Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 12 March 2008
Source Eureka!/Masters of Cinema DVD
One of the fascinations of Silence, Masahiro Shinoda’s adaptation of the 1966 novel by renowned Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo, is the insight it offers into the history, little known in the West, of Christianity in Japan. Or rather, I should say, of Catholicism, a Catholicism introduced by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries operating out of Macao. (Hence, there are considerable parallels with the history of Catholicism’s development in China, including the subsequent expulsion of missionaries and the banning of the religion.) In Japan’s case the Jesuits first arrived in 1549 during the Sengoku/Civil War era, when a unified Japanese state no longer existed. Over the next forty years the number of converts reached a quarter of a million. But the changing fortunes of war and politics among the Japanese saw piecemeal banishments and persecutions coalesce in 1614 in the formal decision by the reunified state of the Tokugawa shogunate to ban Christianity and to follow it up with a policy of persecution, torture, and execution.
This is the background to Silence’s story, a background that is quickly sketched in an opening documentary-style introduction: “a bitter time for Christians in Japan. Countless priests, monks and believers were murdered. Many others disappeared. Padre Ferreira was one of them.” But, as it turns out, this is not the story of Padre Ferreira—he is in fact an intangible figure that hovers out of sight during most of the story, a source first of mystery and then, when he finally appears, a profound challenge to the very essence of the religious belief at issue here.
The focus of Silence is on and follows two Portuguese priests, Padres Rodrigues and Garrpe (with the former eventually taking on the central role), as they are smuggled into a remote part of the Japanese coastline. Here they are sheltered by poor Christian villagers and learn how Christianity has survived since the banishment of the clergy and the banning of the faith, forced underground to be practiced with a kind of folk memory (the priests are taken aback by certain unorthodox practices) and subject to savage persecution by the authorities.
The two priests are soon witness to the tactics of the authorities who, in searching for the priests, take a handful of villagers hostage and remove them to the local magistrate’s office. Here, they are forced to undertake a ritual of apostasy, where they have to demonstrate a renouncement of their faith by stepping on or spitting on the fumi-e, a religious icon depicting Christ or the Virgin Mary. Important themes of the film emerge in this sequence. On the one hand, the authorities insist on this as an outer, symbolic act which need not mean that the participants really renounce their beliefs. The shogunate is only concerned with the exercise of its political control over its subjects with the persecution of Christians being part of a wider authoritarian strategy. The inner, spiritual life is of no concern to them beyond its political ramifications. Indeed, they seem to be unable to comprehend the refusal of most of these Christians to perform this symbolic apostasy and their willingness to accept a cruel and painful death instead.
Padre Rodrigues’ reaction to this ritual apostasy is important for the later development of his character. Confronted from his hiding place with the spectacle of the hostage-taking and knowing they will be subjected to the fumi-e ritual, he can only scream “It’s all right to step on it! It’s all right!” This is the very choice that he will be faced with, whether to maintain a loyal but at the same time rigid and even arrogant adherence to the codes of his faith, or whether to succumb to weakness and suffering. And the suggestion is that this second path may be one that is truer to the spirit of the figure of the suffering Christ. Certainly, in this kind of weak, conflicted, doubting figure you can see the appeal that Endo’s work held for Graham Greene (compare the whisky-priest in The Power and the Glory), and you can see why Martin Scorsese would want to make his own adaptation of Silence.
Padre Ferreira is the film’s great apostate figure. Early on, we see Rodrigues query the villagers as to the whereabouts of Ferreira, captured five years before, but it is only on his own capture that Rodrigues learns of Ferreira’s apostasy. He’s informed of this during the series of verbal battles with two Japanese officials (both, ironically, educated in Jesuit seminaries) who seek to undermine Rodrigues’ faith in the efficacy of his mission. This calling-into-question is an important theme of the film—the first official talks of Christianity being an unwelcome gift for the Japanese, and the magistrate Inoue states “Christianity is of no value to us.” He later adds, “You selfishly force your own dreams on us. You never think of the bloodshed you are causing.”
