Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, Tadanobu Asano, Issey Ogata, Yosuke Kubozuka
Silence is not for the faint of heart.
Silence tells the story of two Jesuit priests, Fr. Sebastiao Rodrigues (Garfield), and Fr. Francisco Garrupe (Driver) in their search for the whereabouts of their mentor Fr. Cristovao Ferreira (Neeson), who was last heard of doing the Lord’s work in Japan and the disturbing rumours of his apostasy (recantation of faith). The two arrive secretly into the country at the height of the extremely violent persecution of the Christians in the country, personified in the form of the local governor of the region, a high-ranking samurai Masashige Inoue (Ogata), who uses creative methods in order to break the will of the Christians.
This is a very deep and thought-provoking film, but it asks for our effort- for the most part the context maybe lost to a largely secular audience- and explores the moral ambiguities of spiritual faith and evangelic martyrdom (as my good friend Lyndon puts it- it can be odd to watch Qui-Gon Jinn, Spiderman, Kylo Ren and the King of the Free Folk debate on the topic). Scenes are sublime, yet brutal, and can be distressing at times, with scenes depicting extreme suffering, without any glory or honour.
The cinematography is beautiful, capturing the essence of the Land of the Thousand Autumns (The ‘Rising Sun’ moniker wasn’t used until the late 19th century) at its most picturesque, and at its grimmest, whether it is the rolling green landscapes or the festive atmosphere of Edo-period market towns. The score and the sound design are muted, and sparingly used, to give the film a meditative feel to the proceedings, but the strongest moments of the film, are the parts where all is silence, save for the sounds of crashing waves of the buzzing of native fauna. The subject matter is treated with a lot of respect, lacking in the moralizing tone that many other films would have been tempted to do- the amount of detail is staggering- from the scripture, to the set dressing, everything feels on point.
The only part I found grating was the heavily exaggerated Japanese accents, but with such a quality film on the screen, this was the least of my cinephilic concerns.
Silence is a truly beautiful film, that only asks you for your time and effort, and that emotional effort is worth it.
Historical context behind the film:
The history of Christianity in Japan began approximately in the early 16th century, with the arrival of Francis Xavier, a Spanish missionary belonging to the Society of Jesus (Por. : Societas Iesu- or otherwise known as the Jesuits). He initially sought permission from the Emperor of Japan to openly preach the Catholic faith, unaware that during the time, the Emperor was only a figure head and that the real rulers were the local daimyo (literal translation- great names) who ruled parts of Japan at the time, and constantly warred against another for the position of Shogun- the nominal, true power of all Japan. Francis Xavier never got his permission, as he was barred from entry to Kyoto, the capital. He found welcome however in the western parts of Honshu (the big island)
Whilst Xavier got the credit for opening up the possibility of proselyting and missonary work in Japan, it was someone else who would make a far bigger impact. Fernao Mendes Pinto, a merchant from Portugal, crash-landed his vessel in Tanegashima (in modern day Satsuma prefecture), Kyushu in 1543, and inadvertently introduced to the locals the arquebus, the grand-daddy of all firearms, when they got curious about the contents of his now wrecked vessel. The local daimyo were impressed by this new weapon, and got to work acquiring and producing as many copies of it.
Christianity and musketry were thus very closely linked, and often many a daimyo would choose to take up the religion of the foreigners (and to an extent techniques in metallurgy and armorsmithing) in order to secure more favourable trade agreements that invariably involved a regular supply of guns, bullets, and the saltpetre in order to make gunpowder. Many notable samurai of the late 16th century and early 17th century became Christians- the most eminent being the Konishi and Arima families, whose descendents could now be found in Brazil and the Phillippines. Once the local daimyo converted, it was also beneficial for the local populace to follow suit, creating a new generation of people relatively divorced from the native Shinto and Buddhist religions.
Guns transformed the Japanese battlefield almost immediately, proving their capability by mercilessly destroying the traditionally-minded Samurai still clutching tightly to their swords and bows, dying in the mud after being shot off their horse.
The persecution of Christianity began as the civil wars and struggles among daimyo waned, and the advent of the unification of the country itself under one ruler. Hideyoshi Toyotomi, was the second of these unifiers, banned the Catholic religion on the rumours that the foreigners were enslaving Japanese (the foreigners did indeed enslave Japanese, but not to an extent they inflicted in Africa and South-East Asia), and the policy was enacted legally later down the track by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was the ultimate victor of the civil war, becoming virtually Shogun by winning the decisive battle at Sekigahara in the year 1600.
Christians were rooted out in many forms, with methods ranging from the relatively merciful fumi-e (in which Christians must trample on the image of Christ, and denounce their faith), to the extremely brutal crucifixions, and a method known as anazuri- hung upside down inside a pit and slowly bleeding to death- all of which are recreated in the movie.
From this point on, the only foreigners allowed to enter Japan were the Dutch, whose Protestant creed was less of a moral threat to the regime, and even then they were limited to a small port named Dejima, within the vicinity of Nagasaki. The order of things was only ended in 1854 when Commodore Perry of the United States arrived with an armada behind him.