Old Time Religion: Contemplating Silence

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Note: the following is a discussion of themes and ideas within the film ‘Silence’, and thus will contain a number of plot details.

In exploring ‘silence’, eminent composer John Cage gave us four minutes and thirty three seconds of pretentious twoddle. Some might enjoy listening to literally nothing while a conductor floats a baton over an air of emptiness, but I personally think it’s just the sort of thing people did back in 1952 to appear cool and edgy, and a way for little Johnny to make a mint from, like I said, literally nothing. Sending off a blank piece of paper to an orchestra and pretending it’s all about contemplating silence might go down well with the artsy fartsy crowd (the sort that would mistake a pair of glasses for art), but I’d much prefer a 160-minute epic historical drama.

Yes, I’m talking about Silence, based on the 1966 Shūsaku Endō novel and in development by director Martin Scorcese for a whole quarter century. It’s a tremendously ambitious film, following the story of two 17th Century Christian missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who travel to Japan to find their mentor (Liam Neeson), of whom they have heard rumours of apostasy.

I hadn’t heard about the film until a month or so ago, but it sounded right up my street. I love historical films, have an interest in religion (despite being a member of the Cult of Dawkins), and am head-over-heels fascinated by the Land of the Rising Sun. Plus, it’s almost three hours in length, and I do like my long films.

Generic, fizzy, orange-based drink in hand, I hunkered down ready to sink into the story, and was greeted immediately by Rodrigo Prieto’s stunning cinematography. Like something straight out of a Kurosawa samurai movie, the Japanese landscape is picturesque and dramatic, instantly immersive, and horrifically at odds with the brutality of that first scene. See, it turns out that sending missionaries to the other side of the world in order to convince people that your fairy dust is better than theirs doesn’t always go that well, and Japanese inquisitor Inoue Masashige is having a mighty fine time giving the unfortunate travelers an incredibly cleansing boiling water massage.

One of those held by the authorities is Neeson’s Father Ferreira who, as is the word received by his Catholic Brothers in Portugal, supposedly relented to his torturers and renounced his faith. It’s Ferreira, and the hope that the information might be false, that brings our two priestly protagonists to the country, lodging upon arrival with a secretive but passionate community of converted Japanese Christians. It’s all love and forgiveness as the locals eagerly attend the priests for confession, but inevitably everything goes horribly wrong. Inquisitor Inoue’s squad rocks up, accuses the people of following Christ, and three men are crucified for refusing to place their foot on an image of their Lord.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Andrew Garfield’s Father Rodrigues is promptly betrayed, captured, and locked up in a prison with a number of native ‘kirishitans’. Here, he is given an ultimatum: apostasise – that is, denounce God – in order to save his fellow man.

There’s no denying what an incredibly powerful and accomplished film Silence is. It’s often long-winded, slow and ponderous, but if one can withstand it (and certainly at times it is difficult), it’s a moving and compelling window into history that’s ultimately very rewarding.

SILENCE

My opinion changed considerably leading up to the film’s conclusion, and even more so in the days since I saw it. The point that first sprang to mind, and rather bothered me, was that the inquisitor and the Japanese authorities seemed to be painted as the villains of the piece, committing acts of unspeakable evil against a minority group in the name of their country and religion. On the other side of the coin, I saw the two Jesuit priests presented as the heroes, in a film which I presumed championed faith and encouraged us to sympathise with the plight of martyrs.

As a staunch atheist, such surmised preachiness does nothing for me, and I accepted that while the film was obviously made from a religious standpoint, I could still enjoy the film on a technical and emotional level, if not a thematic one.

But wait, was it obviously made from a religious standpoint, or was I just looking at it the wrong way? I mean, I knew hardly anything about the film before watching it, let alone the intentions of the director. I had simply assumed that, being a tale of Christianity, it was emphatically a Christian tale.

Maybe I wasn’t meant to take a side. History consists almost entirely of wars and persecution, and while it is the Japanese here dishing out the violence, five centuries prior to the film’s events Catholic armies were running rampage during the Crusades, killing and mutilating at the Pope’s behest. In a way too, are the Japanese not defending their country and traditions? I’m not trying to justify the manner in which they treated their captives, but really, what right did the Church have to send randomers across the globe and tell established civilisations that they’re doing it all wrong?

Since walking out of Silence, I’ve done a complete 180 on it. Just like the work of Akira Kurasawa, as Scorcese has indeed obviously alluded to, it’s a film about people; a humanist film, not a religious one. It shows how organised religion messes everything up, giving our species its most nonsensical reason to destroy each other. The fact that anyone would even consider dying, or putting others in danger, instead of stepping on a religious effigy is ridiculous, and the scene in which Father Rogriguez comes to this decision is the absolute crux of the picture. In that moment he realises the insanity of his predicament and, struggling against everything he has learned, puts his foot down. Whatever the ‘silence’ of God might mean, whether it’s nonexistence or otherwise, Rodriguez chooses life.

The priest’s sacrifice is not easy to bear. Having publicly renounced his beliefs, he is relocated to Edo (latterly Tokyo), assigned a Japanese name, and forced to take the place of a deceased husband and father in a family he does not know. He’s tasked with overseeing imports into the country and removing any trace of Catholicism from Dutch shipments. It’s an oppressive and lonely existence, but it’s one he endures though the vestiges of his faith, and in the knowledge that he made the right choice. The only choice.

Though I cannot relate, and while it may be all baloney, a personal faith can give people hope and meaning in a world that’s becoming darker and more dangerous with every passing day. If only everyone kept their religion to themselves.

And thus endeth the Word of Tom.

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