By Ken Valenti
Christianity in Japan is in desperate straits in Martin Scorsese’s new film, “Silence.”
It is the 1600s, and the faith is outlawed in the country. Two Portuguese priests who travel there seeking a lost mentor, refusing to believe he has renounced Catholicism, find little opportunity to begin their search. To even step foot in the country, they must trust an unreliable wretch named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), who is too afraid to admit that he is Christian.
Once on land, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) find it difficult to go far. Even the Japanese residents they meet are afraid to travel to another village for fear of being found out as Christians.
The movie is obviously personal to Scorsese, who considered the priesthood before his career in movies, and who reportedly received the Shusaku Endo book that the movie is based upon as a gift in 1988. Scorsese paints a grim picture of Christianity in peril as if the religion itself is up on the cross. There is more than one reference to the moment when Jesus is given drops of vinegar to help ease his thirst. Rodrigues, at one point, croaks words that were among Jesus’ last: “I thirst!”
Christians who are captured face a simple test: They are ordered to apostatize — renounce Christianity — by stepping on an image of Christ in front of the inquisitor. Yet they are willing to endure hellish conditions, even death, rather than perform the act. The priests who refuse are not martyred, but are forced to watch others tortured or killed.
“The price of your glory is their suffering,” Rodrigues is told by Inoue the inquisitor, played with a darkly quirky sense of menace by Issei Ogata. It is Inoue who, late in the firm, explains the Japanese authorities’ rejection of Christianity, seeing it as an aspect of European imperialism.
The two priests make little progress in the search for their lost mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). When they split, the story follows Rodrigues, who is captured. When he finally encounters Ferreira, it is because his Japanese captors bring the two together. The meeting does not go the way Rodrigues had hoped.
The movie contains some disturbing scenes of executions. Scorsese’s confidence in presenting brutal acts is in showing them unadorned, without the need for dramatic music. The acts themselves are terrible enough.
The horrors are reflected well by the acting. Neeson as Ferreira has a face that registers past agonies and a serenity that comes with having accepted a fate, but only at great cost. Garfield is effective as the younger version of him, who may not have seen as much tribulation but is catching up quickly.
While the movie feels a little long at 2 hours, 41 minutes, Scorsese keeps the mood tense. There must be some gorgeous landscapes here, but what Scorsese shows is grimmer and often pulled in tighter — the priests in a small shack, or in an even-smaller pit below it, and scenes viewed through the wooden beams of a cage built for humans.
So what does it have to say to viewers today? The setting is firmly set in centuries past, but the central question — whether God is silent in response to earthly horrors — feels as relevant as ever.
After three men are executed, Rodrigues writes to a superior priest: “You will say that their death was not meaningless. That surely God heard their prayers. But did he hear their screams? How can I explain his silence to these people who have endured so much?”
That last is a question the faithful have never stopped asking. n
Ken Valenti is a New York-based writer.