Much of what you are likely to read about Martin Scorsese’s latest masterwork will revolve around his 30 year quest to adapt the novel into a film. Which is an exceptional devotion to a project and well worth praise, but what really matters is the film. What does it provide for its audience and why is it such an important story? I mean, Marty spent 30 years trying to get it just right. Why? Well, you could argue a lot of different reasons why it’s so important and many may have nothing to do with Scorsese’s reasoning.
The context of the time and place is quite important, but the film only provides so much of it. The reasoning for this should be obvious to the audience. The protagonists, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garpe (Adam Driver) are ill informed when it comes to the horrors of 1630’s Japan. All they know is that things are supposedly terrible and that their master is said to have renounced his faith. Their lack of understanding and political context is ours. We only know what they know and they largely ignore the political history of Christianity’s encroachment on Japanese lands from multiple nations.
The Jesuit Priests mission is a journey directly into the heart of darkness. They are in enemy territory on the island of Japan and around every corner is danger. Which should be the first bit of enlightenment this movie has to offer. These individuals are in mortal danger over a belief in a being they have never touched, smelled, seen, or anything else. It is a being that remains silent through all the persecution that happens in this film. That idea of the silent god is one that is very interestingly meditated on in this film and those of various faith or belief structures can take it in their own way.
Along their journey, the priests bare witness to people being burned alive, decapitated, hung from crosses while the tide rises, hung upside down in pits, and several other forms of mental torture. All this is certainly a condemnation of the 17th century Japanese and their methods, but it is also an examination of the faith itself. Why is the Christian God not stopping this? It is made clear throughout that these atrocities can be finished by one of the priests simply stepping on a picture of Jesus as a formality to try and stop the spreading of Christianity in Japan. So, does that not mean the priests bare some responsibility for the death and persecution if they can stop it all with one act?
These are deep and interesting things to chew on. I believe many Christians will find the entire thing very troubling. They will have a hard time reconciling the situation and being able to forgive these priests for their denunciation of Christ. Yet, at the same time they will understand the pain and horror that these priests were trying to prevent. They will be able to see the atrocities of an unforgiving land and hopefully understand why a priest could fall from the faith or hide it in search of a world free from persecution. It will be difficult for any Christian, but I believe Scorsese wants to help absolve the perceived sin of these priests.
However, this is not a piece of Christian hero worship or propaganda. Scorsese is channeling this novel to try and make some greater observation on the human condition. He may have had an agenda of absolution for these priests, but he is a master filmmaker and uses his canvas to help illuminate a situation. I know that most will see the Japanese as evil, but they will have a hard time with that. Scorsese never allows that simple distinction. He gives the Japanese forces a voice to explain their reasoning on a consistent basis. He allows them to condemn the priesthood for its arrogance and juxtapose the perceived truth of Christianity with a different world view.
As I mentioned before, it’s obvious that Scorsese is a man of faith and he is sympathetic to these fallen priests, but his respect for Japanese culture, film, and even the viewpoint of the inquisitors is more than admirable. It’s part of what makes this film so thought provoking for those who are willing to let it in. It should also inspire people to look up the history of Japanese Christianity and why it was being so viciously fought against. You get a sense of the political and military reasoning behind the denial of Christianity in Japan from the film, but history paints a much more clear picture. It doesn’t excuse the horrible acts, but illuminates the political ramifications of the Catholic Church.
On top of all this, the movies is a beautiful piece of art to behold. The cinematography is expertly staged with bleak and foggy vistas. The lens captures beautiful and unforgiving landscapes that evoke the old Kurosawa pictures. And the pacing manages to keep you engaged for the entirety of its nearly 3 hour run time without any real music. There is a lot of soundscape, but the music is the faintest foreboding and it works perfectly. A gutsy choice, to be sure, but everything about this film is gutsy.
Honestly, this is the most intriguing film about Christian history I’ve seen this century. It’s an exquisitely shot, wonderfully acted, and expertly paced film, that works to illuminate a seldom mentioned piece of the past. A movie that tackles the Christian religion in a way that does not pander exclusively to the devout, but asks interesting questions about the nature of their mission. Why does god remain silent during the most vicious forms of persecution? Is it more godly to denounce him if it will save the lives of his followers? Where does the true nature of belief lie? And most importantly for me, why does anybody believe any of this and why would it drive someone to complete misery or deadly torture? Silence does give answers, but does paint a picture so you might answer for yourself. Yet another Scorsese masterpiece!
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