Dir: Martin Scorsese | Jay Cocks | Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, Yosuke Kubozuka, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto | US | Biopic Drama | 159min
SILENCE is an impassioned labour of love and a testament to the religious fervour and devotion of two 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priests who undertake a gruelling spiritual mission to the wilds of Japan to spread their faith. Light years away from Goodfellas and Casino, this is a diligent and earnest passion project and the result of 28 years of grafting for Martin Scorsese, a devout Catholic, and his scripter Jay Cocks. Scholars of Divinity and faithful Catholics will find it an immersive experience, for others the dynamite central performance from English actor Andrew Garfield (as Father Rodrigues) together with Dante Ferretti and Rodrigo Pieto’s magnificent mise-en-scènes will compensate for the demanding nature of the subject matter and its near three hour running time.
Background-wise, it’s worth remembering that 17th Portugal was a force to be reckoned with for the Japanese, and a towering trading power controlling the region’s Spice trade through the country’s domination of economic pinch points of Goa and Malucca. Shinto Buddhism was the prevailing religion and the Japanese rulers – the Shogunate – did not take kindly to Catholic proselytising at a time when the country already felt engulfed by Portuguese economic might. Based on Shusaku Endo’s ’60s novel, the local Catholic population had recently come under a period of heavy persecution due to their failed rebellion against the Tokogawa Shogunate – the Shimabara Uprising – and so any further Catholic missionaries were firmly stamped upon and uprooted before they could take hold of the population, particularly in remote regions such as the Goto Islands (Nagasaki) in the East China Sea where the missionaries land (filming actually took place in Taiwan).
Back home in Portugal at the time, the Catholic Inquisition was well underway, burning fiercely since the 1536 in its job of exterminating those who had rapidly converted to Catholicism, particularly from Judaism, while still covertly practising their own faiths. So this was a time of strong religious feeling and affiliations, not unlike today. The Jesuits, a Catholic order co-founded by Ignatius of Loyola, were stalwart missionaries known for their strong belief in education and whose motto is the famous chestnut: “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man”.
In the opening scenes, Padres Sebastiao Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) discover that their mentor Padre Ferreira (Neeson), who has been in Japan for some time, has been forced to renounce his faith by committing apostasy and stepping on a fumie, a bronze image of Jesus used as a test of faith. The Japanese had their own religious inquisition, and suspected Christians were made to trample on the fumie or face horrific torture or imprisonment. Arriving by boat on the treacherous shoreline of one of the islands, the intrepid pair fortuitously fall in with an uncover Christian community who shelter them in shacks in the lush vegetation, but the cruel and wily local inquisitor (a foppishly whimsical Issei Ogata) has offered a silver-coined ransom for their capture, and they are soon turned in by their faithless, feral-eyed translator Kichijiro (Kubozuka), and go their separate ways in desperation.
A fork in the fractured narrative then follows the wide-eyed, tousled-haired Rodrigues – played by Garfield as a deeply troubled, gibbering wreck, praying and sobbing incessantly as he tries to come to terms with why his mentor Ferreira has become a heretic as he faces his own dilemma: denouncement or death.
Amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth, this is a gritty and mournful affair where scenes of torture by crucifixion, burning and drowning offer little relief from the grinding misery of religious conviction. Spiritual succour has fallen by the wayside, and the only scene where we feel the comfort of ‘our Saviour Jesus Christ’ is when Rodrigues is encouraged by a kindly voiceover exhorting him to step on the fumie without fear of divine retribution, and momentarily denounce his religion in order to save a group of his followers from being hung upside down and bled to death, like cows in an Halal abattoir. Rodrigues’ character would have made a more appealing priest had his faith and prayers endowed him with a greater sense of composure, but here he plays a mere mortal. Liam Neeson gives a canny twist to his opportunistic Father Ferriera, who choses an easy life of compliance with his Japanese hosts rather than the designated path of religious rectitude – giving the impression, in the glint of an eye, that he has made his peace with God despite his outward transformation into a Judas.
There are echoes here of Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ but this is an altogether more doom-laden and tortured saga and more like Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1986), not least for its focus. Prieto’s painterly tableaux evoke the style and chiaroscuro lighting of Caravaggio, illuminating the cast as if by candlelight. Prieto also conveys the stark religious purity of El Greco, particularly in the scene where Rodrigues imagines the face of Christ appearing to him, while washing his face in a pool of water. And while the missionaries are portrayed as squeaky clean, the Japanese come across as conniving and merciless monsters who embody nothing of own their Buddhist or Animist references in their vicious regimes of torture. Certainly a film that will appeal to the American Christian heartland and devout Catholics, SILENCE is a timely story that has come full circle in the past 400 years. The fact that Religious conflict still divides and tortures our contemporary world is a sobering thought to take into 2017. MT
OUT ON NEW YEAR’S DAY 2017 | Picturehouses | Gate Cinema | NATIONWIDE