By Noel Vera
Directed by Martin Scorsese
(WARNING: story and ending discussed in explicit detail)
THE FILM BEGINS with the sound of cicadas rhythmically whirring over a black background. The sound cuts out, the film title (simple white letters) flashes on-screen. Cut to a vision of hell: a guard shrouded in steam stands beside a wood shelf containing severed heads. We are at the volcanic springs of Unzen, near Nagasaki, where friars are strung up on crosses and longhandled ladles with holes sprinkle boiling hot water on them, delicately poaching their skin. (Today of course the springs are a popular vacation resort).
Welcome to Martin Scorsese’s idea of heaven: his 30-years-in-the-making version of Shusaku Endo’s Silence, completed at last and screened to near-universal acclaim (and near-empty theaters) in 2016.
It’s an admittedly hard sell: a 161-minute film full of religious discussions, horrific torture, and interminable passages free of dialogue. Two Jesuit priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) are reluctantly sent to Japan to seek out their teacher Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly apostatized — “reluctantly” because Christianity has been outlawed with priests and followers (as shown in the prologue) either being excruciated or executed. Ferreira is found, eventually, but…
Much of the film is intense and, as has been noted, one-note — intentionally so, I believe. Rodrigues and Garupe are spiritual freaks in this modern world of compromise and relativism; Scorsese (and Endo before him) presumably realized we need to be persuaded of the idea that spirituality and love of Christ matters at all before we care about what they’re giving up. Roughly half of the novel is narrated through Rodrigues’ own words, letters sent to friends back in Portugal; more than two hours of Scorsese’s film sees Japan through Rodrigues’ eyes, filtering sights, sounds, textures, smells, taste through his own overwhelmed senses.
It’s a wondrous land, Scorsese’s Japan (actually the island state of Taiwan, which has a long complicated relationship with the former country), beautiful and terrifying and often both at the same time. The two priests are deposited at a beach and we see them at a cave, its twin openings like the inside of a skull whose eyehole they are about to enter. In perhaps one of the film’s most horrific sequences, three men are tied to crucifixes (again that wooden Christian symbol, not coincidentally a classic instrument of torture for the Romans and the Japanese) staked near the shore; Scorsese first shows us huge waves crashing on rock, all thunder and saltwater hiss — we watch as a wall of slate blue fills the screen, rolls across, swallows the three men alive. Later Rodrigues wanders through Goto Island, and the massive unspeaking stones surrounded by luxuriant greenery stand almost as a rebuke to this man tormenting himself with obscure obsessions: What is the matter with him? Why doesn’t he just recant, save himself and others all the pain, enjoy this gorgeous scenery?
Because it’s what he is? From the moment he lands Rodrigues encounters the kakure kirishitan (the modern term for a member of the underground Japanese Catholic Church during the Edo period), and however appalling the tortures devised for them, their near-superhuman endurance is if anything even more awe-inspiring. Mochiki (cyberpunk filmmaker Shinya Tuskamoto) hangs on his cross blinking and struggling to draw breath between waves, his skin cooking gradually from the relentless flagellation of brine; later we see a sudden beheading, the hapless kirishitan’s friends and family shrieking — but not recanting. Rodrigues is almost shamed into stepping up: who is he to presume to teach these people anything about faith?
A crucial teacher for Rodrigues, though he never realizes it till much later, is Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) — the Judas figure in the story, somewhat inspired by the mestizo in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (arguably the spiritual ancestor of Endo’s novel). Kichijiro shows Rodrigues one way to redemption: total humility, absolute self-abasement, no pride or self-dignity whatsoever. The figure is Endo’s creation but I can’t help but think Scorsese had Roberto Rossellini’s Flowers of St. Francis in mind: a holy fool who debases himself time and time again, holds no illusions, yet does not totally submit to despair — he’ll alternately beg for forgiveness and betray his benefactor with dizzying speed, one act after another.
An equally crucial guide to the spiritual “swamp” (as the character puts it) that is Japan: Ferreira himself, renamed Sawano Chuan. He’s a closer figure to Rodrigues, having both taught the priest in the past and now acting as doppelganger, commenting on the prisoner’s experience, pointing out a carving he made on a cell and telling Rodrigues what he was thinking at that moment (“I heard the cries of suffering in this same cell”).
Note that Rodrigues once captured isn’t really touched — Oh he’s shoved around and shaken up a bit, but compared to what he sees what he actually experiences is almost nothing. Rodrigues’ odyssey in the first half of the film has a random happenstance shape; after his arrest it feels like an amusement park ride of horrors, orchestrated with exquisite subtlety by Nagasaki magistrate Inoue (comic actor Issey Ogata) — moments of serenity alternating with moments of violence (inflicted strictly on others), the protagonist constantly being prodded with pointed questions. No, physically torturing Rodrigues would defeat Inoue’s purpose: he needs the priest comfortable (relatively speaking) and thinking clearly when he finally gives in. Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 adaptation of Endo is an interesting alternative take, a critical look at the arrogance of European authority figures presuming to know what’s best for alien Japan (Endo reportedly hated the earlier film’s far less ambiguous ending), but in my book Shinoda made a misstep when he had his Rodrigo actually hung over a pit — it stacked the deck in Inoue’s favor, suggested that perhaps the magistrate wasn’t all that confident about his cause, and needed to literally massage his victim for proper results.
The moment also reminds me (of all things) of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. He knows what he wants to do is wrong, he’s been taught all his life that it’s wrong, but it’s his beloved friend — Jim — whose life is at stake. He searches up and down in and out the thickets of his head and — yes — he’ll do it; he’ll commit a grievous crime and go to hell. Catholics are known for the paradoxical nature of their faith and sometimes I suspect we glory in them; the mental exercise helps a little in dealing with the equally paradoxical conundrums of life and failure, a kind of vaccine, if you like, against the absolutism of despair.
Scorsese (with help from his frequent collaborator Jay Cocks) elaborates on the aftermath, Rodrigues’ (once more shapeless) odyssey, this time through the consequences of his recantation. Scorsese is accused of treating the ex-priest with kid gloves but seeing Ferreira’s constantly downcast eyes and Rodrigues’ own clamped-down demeanor you wonder: he spends the rest of his life carefully guarded, carefully watching his every word and gesture; one is reminded of Winston Smith sitting in a café at the end of 1984, defeated, depressed. Is this perhaps Inoue’s most diabolical torment, to show a man that he can totally submit to another’s will to the point that when he’s granted leeway, a moment of freedom — Kichijori for the umpteenth time asking for forgiveness — he hesitates? You think of Wladyslaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, wandering through the ruins of Warsaw, his situation more existential than spiritual, surviving yet wondering what is the point of his survival. Rodrigues hears Kichijiro’s confession, a priest once again — but does his act of ministry mean anything after years of denial and working for the enemy?
Likewise when Rodrigues dies and is cremated the camera glides into the coffin and into the ex-priest’s cupped hands to find a tiny cross — is this the hidden inner kernel of the man, his unspoken refusal to give up? Or is that little cross pointless in the face of all he’s done before — maybe something planted there posthumously (as is suggested) by his Japanese wife? What is the significance of a man who works for one cause half his life, works against it in the latter half, goes to his death with maybe one contradictory little symbol hidden away in his palm? Is Scorsese (like Shinoda) betraying the beautiful ambiguity of Endo’s text or perhaps extending it to an excruciating length?
The answer of course is… but Scorsese takes his cue from his god and leaves us with the sound of cicadas, whirring rhythmically away to a blank black screen.