Martin Scorsese took 20 years to bring Endo Shusaku's 'Silence' to the screen, for lack of funding.
Set in Japan during the 17 century in the wake of the failure of the mainly Christian peasants revolt against the ruling Tokugawa clan in the wake of the Battle of Shinmabara, in the Kansai region of Japan (including Osaka, Nakasaki, the island of Kyushu and surrounding islands).
This salient fact is absent in Scorsese's wondrous film: its absence puzzles the general audience whose grasp of Japanese history is tenuous at best.
Pictorially, it is remarkably shot in vivid, painterly colors. Cinematographer Diego Prieto uses fire, the earth, water, air and the vacuum that repression of Christian weigh on the spirit of Japan.
Shusaku uses the metaphor of the swamp to designate Japan as unfit for Christianity to take root.
But is that true? The Counter Reformation sent forth the Jesuits to bring Roman Christianity to the world. They found fertile ground in southern (Kansai) Japan.
'Silence' puts the number of converts as 300.000, including samurai (nobles) and peasants. What, again, is absent in Scorsese script, is that the arrival of Christianity took place in a n age of warring clans, that the Tokugawa Shoguns won, thereby consolidating their rule until the coming of Admiral Perry's black ships forced open in the 1850s, from its splendid isolation.
The Christianized south thus became a rival, backed by adherence and, possibly, allegiance to foreigners and the Pope in Rome. Which, it can be argued attacked the idea of what being a Japanese meant, Japan's independence, and the introduction of foreign influences and ideas, manners and trade and customs.
The early Tokugawa restricted trade and limited movement of foreigners. After Shimabara, the shoguns in Edo (Tokyo), waged a brutal, merciless campaign to eradicate vestiges of Christianity in and closed Japan to the outside world.
'Silence begins with two Jesuits slipping secretly into Kansai to find the only remaining Jesuit who it is bruited has become an apostate.
The Japanese authorities forced Christians to step on the portrait of the Virgin or Christ on the cross, to renounce Christianity. Those who refused suffer lingering torture until they expired: boiled alive, hanged upside down with a slit on an artery the better to exsanguinate the victim in a death of a single knife cut, crucifixion, and so on, ,the better to successfully expunge any vestige of Roman Christianity in Japan.
Andrew Garfield as Father Rodrigues and Adam Driver as Father Garppe are on a mission to investigate the truth of Father Feirreira's apostasy.
Smuggled into Kyushu, they find a group of hidden Christians who find comfort in the priests presence, the reciting of the mass once more, the ministration of the sacraments, ending a prolonged period of spiritual drought.
The priests are helped by a renegade Christian Kichigiro (Yasuke Kubozuka), who like the disciple Peter betrays his God (whom the Jesuits represent) three times. In consequent, risking the very lives of his secret coreligionists.
Garfield is a figure in black that is strikingly different with colors of Japan. He is pious, self-effacing, but smug in his beliefs. You wonder about these two men gone far away from their home,; the lose themselves in something larger and stranger than the lives they had known. They are driven by the Jesuit motto: for the greater glory of God. They have taken holy orders, they have a spiritual map and exercises to achieve their appointed goals.
Alas, Scorsese's script makes them out to be lifeless, lacking animation. Vapid is the best term to portray Scorsese's concept of them. His genera; conceit may arise from the religious training he received in the old St. Patrick Cathedral School in Little Italy more than 60years ago.
Scorsese is, I believe, a very spiritual man, and his film clearly raises questions of right and wrong and salvation.
However, for him and his reading of Shusaku's 'Silence', he has sunk into a Western bog when it comes to Japan.
And yet, the Japanese characters are full of life and they, in contrast to the Jesuits, are colorful, complex and complicated; and be they peasant or samurai, they come out of the screen, leaving sensory scratches on our minds. They are earthy and full-blooded, they are subtle and keen and maliciously playful in playing hot and cold to stamp out traces of Christianity.
Tadanobu Asano as the interpreter and especially Issei Ogata as the wily Inquisitor can, in my mind, rivals Dostoyevsky's breaths much life into 'Silence'. The Japanese cast does a yeoman's job and deserves high praise.
In the end, an apostate priest remains in Japan. In a way, if you recall the ending of Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited', the hero Charles Ryder kneels in the Marchmain' chapel, once again consecrated with the red flame signaling the presence of Christ in the tabernacle, Garfield remains, despite his spiritual sacrifice, a priest, a representative of Jesus in a Japan where technically no practicing Christians remain. But Garfield is that red light until he dies.
Truth be told in Kansai, secret Christians like cryptic Jews embraced Buddhism, but introduced Christian beliefs in it.
In 1868 when the Emperor gained power, hidden Christians reemerged after 200 years. And they could openly practice Christianity again. But the religious cleansing and the closure of Japan to the outside world did its work. And so they remain a very small minority today.
But Christians in Kansai were not spared further suffering. For the plutonium bomb that the Americans dropped on 9 August 1945 wiped out a goodly number of Japanese Christians, and those who survived bore the scars of radiation.
In all, 'Silence' is worth seeing. And better yet, reading Shusaku's excellent novel.