#2 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
How do you follow up a movie about debauchery on Wall Street through the 90s? If you’re Martin Scorsese, you make a deeply religious movie adaptation of a Japanese novel about Jesuit priests in feudal Japan, that’s how. This was one of three major passion projects that Scorsese held onto for a number of years before finding the funding to make (the other two were The Last Temptation of Christ and Gangs of New York). Originally written with Jay Cocks (and the first Scorsese writing credit on one of his films since Casino) in the early 90s, Scorsese’s efforts to get the film made waxed and waned for decades before the independent success of The Wolf of Wall Street allowed him to secure the nearly $50 million to make his film, shooting in Taiwan with two of America’s up and coming leading men. The movie’s theatrical release was completely botched by Paramount, and one of our greatest filmmaker’s greatest films died a quiet box office death.
In the 17th century, about a hundred years after St. Francis Xavier introduced Christianity to Japan, the shogunate made Christianity illegal, torturing and killing priests and Christians throughout the land in favor of the native Shinto religion. One priest, Father Ferreira, sent a letter back to the Jesuits at Macau, China, detailing the final extent of the persecution that took years to reach his Christian brothers. Two young priests, Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe, who had Ferreira for a teacher, were to be tasked with the dangerous mission of going to Japan, but the letter and other rumors of Ferreira’s apostacy tell their supervisor that their mission is no longer necessary. Their fervor pushes them forward, and they are allowed to go.
The Christianity they find in Japan is a scared one. With no priests, the community of Christians left huddle in secret and pray what they can, terrified of anyone outside of their community. Rodrigues and Garupe represent the first rays of light for these people in years, and yet they have no word of Father Ferreira who had settled in Nagasaki, not some small seaside community. Guiding them to the small village and another island off the coast is Kichijiro, a peasant Christian who has repeatedly apostatized to save his own life, most damagingly when he was the only one of his family to do so and he watched them burn alive.
Kichijiro is the key to understanding this movie. He goes in and out of the story around Rodrigues, and Rodrigues grows increasingly impatient with him. Kichijiro keeps apostatizing, stepping on fumi-e with religious images in order to free himself from temporal danger manifested by the shogunate. Rodrigues, even as he gets into more and more desperate situations himself, must remain calm and understanding as he hears Kichijiro’s confessions, all confessing the same sin over and over again.
Rodrigues is almost like a Fellini protagonist in that he’s caught between two worlds. As an educated priest, he understands the dogma more than anyone else in the country, but he’s also a man with doubts. Those doubts grow as the film progresses. He prays for guidance, for deliverance, and for help, but all he’s met with is silence. His lowest point is when he is crouching alone in the wilderness, after watching three of his flock tortured and killed, and he wonders if he’s praying to nothing.
Rodrigues and Garupe must split up as the shogunate’s agent, the Inquisitor, gets closer. Rodrigues runs into Kichijiro who ends up turning Rodrigues in for the three hundred pieces of silver reward. Taken to Nagasaki to face the Inquisitor, the movie becomes a battle of wills, wits, and religions. In prison, comfortable physically and allowed to administer to the captured Christians with him, Rodrigues confronts the Inquisitor. They speak in metaphors back and forth about Christianity as a tree and Japan being unfavorable soil for the tree to take root. Rodrigues feels his faith strengthen, but Kichijiro gets captured, begs for forgiveness yet again, and apostatizes a few days later to save himself again. The Inquisitor has also adopted refined methods for dealing with priests.
It’s not about torturing the priests themselves. That makes them stronger in their faith and spreads the words of their martyrdom. No, he doesn’t physically torture the priests, he tortures their followers. The irony of Rodrigues is that he begs his followers to apostatize to save themselves, but he can’t bring himself to apostatize to save them. The worst part is when Father Ferreira appears. The rumors were true, he apostatized, took a Japanese wife, and is writing works in Japanese about the folly and untruth of Christianity. The sight of his mentor turning into such a disgrace crushes Rodrigues, but Ferreira’s future is Rodrigues’ own. As Rodrigues watches five fellow Christians hung upside down with slits in their neck so blood doesn’t pool in their heads, all five of whom have already apostatized but are only being tortured for his sake, Rodrigues finally hears the voice of God, breaking the silence that has tortured him. The fumi-e of Christ speaks to him, begging him to step on him to save himself and his followers, which Rodrigues does.
So, what’s the point of all this? Is this saying that Christianity was wrong to enter Japan and disrupt Shinto’s hold on the people because the Christians lose in the end? I’ve read that take, and it’s such a wrongheaded take that I just can’t believe someone would make it. No, this isn’t a Christianity versus Shinto fight, this is tied to the dual journeys of Rodrigues and Kichijiro. Kichijiro keeps failing to live up to the Christian ideal, even as those around him, just as poor and normal as himself, rise up to the rank of martyrs for the faith. In a similar way, Rodrigues apostatized, he failed his faith, in order to save not himself but the innocents of his flock. Are Kichijiro and Rodrigues bad people because they failed? Are we all bad people because we are continuously guilty of the same sins again and again, because we fail to rise to the status of saints? The movie’s final shot, an addition to the story not in the novel, shows a crudely made crucifix in Rodrigues’ hand in his coffin, hidden there by his wife and originally made by one of the villagers from the beginning of the movie. The point that Kichijiro’s final confession years after the main action of the film and the crucifix is that no matter how many times we fall, as long as we earnestly ask for forgiveness God will offer us absolution.
This is not an easy movie to watch. It’s about oppression, torture, faith, and death, but it’s one of the most compelling visions I’ve seen. In a filmography as deep, varied, and fantastic as Martin Scorsese’s, this stands out as one of his crowning achievements. He pulled career best performances from Andrew Garfield as Rodrigues and Adam Driver as Garupe. Issey Ogata as the Inquisitor is amazingly physical, reptilian, and overbearing. Yōsuke Kubozuka is broken and earnest as Kichijiro. Liam Neeson carries a deep seeded fear underneath every word as Ferreira, perhaps hiding his true intentions and fidelity to Jesus despite his façade. The soundtrack is almost entirely nature sounds of ocean waves, wind in trees, and birds, a marked contrast to the use of diagetic music that defines Scorsese’s career. The quiet power of the entire package is potent and lasting. That this movie was so mishandled by the distributor saddens me. This deserved a more educated rollout, not being dumped in theaters right before Christmas with nary a marketing budget to do much of anything.
This is a triumph of a film. An emotionally wrenching piece of cinema asking hard questions of its characters and its audience about their goodness in times of crisis. As Kichijiro says, “Years ago, I could have died a good Christian. There was no persecution. Why was I born now? This is so unfair.”
I adore this film.
3 thoughts on “Silence”