sadly materialised. Also, unlike for many other critics, for me, the length of the film was not a problem. “Silence” spans a worrying 2 hours and 40 minutes, but, arguably, the film length is justified given Scorsese’s devotion to preserving the spirit of Endō’s novel, where religious debates and personal reflections form important fibres of the story.
Despite the confusing casting choices and surprising linguistic handicaps, “Silence” is still a special kind of a film which will undoubtedly gather a following outside local cinemas, becoming one of the best religion-themed films. The film tells an inspiring, powerful and well-acted story which blends a grand exotic location with an impeccable cinematography. There is a fair amount of scenes of violence in the film, coupled with raw reactive emotions. The film’s length is also worrying, but arguably justifiable. Besides, how can anyone remain unmoved when presented with such a thought-provoking dramatisation of an individual torn by his strong faith on the one hand, and his moral, cultural and personal considerations on the other? 9/10