Spoilers ahead and possible spoilers for those who plan to see Martin Scorsese's film.
Martin Scorsese's latest movie exploring the world of European Christian missionaries to Japan in the 17th century is largely receiving acclaim from critics and surely will be a major player at the Oscars this year, and any Scorsese movie these days is going to make waves in film communities.
But before Scorsese's film was released, there was a book by the same name, which came out in 1966 by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Catholic. After the book, there was a film made in 1971, directed by Masahiro Shinoda, who was previously mostly known for directing Samurai adventure movies and other pulpy fiction. Undoubtedly Scorsese must have been influenced by the original film in some way, as it has been his passion project, decades in the making. And as film lovers often complain about beloved classics being redone (though this isn't exactly "Ghostbusters") and the common notion that Hollywood can't do anything except remake the past these days, the original film ought to be of some interest.
As a forewarning for anyone hoping for another Scorsese romp like "Wolf on Wall Street," you're bound to be incredibly let down by his new film, which surely will be lacking in Quaalude-induced high jinks. This one has more to do with religious oppression, torture, and unhealthy doses of suffering, assuming Scorsese stays true to the original work.
Anyway, a couple missionaries, Fr. Rodrigo (David Lampson) and Fr. Garrpe (Don Kenny), from Portugal to Japan have come to the Land of the Rising Sun in search of a fellow man of the cloth whom they had heard went missing, Fr. Ferreira. Knowing that Christians were not exactly welcome in Japan at the time, they were concerned and decided to come looking for their fellow man. What they find is small groups of believers fearfully huddling in small huts in the dead of night because they know the government is hunting down Japanese Christians to round them up and get them to disprove their faith by defiling an image of the Virgin Mary by stepping on it, or die if they refuse.
The first half of the movie largely follows Rodrigo as he tries to stay a step ahead of the government in the midst of unannounced visits from the authorities to the villages. There is one Japanese Christian man in particular, Kichijiro (Mako Iwamatsu), who repeatedly seeks out Rodrigo throughout his flight from the law, asking forgiveness as he is repeatedly captured and repeatedly denies his faith each time. He asks the missionary how he can stay strong under the interrogation of the governor and the threat of death. Rodrigo responds, saying something Christianish like suffering is temporary or something and imploring Kichijiro to faithfully accept his fate.
Rodrigo witnesses the execution of several Christians from a village where he had stayed for a time, and eventually in his meetings with Kichijrio, he relents and tells him to just step on the image of Mary because no one should have to suffer the way these people are. The men who are executed, by the way, are hung on crosses in the ocean, left to wait for the tide to come in.
In the style of Japanese film, there is quite a bit of symbolism in many details that help set the mood. When the missionaries reach the village, it's nighttime, the night representing secrecy and deeds performed out of the watchful eye of the government, and also a dark time for the local Christians. Kichijro eventually turns Rodrigo in when he finds out that Rodrigo has a bounty on his head, much like Judas's betrayal of Jesus Christ. It's a very thematic style of filmmaking, and despite the film being rather slow, the heavy symbolism is visually enjoyable.
Again, this is not exactly a feel-good movie. The torture scenes are uncomfortable to watch. It's not exactly an Eli Roth movie or "The Passion of the Christ," as it's not stylish or even particularly gory. But the camera is unflinching in what it shows, and the methods of torture the Japanese used amounted to a slow, agonizing demise.
Certainly, even today, even though Christianity is widely accepted in all continents of the world except Asia, there are areas where Christians are still persecuted. Christian missionaries today still make their way to those corners of the globe not generally heavily populated by Christians. Something Western missionaries can't truly fathom as they're trying to get people to accept their beliefs is how much those locals who are being proselytized to face much stronger persecution if they decide to accept that faith, than visitors from the West might. Local Christians in the Middle East or Southeast Asia where Islam or Buddhism are the dominant religions can potentially face ostracization from their families or outright persecution from the government. One thing that can be taken from watching "Silence" is that no one deserves to be oppressed for what they believe (or for any reason) as long as they don't oppress others in doing so.
That being said, in the West, Christians don't face that sort of persecution. Conservative believers might find that society does not kowtow to their every demand, and they may find society asking them to be more accepting of people who think or believe or live differently from them. Again, everyone should be free to believe what they want to, as beliefs can't be policed. But again, they shouldn't have the right to treat others poorly in doing so. And in the West, again, there is no government persecution or censorship of Christians for their beliefs.
