Martin Scorsese’s latest film about faith and redemption is as thought-provoking and brutal as it is lovely and slow-moving.
In 1630, two Portuguese priests Fr. Rodriques (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Garupe (Adam Driver) journey to Japan to find their mentor Fr. Ferriera (Liam Neeson). They are incredulous at the report that Fr. Ferriera has renounced his faith and taken a Japanese name and wife. They feel compelled to track him down and prove that the rumor of his apostasy is false. The film opens with scenes of Ferriera and other priests being tortured and being asked to blaspheme Christ.
The guide and translator for Rodriques and Garupe is Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka). To me, the seedy, tormented Kichijiro is the most compellingly real character in the film. They find Kichijiro, who appears half insane, exiled in Macao and offer to take him home to Japan if he will help them. Kichijiro appears and reappears throughout the film like a leitmotiv constantly begging absolution from the priests for his many transgressions and betrayals. Kichijiro has no problem denying Christ and appearing apostate to save his own skin.
They land in Japan at a tiny impoverished seaside hamlet of believers who are hiding from a pogrom carried out by the Inquisitor. The Inquisitor is a local warlord on a mission to ferret out believers and get them to deny Christ. The Inquisitor tests them by their willingness to step on an icon of the Holy Family.
At one time there had been several hundred thousand Christians in Japan, mostly in the vicinity of Nagasaki, but by the mid-17th century that number had been greatly reduced due to persecution. The undercover Christians in the tiny village see the coming of the priests as a miraculous answer to prayers. They have a pure, childlike reverence approaching adoration for the priests, the sacraments and pretty much anything “Christian.” Their faith is so strong that the priests are moved to temporarily set aside their mission of finding Ferriera to minister to the villagers.
Of course, eventually they are discovered by the Inquisitor and subjected to torture. The Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) like Kichijiro is also a compelling character and a scene stealer. He’s urbane and philosophical, not unlike Pontius Pilate, and he employs psychological torture not unlike brain-washing. The bargain he offers the priests is that if they will deny Christ he will spare torturing the simple peasants who refuse to compromise their faith.
And quite predictably Liam Neeson reappears towards the end of the tale as an obviously broken and oddly robotic Buddhist monk.
The “silence” of the film is, of course, the silence of God. The movie is based on an acclaimed 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo and rendering it to film was a long time goal for Scorsese. The film poses many profound questions and the professional reviewers have had mixed reactions. The film’s symbols and metaphors are nearly overwhelming. The critics have an almost reverential view of Scorsese but are mostly uncomfortable with his handling of the themes of faith and salvation.
I’m reminded of something the Trappist monk Thomas Merton said to the effect that God is most present when He seems most absent.