This theme is then taken further by Ferreira—now bearing a Japanese name, and with a Japanese family, as Lord Sawano—when he states that “our religion can’t take root in a country like this”. Worse than this, their religion and their God are twisted and turned into some new, alien form by the local believers. Obviously, in his original novel Endo, as a Christian himself, doesn’t deny the ultimate value of the Christian faith; rather, he is raising issues as to the contradictions of Christianity in Japan as part of his personal project of redefining Christianity for Japan. (Endo prefers to emphasise the figure of Jesus suffering with humanity, something he feels relates better to Japanese).
Although Endo co-wrote the screenplay, the emphasis in the film has altered. If anything, Shinoda shifts the argument in favour of the Japanese officials, against the Christian missionaries. His interest in the physical trials of the Christians—for example, the interrogation/torture of the samurai and his wife, which end with the samurai buried up to his neck in sand and threatened with pounding horse-hooves—is not as an enquiry into questions of faith and religious belief, but instead the turning of a cold and rather lurid eye on the violence that the state is prepared to mete out on who threatens it. In this context, the final moments of the film when Rodrigues, in a series of still-shots, is shown raping his fellow apostate, seem a cynical note to conclude on, in the process missing the point of what these characters represent, have suffered, and are suffering.
Similarly, there’s a difference between the “silence” of the novel and that of the film. Unsurprisingly, we’re talking here of the silence of God, although Shinoda quite lacks the personal investment that Ingmar Bergman brought to the same theme. Ferreira renounced his faith not because of torture—by anazuri, a particularly brutal process whereby the victim is hung upside-down in a pit, with the forehead slit to bleed down over the face—but because God had done nothing to relieve the suffering of his followers. This sentiment is expressed even more strongly by the widow of the martyred samurai: “In this world, neither God nor Buddha exists. There’s nothing at all anymore.”
Ferreira struggles with Rodrigues to get him to step on the fumi-e, to apostatise in order to save the lives of the Japanese Christians being tortured by anazuri. But rather than an act of negation, a denial of God in the face of his silence, Ferreira argues for it as an act of love, “the most painful act of love that you have ever before done”, and one that Christ himself would have done to save his tortured followers for the sake of love.
It’s interesting that in the novel this silence of God is not absolute. In Endo’s original, the silence is broken when Rodrigues hears Christ’s voice telling him to step on the fumi-e: “Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.” So, for Endo the significance of the title is that it is a silence that is broken by a transformed figure of Christ—as he writes, “not filled with majesty and glory,” not “made beautiful by endurance to pain,” not “with strength of a will that has repelled temptation,” but “sunken and utterly exhausted.” For whatever reason, Shinoda’s film is not interested in the Christian themes that move Endo. However masterfully Shinoda stages this duel between Ferreira and Rodrigues—the close-up on Ferreira’s face as he makes his final plea, Ferreira’s movement into the cell to comfort the sobbing Rodrigues, Ferreira’s silent prayer as Rodrigues steps on the fumi-e, the cut to the empty corridor outside the cell—there’s still the feeling that he doesn’t come to grips with what is at the heart of Endo’s tale.
In fact, it’s the earlier parts of the film where Shinoda really shines. His has been an uneven career where the later work has never matched the excitement of the aesthetic experimentation he displayed in the sixties in a film like Double Suicide. His work in Silence is in this line. Here he’s aided by a great score from Toru Takemitsu (Woman of the Dunes, Kwaidan) which moves from Japanese- and Western-style melodies to modernist experimental dissonance. Also, the cinematographer is the great Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon, Ugetsu Monogatari, Floating Weeds) and the visual style is a provocative and compelling one, as dissonant in its own way as the soundtrack. It’s characterised by sudden shifts in perspective where long shots are followed by extreme close-ups, or where the shots swing across the axis to disconcerting effect, or where the human figures are placed in an unclear relationship to a succession of distant shots of the landscape. This style isn’t consistently applied—it’s to be found more in the first half of the film—but it makes for the best section of the film where we follow (although events seems so disjointed that “follow” hardly seems to be the word) Rodrigues on his own, separated from Garrpe, as he wanders through this remote Japanese landscape in an increasingly distressed state, starved, thirsty, reduced to stealing a ragged red kimono that can’t sit properly on his body. There’s a powerful dreamlike quality to this whole sequence; in it Shinoda perfectly evokes Rodrigues’ increasingly unhinged mental state and the utter alienness of the world Rodrigues now finds himself in. It’s at moments like these that Shinoda’s adaptation of Silence really soars.