As the U.S. is on the verge of transitioning to a leader who has said he is in favor of denying members of a certain faith entry to the country, deporting them, putting them in a registry, and who said he is in favor of torture, and with a Congress who has opposed closing Guantanamo Bay prison, where inmates are kept without a trial, this film is something people can look to in order to see what happens when a country actively decides to persecute its own people for their religion. Again, no one should be oppressed for what they believe. And of course, the extremists of the Islamic State present some threat to Western countries. But not every Muslim is an extremist, just as not every Christian is an extremist. It doesn't give Western countries the right to treat peaceful Muslim citizens the same way extremists would treat those same people. If the U.S. exerts the full extent of its force on Muslims in this country, then the U.S. is no better than extremists.
But Japan was in quite a different situation from the U.S. If foreigners come into a country peddling a message that could be promoting cultural or philosophical change, attempting to stir foment, it makes sense for the government to respond to what it may see as a potential threat. Missionaries at that time likely were not carrying a political message, but it was only a few centuries removed from the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades. If Japan had been aware of those events, it would seem quite obvious that they wouldn't want to risk anything similar happening because of a Christian influence. It would make sense for Japan to try to turn missionaries away and keep them out of the country. Of course, that doesn't excuse torture and mass executions, especially when Japan was coming down much harder on its own people than it was on missionaries.
In that way, the film shows that neither the missionaries nor Japan were totally in the right, and it doesn't ask the viewer to take sides on who's right. The more pressing matter, again, is that Japanese citizens were being tortured and killed by their own government because the country was trying to control political opinion, especially during its own period of political turmoil, in response to the missionaries' presence, which was not necessary or welcome.
Eventually, after being put in prison, Rodrigo finds that Ferreira is alive and mostly well, and has been working with the Japanese to suppress Christianity in Japan. They treated him to a comfortable life in exchange for renouncing his faith and agreeing to help the effort. He's even played by a Japanese actor, Tetsuro Tanba, for clever effect. Ferreira confides to Rodrigo that he had been willing to withstand torture and even death to live out his faith. But as he heard the groans of hundreds of Japanese citizens being tortured as well, he decided that was something neither he nor God should accept. Rodrigo eventually caves himself and publicly renounces his own faith as well, again, to spare the lives of Japanese who were being tortured and to be killed.
And as his reward, Rodrigo is given the wife and children of a Japanese Christian who had been executed himself for his faith. So, everything works out for him in the end.
According to Wikipedia, Endo was unhappy with the ending of the film, as it left open the question of whether Rodrigo actually renounces his faith in his mind and whether he goes on living a tormented life because of what he did. In the book, Rodrigo hears the voice of Jesus telling him that he was right to renounce his faith in order to alleviate the suffering of others, which is an encouraging thought in a bleak time. But, of course, an interesting aspect of film is that it can't or doesn't completely capture a character's inner thoughts and so whatever those are is left for the viewer to interpret. Some people might see this as the beauty of film or a weakness compared to books, but the ambiguity can offer interesting questions to ponder.
Though most of the dialogue is in Japanese, it's pretty funny to hear the supposedly Portuguese characters speaking in accents that are definitely not Portuguese sounding for their English lines (and why aren't they speaking Portuguese instead?). Lampson speaks with a British accent and Kenny sounds American, which is especially silly as people of European descent living in North America then probably didn't sound much like they would today. English accents in period pieces are always suspect, but usually people from the same country should sound similar. Of course, as the movie was mostly made for Japanese audiences, they probably wouldn't have noticed the difference.
It will be interesting to see how Scorsese handles the subject matter of "Silence," once it's available to a wider audience. But in films with foreign subject matter that get remade in Hollywood, it is important not to overlook the source material, as it's easy for Western filmmakers to simply adopt material as their own without giving proper credit where it is due. "Silence" is a well-directed film of great depth that raises a lot of interesting questions about the relationship of government and religion, power and oppression, West and East. Make no mistake, there no escapism here to lift the spirits, and it's often unsettling to watch. But it does offer some important thoughts to consider as the world is potentially on the brink of difficult change, especially when it comes to certain aspects of religion.