Shūsaku Endō’s classic 1966 novel was generally shaped by his Catholic faith and directly inspired by a visit to the monument for the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Nagasaki, who became canonized representatives of the hundreds of thousands who fell victim to 17th Century Japanese Christian persecution. In the mid-1500s, there were thought to be upwards of 300,000 Japanese Christian converts, but most were ruthlessly exposed and subsequently forced to apostatize through torture during the early to mid-1600s. The missionary Father Cristóvão Ferreira really was among the Christians who was forced to renounce his faith. The fragmentary news of Ferreira’s downfall is difficult for his young protégés to accept, so they follow their calling to Japan in Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited adaptation of Silence (trailer here), which opens today in New York.
Portuguese Jesuits Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe naively assume news of Ferreira’s apostasy must be greatly exaggerated, but when they secretly arrive in Japan, the climate of fear and oppression is beyond their worst expectations. The Christian faith has been forced underground, much like the era of the Roman catacombs. Their guide will be Kichijiro, an apostatized Christian convert, who perhaps still believes. However, his frequent willingness to trample fumi-e, images of Christ and the Virgin expressly fashioned to smoke out secret Christians, makes him decidedly untrustworthy.
Desperate their perilous circumstances, the honesty and purity of the “hidden Christian” Kakure Kirishitan faith touches Rodrigues deeply. Unfortunately, it is only a matter of time before the priests are captured by the grand inquisitor, Inoue Masashige, who is confident breaking the last Jesuits in Japan will deal a decisive blow to the Kakure Kirishitan remnant. Father Rodrigues is a surprisingly tough nut to crack, even while undergoing an understandable crisis of faith, but Masashige has a nefarious trump card to play: the former Father Ferreira at his beck and call.
Scorsese’s Silence is easily one of the most challenging and uncompromising films about Christian faith produced in the last twenty years. Utterly free of triumphalism, it depicts the hair-raising brutality of martyrdom and forced conversion. Christianity is laid low over and over again, yet there is more concealed in the margins of this story. Much like Endō’s tonally dissimilar post-script, Scorsese’s long denouement holds the key to the entire epic tragedy. If you do not stay with it from start to finish, you will miss the whole point.
Scorsese’s rigorously austere aesthetic perfectly suits this harsh morality play. It is like nature itself serves witness to the atrocities meted out, thanks to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s windswept vistas and co-composers Kathryn & Kim Allen Kluge’s naturally-derived ambient soundscapes.
Although he never really sounds Portuguese per se, Liam Neeson has the appropriately weighty presence for Ferreira. His sad eyes and slumped shoulders say everything he can no longer say. Sadly, Andrew Garfield is terribly miscast as Rodrigues. He just doesn’t seem capable of properly addressing the film’s profound questions. Adam Driver fares somewhat better (and looks more Portuguese) as the comparatively more dogmatic Garrpe. However, the real soul-searing devastation comes from Tetsuo auteur Shinya Tsukamoto’s visceral performance as Mokichi, a believer doomed to Masashige’s martyrdom. If you have anything left after his sacrifice, Nana Komatsu (from Bakuman and World of Kanako) will finish you off with her brief but devastating portrayal of naïve Kakure Kirishitan convert Haru (a.k.a. Monica).
Garfield’s relative weakness is problematic, but it opens the door for Yôsuke Kubozuka, who becomes the film’s de facto [anti-]hero as the morally unclassifiable Kichijiro, easily the film’s most complex character. Yet, nobody better personifies the existential dilemmas faced by Edo-era Christians. Silence is also well stocked with memorable antagonists, like the smoothly sinister interpreter icily portrayed by Tadanobu Asano. However, everyone pales compared to the crafty old Masashige, played with to-the-hilt flamboyance by Issei Ogata that is apparently historically accurate.
Despite its casting issues, Silence is worth the wait, which is frequently not the case with long gestating passion projects. It is a bracing film that offers precious little consolation, but it is a deeply sincere statement of Christian faith. The fact that nobody has re-released Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 adaptation represents a bafflingly lost opportunity, but Scorsese’s take will be challenging enough for many fans of his gangsterish films. Highly recommended, warts and all, Silence opens today (12/23) in New York, at the Regal Union Square downtown and the AMC Loews Lincoln Square uptown.