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 (in Endō’s novel), after Father Garupe is drowned with the villagers:
The rain falls unceasingly on the sea. And the sea which killed them surges on uncannily—in silence…. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God…the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.1
God’s silence, the silence that tests the faith of even the most devout, is a familiar lament, often invoked by survivors of concentration camps and other places of horror. But nature plays a deeper part in the story. Various characters, such as the ruthless magistrate Inoue, but also Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), the priest who apostatized and became a Buddhist, refer to Japan as a swamp. In Inoue’s words to Father Rodrigues:
A tree which flourishes in one kind of soil may wither if the soil is changed. As for the tree of Christianity, in a foreign country its leaves may grow thick and the buds may be rich, while in Japan the leaves wither and no bud appears.
Some of these words reappear faithfully in Scorsese’s movie, where part of the story, as in the novel, is told in the form of letters written by Rodrigues to his superior in Macau. But the brilliance of the film lies in the way Scorsese visualizes the story. Silence has the look of great religious art, the chiaroscuro of torches and moonlight, the terrifying beauty of blood and violence redeemed by spirituality. Like Caravaggio, Scorsese, a former altar boy who once wanted to be a priest, has the uncanny ability to inject the spirit of the gospels into the most sordid of situations, from the mean streets of New York to the torture pits of seventeenth-century Japan. He manages to make an execution, with the severed head leaving a trail of blood on the sandy ground, look sensuous.
It is interesting to compare Scorsese’s movie to an earlier film of Silence, directed in 1971 by Shinoda Masahiro. Shinoda’s film, with a gorgeous score by Takemitsu Toru, is lovely to look at but in a different, more Japanese way. Shot by Miyagawa Kazuo, who also filmed some of Mizoguchi Kenji’s masterpieces, Shinoda’s film is a highly aesthetic celebration of natural beauty, contrasted with human cruelty. What it lacks is Scorsese’s religious sensibility.
Indeed, aesthetically, the savagery of Japanese torture found its match in the morbidity of Catholic piety. After Christians died on the cross in Nagasaki—a scene not shown in the movie—Japanese believers would rush to soak their handkerchiefs in the blood of the martyrs. Some of these bloody bits of cloth are still lovingly displayed in a museum run by Jesuits in that city.
Scorsese has told interviewers that Endō’s novel spoke to him from the moment he first read it in 1989.2 One can see why. Endō’s main theme is religious doubt. But it is the doubt of a man steeped in Christianity. Endō converted as a child, for the sake of his Catholic mother. The notion of Japan as a swamp that sucks in all imported ideas and transforms them into something almost unrecognizable is Endō’s, though he put the words in the mouths of both Inoue, the ferocious enemy of the Christians, and of Father Ferreira, the apostate priest.
Father Ferreira, portrayed with deep pathos by Neeson as a weathered man who renounced his faith without ever really losing it, is sent by the Japanese authorities to convince Rodrigues to follow his example and spare the peasants by denying Christ. Ferreira, too, like Inoue, claims that the tree of Christianity cannot grow in Japanese soil. When the younger priest protests and says that before the shogun’s crackdown, there were hundreds of thousands of Japanese Christians, Ferreira replies that they may look like Christians, but that is an illusion. Not the Son of God, but the sun is their God. Rodrigues continues to protest, pointing to the peasants who are willing to die for their faith. And Fereirra says that it is not for their faith that they are dying, but for their priest, Rodrigues himself. The Japanese, he says, “are not able to think of God completely divorced from man; the Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human.”
These words are taken directly from the novel. They reflect Endō’s own doubts about the chances of his faith to take root in his native land. But he never gave up hope before he died in 1996. He once wrote that Catholicism is like a symphony: “And unless there is in that symphony a part that corresponds to Japan’s mud swamp, it cannot be a true religion. What exactly that part is—that is what I want to find out.”
These concerns are reflected in Scorsese’s movie. But his own preoccupations are less with the specific conditions of the Catholic faith in a non-Western culture like Japan’s than with another aspect of the story: the dilemma of a man who has to do good for others by transgressing the rules of his religion. From the point of view of their church, Ferreira and Rodrigues are traitors. They end their days working for the Japanese authorities in Nagasaki, sifting through the cargo of every foreign ship to make sure no Christian images are smuggled into the country. But their apostasy has saved lives. In the last image of the movie, before the screen goes black in a cacophony of natural sounds, we see the body of Rodrigues being consumed by flames at his funeral, his hands clutching a tiny wood carving of the crucifixion—a hopeful detail that is not in the book, nor in Shinoda’s film, which ends with the apostate priest in bed with the Japanese widow he was told to marry—as though sex were the swamp that sinks him.
Sinners and traitors haunt Scorsese’s work, from Charlie, the young mafia hood in Mean Streets (1973) who fails to look out for his childhood friend Johnny Boy, to Jesus Christ himself in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), where he is depicted not only as a collaborator with the Romans against his own people but as a man who is tempted by the devil to come down from the cross and live in sin with Mary Magdalene. Even the underrated movie The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) can be read as an allegory of the attempted (but failed) redemption of a sinner in the great tradition of American hubris.
There is another important character in Silence, apart from the missionaries and their persecutors. Before embarking on their secret mission to Japan, Rodrigues and Garupe pick up in Macau a wretched Japanese peasant named Kichijiro (Kubozuka Yōsuke) to be their guide. Kichijiro is the Judas figure in the story. At first he denies being a Christian, but in fact he was a believer who, to save his skin, had trampled on Christ or the Virgin many times before. Over and over he betrays the priests, for money and survival. And over and over he begs Rodrigues to hear his confession, so his sins can be absolved. Kichijiro is a weak man living in dangerous times. He does what he has to do to scrape through but feels guilty about it. For both Endō and Scorsese, he is perhaps the most human character in the story, the one closest to most of us.
