Brooding insight into religion, politics and a man's struggle with his own faith - wrapped up in a superbly directed drama
It is most telling that a director and notorious film buff of Martin Scorsese's reputation decided out of all the movies out there to remake this little known novel adaptation from 1971. Anyone who has seen his documentaries A Journey through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy knows full well that Scorsese knows his cinema. Itt must have been then for very good reason that he picked Silence and it only takes 30 minutes to realize why.
The story deals with two Jesuit missionaries that land in the southern shores of Japan and become the priests of a small fisherman village. The problem being that at this point Christianity had been outright banned from Japanese authorities, but not before counting a rough 300,000 people among the converted.
The truth is that by the end of the 16th century what had started as a promising beginning to those proselytizing missions (daimyos allowing catholic missions to be established in hopes of creating a trading relationship with Europe), met complications from competition between the missionary groups, political difficulty between Spain and Portugal, and factions within the government of Japan. Christianity was suppressed. By 1630, it was driven underground.
The two Portuguese priests are forced to flee the small village and are later arrested and tortured, both physically and mentally, to denounce their faith. The beauty of the movie however is that it does not stoop to convenient black and white morality nor does it make the persecuters ruthless villains and the priests martyrs without flaws.
By the end of the sequence where Father Rodriguez travels through the rugged land and is finally betrayed by a villager - a complete Jesus/Judas parable in itself -, the movie has already transcended the strict limitations of a period drama or a religious movie. It is a slow and brooding drama make no mistake, but it's just that kind of movie. The slow-burn pace is part of its infrastructure as much as the tormented Father Rodriguez as the central, Jesus-like figure.
Masahiro Shinoda's direction is what in my opinion truly elevates Silence to another level. Gone are the frantic tracking shots of his earlier Samurai Spy. Here he favours stationary blocking and long takes. Both his shot selection and framing however are pitch perfect - truly a lesson in directing delivered in a little more than two hours. Notice for example how he frames the villager that betrays Father Rodriguez to the authorities in the second scene where he talks with the geisha: he's framed with the open screen door in the background and behind the door there's a wall made of boulder rocks and rain is falling, as if to symbolize both the burden of his guilt and his sadness of being "a weak man". Many such examples can be found throughout the movie for the discerning eye and it just goes to show to what pain-staking lengths Shinoda went to physically express his characters' emotions.
Long stretches of the movie are very monotonous in colour - some night/dusk shots almost appear to be black and white. Perhaps colour is suppressed as much as the religious beliefs of the converted Japanese villagers who are forced (and tortured) to denounce their faith. In that light it makes sense when Father Rodriguez dons a bright red robe which he wears for most of the movie. His presence bringing the cleansing fire of change, the eye almost compelled to fixate on him.
Technical brilliance aside, Silence works as a human drama exactly because it refuses to take sides. The discussions between Father Rodriguez and the local feudal lord Inoue and between Rodriguez and his old Portuguese teacher who renounced Christianity and now considers himself Japanese Father Ferreira (oddly played by the great Japanese character actor Tetsuro Tamba) reveal the heart and brain of the movie. Christianity is not suppressed as Inoue states out of some childish wim or stubborness (which is what Father Rodriguez's faith resembles) but because the situation demands it: we're talking about Japan in the grip of social and political change that ended with the formation of the Tokugawa Shogunate after the civil war between the Tokugawas and the Toyotomis. A largely feudal country in desperate need of a nationalistic conscience and central government.
The points made by Father Ferreira are also important. When the Japanese villagers embrace the Christian God or the Virgin Mary it's because they see in them the same pagan gods and symbols they've worshipped for centuries (a convenience Christian missionaries were only too happy to exploit). If they call Amaterasu Virgin Mary or Buddha Christ, it is because they have come to resent the oppressive social caste system those traditional symbols have come to be associated with. They're in desperate need of change - any change.
I won't spoil the result of the crisis of faith Father Rodriguez faces but I will say the ending is chilling in its own right. The Scorsese remake is scheduled for 2010 and I'll be only too happy to see the original gain a well-deserved exposure and second life. A must-see classic of Japanese period cinema.
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