When St. Francis Xavier brought Catholicism to Japan in 1549, conversions were hard to come by. Xavier struggled to learn Japanese, and initially relied on imagery, usually illustrations of Christ, Mary, and the saints to tell the Christian story. He died just three years into his mission.
Yet hundreds of thousands did convert, and the Japanese Church flourished for more than a generation, until the persecutions began. In 1597, twenty-six Christians were crucified in Nagasaki. Then beginning in the following year and continuing into the 1630s, another 205 were martyred throughout the country. And by the time the two Portuguese priest-heroes of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel, Silence, came to Japan in 1639, an additional 206 had been killed for being Kirishitan.
What Japanese authorities had taken to be a curious adjunct of trade with Western nations was now considered a lethal threat to the nation’s cultural patrimony. Missionary work was dangerous, and those fictional priests, based on real missionaries, fully expected to die for Jesus.
But Endō’s book (and Martin Scorsese’s new film version of it) isn’t about martyrdom; it’s about avoiding it. Above all, the authorities want apostasy (sincere or not), and most of the main characters apostatize.
Now it’s easy at the distance of half a millennium to look with disdain upon a priest who knows the risks and yet abandons the profession of faith to which his ordination bound him. Scorsese seems to ask: What would you do when asked to trample on a sacred image of Jesus, if doing so would save the lives of others? Kirishitans are hanging upside down in a pit, small incisions in their necks, slowly bleeding to death, and only you can save them. All you have to do is stamp your foot on a fumi-e – a sort of demonic icon depicting Christ. What would you do?
Well, those hundreds of real Japanese martyrs, saints one and all, perished because they refused to apostatize – because they believed their lives, though ending in agony, were redeemed by Christ. Eternal joy awaited them.
Endō was a Catholic convert, and it’s fair to wonder how complete his conversion was. Martin Scorsese is a cradle Catholic who, despite meeting with Pope Francis during promotion of his movie (which premiered on December 23rd), shows no signs of being a faithful Catholic.
The book is very much a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s anti-colonial novel, Heart of Darkness (1899), the tale of a man named Marlow who travels up the Congo in search of an ivory trader named Kurtz, described as “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress,” but who has become a god to the “natives.” Conrad’s book was also the basis of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now, in which a spec-ops officer goes up the Mekong in search of a rogue colonel, also Kurtz, now a godlike figure for the Montagnards. Both Kurtzes die uttering the famous line: “The horror! The horror!”
What does this have to do with Scorsese’s Silence? The two Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), have come to Japan to find Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who is said to have gone native, even to the point of apostatizing and marrying.
When Endō read Heart of Darkness, he must have been impressed by the fictional organization with which Kurtz corresponds, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, because that is surely a part of what missionary activity everywhere has amounted to – in the minds of the “natives” anyhow – and it’s likely Endō loved Christ but wasn’t particularly fond of Christians.
When Marlow/Rodrigues/Garfield finally confronts Kurtz/Ferreira/Neeson, it is the older man, formerly Rodrigues’ teacher back in Portugal, who secures the younger man’s apostasy.
Scorsese’s film is actually the second adaptation of Endō’s book, the first being Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 Chinmoku (“Silence” in Japanese). Two American actors portrayed the Portuguese priests, but with a difference: both were able to speak most of their lines in Japanese, whereas Mr. Garfield manages, towards the end of Scorsese’s film, just a few words in that language. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the earlier film is the casting of Tetsurō Tamba (who played Tiger Tanaka in the Bond film You Only Live Twice) as Ferreira. As if to say: here’s a Portuguese Jesuit who has really gone native!
Shinoda’s film runs a manageable two hours; Scorsese’s is nearly three, and it’s because of repetitiveness, not because there was more to tell of Silence than Shinoda did.
As the book reaches its climax, Rodrigues feels the sand giving way beneath him:
From the deepest core of my being yet another voice made itself heard in a whisper. Supposing God does not exist. . . .
This was a frightening fancy. . . .What an absurd drama become the lives of [the martyrs] Mokichi and Ichizo, bound to the stake and washed by the waves. And the missionaries who spent three years crossing the sea to arrive at this country – what an illusion was theirs. Myself, too, wandering here over the desolate mountains – what an absurd situation!
Scorsese’s Silence is not a Christian film by a Catholic filmmaker, but a justification of faithlessness: apostasy becomes an act of Christian charity when it saves lives, just as martyrdom becomes almost satanic when it increases persecution. “Christ would have apostatized for the sake of love,” Ferreira tells Rodrigues, and, obviously, Scorsese agrees.
Silence is rated R for its multiple scenes of torture. The Americans and Brits mostly have the movie stolen from them by a superb Japanese cast, including: Yôsuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro, a Judas who earns a lot more silver than the original one; Issei Ogata as the missionaries’ principal antagonist, the inquisitor Inoue; Shin’ya Tsukamoto (Mokichi) and the great Yoshi Oida (Ichizo) as Catholic villagers martyred by the inquisitor. I won’t be surprised if either Mr. Oida or Mr. Kubozuka receives an Oscar nomination as a supporting actor. If so, that will likely be the film’s only nod from the Academy.