Silence: Scorseses Flawed, Frustrating White Savior Tries to Save Japan from Itself

The legendary filmmakers latest follows a Jesuit priest preaching the gospel to persecuted Japanese Christians, but is far more concerned with his agony than that of the other.”>

It makes perfect sense that Martin Scorsese, whos been obsessed with Shsaku Ends 1966 novelSilencesince a clergyman gave him a copy over two decades ago, should have spent the next quarter century trying to bring the Japanese Catholic authors richly complex spiritual inquisition to the screen. And why not? On the heels of 2013sWolf of Wall Street,Scorseses long-gestating passion project follows the thematic lineage of hisLast Temptation of ChristandKundun, making it plainly essential viewing for the Scorsese faithful and those who share his keen interest in matters of personal faith.

But for skeptics and non-believers, the 161-minute tale of the spiritual struggle quietly raging within one white savior out of water in feudal Japan is a frustrating journey to takeand an ardent story about cultural imperialism and Western arrogance that doesnt recognize its own.

The Portuguese first arrived in Japan in the middle of the 16thcentury, bringing guns and God along with them. Bearing gifts and preaching the gospel, the Jesuit Francis Xavier was the first European to succeed in spreading the germ of Christianity into a Buddhist and Shinto land. But when ruler Tokugawa Ieyasu reversed Japans stance on missionaries half a century later in order to protect the empire from encroaching Western cultural influence, the widespread eviction of foreign evangelicals and persecution of Japanese Christians forced practitioners into hiding under pain of torture or worse, birthing theKakure Kirishitansthe Hidden Christians.

Its against this brutal climate of feudal control and religious oppression thatSilencetakes place, as seen through the kindly agonizing eyes of Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a young but devoted 17thcentury Portuguese priest. Sent from Lisbon with his fellow Jesuit Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) to investigate the unknown fate of their former teacher, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), the Churchs army of two sets off on a harrowing journey into the heart of a hostile Japan, buoyed by their devotion and the unshakeable conceit that theyre on a mission from God to bring their truth to a country of nave converts in need.

Adapting Ends celebrated novel with repeat collaborator Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York), Scorsese traces its linear narrative at a languid pace that allows Garfields sensitive portrayal to emerge in long sections of quietude, narrating Rodriguess written letters back to Portugal over stunning scenes of the craggy and verdant Japanese coastline. The natural landscape of Japan comes alive through Rodrigo Prietos lensing as Rodrigues and Garrpe make their way onto the closed-off islands of Japan from Macau with the help of a shifty drunkard named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), whose own crises of faith will become recurring provocations for Rodriguess spiritual evolution.

At first the frightened but determined priests find the land and poor villagers of Japan foreboding in their foreignness, and they cling to one another as they hide in dank squalor to elude discovery. They find gratification of purpose when theyre taken in and harbored by local Japanese Christians who, desperate for the ministrations of padres long gone, have adapted to worshipping in secret: carving their own icons from wood, clumsily reciting prayers learned from long-absent padres. All the while, they tell the duo, theyve been longing for the return of the priests who can deliver Christian absolution, forgive their sins, and lead them to a paradise free of the worldly suffering they endure under the rule of a cruel and brutal Japanese overclass.

Scorseses restrained imagery immediately evokes the inherent contradictions in this interlopers condescension, one validated by the extreme cruelties and horrors inflicted upon Japanese bodies so that they may be witnessed by the Portuguese. (He cast a Spider-Man, a Jedi, and Kylo Ren as his trio of padres and filmed in English, making the call to portray his Portuguese characters as noble Caucasian saviors with wildly differing accents but bankable faces.) The film opens on a stunningly photographed inlet of steaming hot springs in winter: Neesons Ferreira watches helplessly as Japanese Christians are stripped down and burned with ladles of boiling water. Their screams pierce the air, but its Ferreiras agony we are meant to feelthe agony of his inability to stop the torture, the suffering of his helplessness.

Another scene of torture is also one ofSilences most virtuosic sequences, in which a trio of Japanese villagers, having refused to renounce their faithtoapostatizeare crucified in the rising tide of the Pacific until they expire from exhaustion. Its one of the films most soul-stirring moments thanks to fine work from Japanese actor Shinya Tsukamoto, who plays the unflaggingly devout Mokichi. And yet here again, the pain is twofold: Mokichis dying gasps, loyal to God to the end, are validated by Rodrigues, watching helplessly from afar as he hides from the local lords enforcers.

Later, Rodrigues is imprisoned by authorities and pressured to renounce God by trampling on a likeness of Christ. He refuses, and suffers. But he is to discover there are harsher punishments than those that might be physically inflicted upon his own body. Catholic guilt gets a workout for nearly three hours onscreen inSilence, as Rodrigues and the more rigid Garrpe struggle to resolve the austerity of the teachings theyre imparting to a desperate flock with the grim suspicion that it all might be for naught.

