Japan: Beautiful, Savage, Mute


a film directed by Martin Scorsese
Andrew Garfield as the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Father Rodrigues in Silence, Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of the novel by Endō Shūsaku
Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures/Everett Collection
Andrew Garfield as the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Father Rodrigues in Silence, Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of the novel by Endō Shūsaku

Martin Scorsese’s beautiful new movie, Silence, based on Endō Shūsaku’s novel, begins and ends in the same way: a dark screen filled with the noise of summer on the rural coast of southwestern Japan, cicadas rasping, waves crashing, thunderclaps exploding, and rain lashing the rocks.

In between is played out, for almost three hours, the harrowing story of two young Portuguese Jesuit missionaries on a clandestine search for another priest who is rumored to have renounced his faith after torture and to be living as a Japanese Buddhist. The tale, based on historical events, is set in the 1640s. Half a century before, the Shogun Hideyoshi, who unified Japan after years of violent conflict between regional warlords, had embarked on a merciless campaign to get rid of Christianity by expelling foreign priests and forcing Japanese Christians, concentrated mostly in the regions around Nagasaki, to give up their faith by stamping on images of Christ and the Virgin. Those who refused were subjected to a variety of hideous tortures: scalded in sulphurous hot springs, burned at the stake, crucified, drowned at sea, or suspended upside down over pits filled with excrement until death, often slow in coming, ended their torment.

After hiding in rural hovels as underground priests, the two missionaries, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), are arrested by a cunning old magistrate named Inoue (Ogata Issey), together with a number of devout villagers who cling to the foreign priests as their only salvation. Quite aware that public martyrdom had strengthened the hidden devotion of Japanese Christians, Inoue insists that the priests lead their flock in trampling on a tablet bearing the image of Christ. “Just a formality,” the smooth Japanese interpreter calls this.

If the priests refuse to profane the symbol of their faith, the poor villagers will be tortured to death. Father Garupe is drowned at sea along with a number of his followers. Father Rodrigues perseveres. This sets up the dilemma that is at the heart of Silence. Must the Japanese peasants be sacrificed for the sake of the purity of their priest’s devotion? Or should the priest stamp his foot on an engraving of Christ, defiling what he holds most sacred in order to save them? After he finally submits in the early hours of the morning, we hear a cock crowing.

The sounds of nature at the beginning and end of the film are almost deafening, but the silence of the title refers to the muteness of God, who allows the suffering of his followers to go on. In the words of Father Rodrigues…

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