Not least of Scorsese’s achievements is his remarkably realistic recreation of seventeenth-century Japan. The squalid little villages, as well as Nagasaki, where Father Rodrigues is led, Christ-like, through the teeming streets by his jailers to be gawped at in wonder and disgust, look entirely credible. So do the scenes set inside a Buddhist temple or the slums of Macau. All this was shot in a studio and on locations in Taiwan—Japan being too expensive.
Since Silence is a drama and not a history lesson, the reasons for the persecution of Christians are hinted at without being spelled out. Hideyoshi, the shogun who started it, was known to be a harsh ruler, given to fits of paranoia; he laid to waste much of Korea in the 1590s. But there were grounds for his distrust of Christian missionaries, whom at first he had actually welcomed for their useful knowledge of the outside world.
Missionary work in the sixteenth century—begun by Francis Xavier, who believed that the Japanese were the Asians most amenable to religious conversion—had in fact been quite successful, first among the upper classes, to whom Jesuits were naturally drawn, and later among the poor as well (not least because their conversion was forced on them by their feudal rulers). But the foreign faith came with other things as well, such as guns and trading in slaves. Missionaries sided with certain warlords against others and supplied them with necessary arms. And they insisted not only on building churches, which the authorities allowed, but also on destroying Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Shortly before Hideyoshi decided to crack down, a foolish Portuguese bragged openly that the Christian mission was only a first step to colonizing Japan.3
So Hideyoshi’s misgivings were not really so irrational. The extraordinary cruelty of the punishments meted out to priests and their flock, so graphically shown in the movie, was real. And the viewer of Silence might be forgiven for assuming that the suffering of Japanese Christians was mostly the result of a fatal cultural clash. Indeed, Endō himself might have seen it that way: the universal truth of Christianity clashing with the traditions and customs of a peculiar indigenous culture.
The Christian faith arrived in premodern Asia with claims of a superior culture as well, since it emanated from countries that prided themselves on their economic wealth and scientific progress. As Matteo Ricci, the great Italian missionary, had taught astronomy in sixteenth-century China, Ferreira in Silence imparts the same science to the Japanese. One of the most implacable enemies of the Christians was Hideyoshi’s private physician, who resented the influence of more advanced medical practices from Europe.
But this view of a universalistic, modern, more scientific West crashing into a less evolved culture given to shocking displays of cruelty would be quite misleading. One of the most interesting Portuguese missionaries in the sixteenth century was Father Louis Fróis, who was still in Japan when Hideyoshi started his bloody purges. He witnessed, and described in lurid detail, the crucifixion of twenty-six foreign and Japanese Christians in Nagasaki in 1597. His mission was of course to save Japanese souls, but he was a remarkably curious man who learned to speak fluent Japanese, studied Buddhism (in order to refute it more effectively), compiled a Japanese–Portuguese dictionary, and wrote extensively about Japanese history, art, and customs.
His letters from Japan make extraordinary reading now, for even this erudite, open-minded scholar sounds a bit like an orthodox Muslim today commenting on the decadent West. The first thing to know about Japan, he wrote, is that everything is utterly different from other countries. Women, for example, are still free to marry even if they lose their virginity. Not only that, but unlike in Europe, women are quite free to get divorced if they choose. Young Japanese women are also free to leave their houses and walk about town, without the permission of their parents. Most shocking of all, Japanese don’t object to a woman getting an abortion.
Fróis was so startled by all these signs of social license that he might have exaggerated the freedom of Japanese women somewhat. But the main difference between his Catholic morality and that of most Japanese lay in what Father Ferreira told Rodrigues, namely that nothing in Japan transcends the human. The notion of original sin was, and still is, alien. Japanese have an idea of the sacred, and Buddhism, imported from China and Korea, has its own forms of the otherworldly. But what is most sacred in Japan is nature itself. Spinoza’s view that God is nature would have been readily understood by a seventeenth-century Japanese, and the same is true today.
This perspective lifts Silence from its period interest. For in some ways the Japan of almost four hundred years ago was close enough to today’s secular West to make the issues raised in the story oddly relevant. The real drama of Silence is not the clash between different sets of gods, but between believers in an absolute metaphysical truth and people whose concerns are confined to this world. Inoue, the inquisitor, is not defending a Buddhist or Shinto doctrine against the Christians. He is a political figure who uses terror to protect the interests of the social order he serves. When the Japanese interpreter calls stepping on an image of Christ a “formality,” that is precisely what it is to him.
Of course, formality is not meaningless in Japan. On the contrary, it means a great deal, but rarely in a metaphysical way. Forms are designed to order the world of flesh and blood, not one that only exists in the spirit. That is why Japan offers such a formidable challenge to the Christian imagination. Endō tried in his life and work to find some way to reconcile his religious beliefs with his culture. But the struggle to reconcile spirit with the flesh, to find deeper meaning in the lives of sinners, is a more powerful one. It inspired Endō to write a great novel, and Scorsese to make a great film.
The excellent translation of Silence is by William Johnston (Picador Modern Classics, 2016). ↩
See, for example, Paul Elie, “The Passion of Martin Scorsese,” The New York Times Magazine, November 21, 2016. ↩
There are many books on this period in Japan. An excellent new one is Reinier H. Hesselink’s The Dream of Christian Nagasaki: World Trade and the Clash of Cultures, 1560–1640 (McFarland, 2016). ↩