ThroughoutSilencethose silent agonies flash across Garfields distressed baby face, which Scorsese alternately smudges with grime to blend in with his dirt-covered parishioners, or frames in long voluminous Jesus curls to juxtapose his Christ-like glow with the wretched, imploring Japanese Christians. Its not the plight of the Japanese that Scorsese is interested in, nor is that what the prideful Rodrigues worries over, as he longs to serve his righteous way to the Lord or die a glorious martyrs death. As a result,Silenceis a frequently dragging and exhausting meditation on spiritual fidelity that has little time for the non-white people on either side of this unholy reign of terror.

The combined excellence of this Japanese trio is maddening, because they bringSilences most provocative characters to life only to ultimately and thanklessly be used as props for Rodriguess own self-absorbed journey of spiritual self-discovery. Ogata, a gifted comedian, infuses Inoue with a mesmerizing duality that combats Rodriguess youthful egotism; hes more deserving of a supporting actor awards push than, say, Neeson, whose presence in the film is laughably scant by comparison. Asano, one of the best Japanese actors of his generation, shines with a deceptive charm as he works his master manipulations on the stubbornly resistant priest. Kubozuka lends the traitorous Kichijiro a pitiable relatability and turns Rodrigues own personal Judas into a compellingly illustrative figure of questioning and utterly human faith.

Scorseses very Catholic interest in EndsSilencelies in the question of whether or not God forgives those who renounce Himand how the devoted deal with the psychological torment of His silence. But he seems only to care how those questions impact his light-skinned protagonist. To that end, he stakes more investment in the spiritual agonies of his priest than he does in the native peasants who are literally dying to protect the foreign padres,withoutgranting the Japanese Christians or their tormentors the full breadth of context and complexity that End wrote into his novel. Absent from the film, for example, is any exploration of the socioeconomic power structure that turned so many poor Japanese peasants toward Christian teachings that promised paradise and salvationescape from their miserable earthly lives.Silenceignores the economics of why Western faith found a berth in Japan to begin with and breezes over the underlying cultural clash that, one untrustworthy character argues, makes it impossible for Christianity to take root in the swamp of Japan.

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Scorsese is almost single-mindedly concerned with the salvation of Rodriguess soul. Is he, then, in the same rickety boat as his protagonist?

Compare his embellishments of the source material to the novel itself and the first film to be adapted from it, by Double Suicidefilmmaker Masahiro Shinoda, five years after the books release. Co-written by End, 1971s Chinmoku(Silence) ends with a controversial bang that leaves little ambiguity to Shinodas harsh view of the outsider Rodrigues, and the metaphorical consequences missionaries brought to Japan in the guise of spreading salvation. End, who passed away in 1996, reportedly hated the directors ending, which hammers home its point by holding a gruesome freeze-frame on Rodriguess gnarled face. (For those interested, the 1971 film is available on the streaming platform FilmStruck.)

By comparison,Silencetreats Ends protagonist with kid gloves as it ignores the cultural exploration that accompanies the religious one in Ends bookand in doing so embraces the white male perspective Scorsese brings with him. He spares Rodrigues the ignominy ofChinmokus ending, prizing the priests spiritual purity over all else, and in doing so turns Garfields earnestness into tedious, endless self-absorption. He also takes the liberty of giving Rodrigues a final act of grace that Endo never wrote. Is Scorsese playing God with Ends material, gifting Rodrigues with this last bit of ham-fisted redemption? At best its an indulgent affirmation that, like the whole ofSilence, serves only the faithful and the questioning. At worst its an emotionally manipulative flourish that sendsSilenceoff as a requiem for Rodrigues, true believer, noble victim of the cruel Japanese.

Its no coincidence that End wrote his novel in 1966 inspired by his countrys own history and the life of the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Chiara, a generation removed from the sharp and forced end to Japans own imperialist efforts. Hed converted to Catholicism at age 10 for his mother and during WWII found himself a lonely practitioner of the religion of Japans enemiesan outsider in his own country. Later he moved to France seeking something closer to acceptance, only to find himself the target of European racism. His book, from this thornily conflicted Japanese Catholic perspective, reflects a much richer, and much more complicated interrogation into the collision of forces that converged upon and within Japan, yielding universal questions from such a specific life.

By filtering Ends complex moral conflict into a work of spiritual tourism Scorsese selfishly works out his own questions of faith, using Ends text to do itwhile ignoring the cultural context that makes his Japanese-ness matter. Thats far too fine a line between self-serving cinema and cinema that serves the complex crises of religion and clashing cultures that End wrote of. InSilence, the padre Rodrigues agonizes over the silence of a God that wont reply to him and by extension, validate his faith and suffering. Scorsese does more than enough of that for the both of them.

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