‘Silence’: What is Faith?

Rating: 3/4

Nothing says passion project more than 26 years. That’s how long Silence has been a mere dream to Martin Scorsese. Originally a novel by Shūsaku Endō (1966), it has only been adapted once (1971).

Andrew Garfield stars as Sebastião Rodrigues, an Italian Jesuit priest, as he attempts, in a fair bit of turnaround, to save Liam Neeson (Father Cristovao Ferreira). Garfield is joined by Adam Driver (Francisco Garupe) in his travel to Japan, where Dutch traders have brought word that Neeson has committed an apostasy and must be saved, whether physically or spiritually.

The world Garfield, Driver, and Neeson are navigating is one where Christians and Jesuit Priests are hunted. The Japanese government is opposed to Christianity because, well Christians think everyone but Christians are wrong, we’ll get into that soon. Christians are tortured, put on crosses, and made to recant their faith by spitting on crosses or stepping on the image of Jesus. In their pursuit to track Neeson, Garfield and Driver employ the “help” of Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka).

Here, and now, belief is a tricky word. During the 17th Century, Christianity was spreading its oats everywhere. Europeans thought they could pacify, educate, and save natives from themselves. It didn’t hurt that the church could also line their pockets. In doing this, they caused disruption to a religious system that already existed. Japan’s official religion was Buddhism. Christians disavowed the existence of a Buddha. The Japanese government reacted, and began to persecute Christians.

Through out the hunting of people who are down with the J-man, that’s Jesus to you, the Japanese are willing to die for their new religion. Nevertheless, it’s not altogether clear if they know what they’re dying for. Garfield and Driver aren’t sure either. When they are asked to baptize a baby, the Japanese parents proclaim their child will go to paradise. Both priest are left to temper expectations. Part of the selling point of believing in Christ is this little thing called, paradise. There’s no pain. No suffering. No work. For Japanese peasants, that’s an attractive reward (As it was for European peasants too). Yet, do they believe because of the reward, or in the concept of God with the reward as an additive? Some confusion comes from the language. Neeson makes note that the Japanese word for Christ, or son of God, actually translates to sun. Like THE SUN. The orange globe in the sky. European Christians, in their infinite wisdom, forgot that some things don’t translate.

No one makes Garfield question his belief in God more than Kichijiro. Once the leader of a Japanese church, he renounced God when his family didn’t, and watched them be burned to death. Often he is willing to betray anyone to stay alive. Yet, with every betrayal he comes back to Garfield for an absolution of his sins. It’s the religious equivalent of continually insulting someone and ending it with “jk.” Or for Garfield, when you see someone at a party you haven’t wanted to see since you met them.

Scorsese’s attention to the scene, through his multitudes of establishing shots, makes the audience intimate with the surroundings. If the constant religious persecutions weren’t happening, then it wouldn’t be a bad place to visit. But his ability to turn the architecture around the individual into the individual is key. As Garfield is held captive by Inoue Massahig (Issei Ogata ), otherwise known as the Inquisitor, he is held in a cell. The cell is 2 x 4 feet, and made of wood. The bars that surround him are in the shape of T’s, or crosses. As Garfield agonizes over his faith, he is left surrounded by an array of crosses, judging every lamentation or moment of doubt.

By film’s end, it’s not altogether clear how much the Japanese believe in Christ. The latter portion of Silence gravitates toward the questioning of Garfield’s faith. And while it may be more worthwhile to question whether the most devoted can be broken, it is compelling to analyze more of the Japanese belief system in the Christian church. It would also have been appreciated if there were more clues as to why the Japanese government opposes Christianity. Yes, Buddha was put on the back burner. But Christianity had been flourishing for some time before then. Why begin to kill them?

The shogun of the time, Tokugawa Lemitsu, opposed Western religion because it destabilized his power. If your people are dependent on a foreign god, then will they be loyal to you? The details of the shogun or the appearance of one is neglected from the film, which puts the audience in a position to float with the narrative rather than question and understand the context. Silence would have been a stronger film with more context. You can’t make a film about the persecution of a religious group, and not give the exact reasoning. That would be like Christians saying there’s only one God with no proof, which would never…….

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