2/22/17 (Wed), Tokyo
Martin Scorsese’s film of Endo Shusaku’s 1966 novel about a test of faith for Jesuit missionaries in early Edo Japan. Two Portuguese priests come to Japan in 1639 in search of a colleague who has gone missing, refusing to believe rumors that he has apostatized. Christians were under severe persecution at the time, subjected to unspeakable cruelty and ultimately execution if they did not renounce their faith. The priests find themselves tested as they gradually come to question whether their beliefs are truly worth dying for – indeed, worth others dying for, as their faithful flock are put to death before their eyes for refusing to abandon the priests’ teachings. The priests seek guidance from God but despair as they receive no answer. When the missing priest finally shows up, he offers another version of what it means to find God. In the end, one of the priests has to make a decision: the authorities tell him that the people being tortured have in fact given up Christianity, and it is now the priest who must apostatize – by stepping on a picture of Jesus – in order to save them. He begs for a word from God, who finally, in the priest’s mind, provides an answer. The final moments of the movie provide an interesting touch that is not in the original.
The film was an intelligent exploration of deep themes on a very big canvas. Not that it was perfect. For one thing, for a film called Silence, there was an awful lot of talking. It was redundant in good part with its arguments and demonstrations of torture; it could have been tightened to better effect. The off-screen narratives – variously by the main priest, the missing priest and a random Dutch trader – were a clumsy dramatic device and needed some rethink for the screen. Also, the level of Portuguese (rendered in English) spoken by the Japanese was eye-raising regardless of their Jesuit training, especially for Inoue. There’s a case where less might have been more. It might have made more sense if conversely the priests had spoken at least some level of Japanese, though I suppose that would have compromised the idea that the priests were arrogant and refused to fit into the local culture. I’m interested to see how this was handled in Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 film version.
Nevertheless, the film dealt earnestly with profound issues that went beyond the flaws in the script. It was certainly a technical triumph in its fantastic camerawork and perfect rendering of the period. Some scenes (walk in woods, boat in water) were reminiscent of Mizoguchi, but that’s hardly a complaint.
The most serious defect was the casting of Andrew Garfield as the main priest. He was far too lightweight for the role, which could have gone to any number of better actors (nicely coiffed hair, though). Adam Driver was better as the other priest, with an El Greco face that certainly fit. His vaguely Portuguese accent was a nice idea that might have worked if the others had done the same. The director should have stepped in there. Liam Neeson brought much-needed gravitas to the priests, superb in a key but limited role.
Ogata Issey was the movie’s standout as the wily inquisitor Inoue with a typically idiosyncratic performance that elevated his role to another level. The director was also smart or lucky enough to have hired Asano Tadanobu as the interpreter (apparently as a replacement for Watanabe Ken, who was off on Broadway doing The King and I). The part was overwritten, again with a level of Portuguese/English that was highly doubtful, but very well played. Kubozuka Yosuke as the restless Kichijiro channeled Mifune Toshiro in a role that was irritating throughout. I gradually saw the need for it, but it was ultimately unconvincing as presented here. Oida Yoshi and Tsukamoto Shinya were excellent as martyred Christians.
I don’t think the film is a definitive rendering of the novel, but the themes it examines and the genuineness of its approach make it very much worth seeing. I’m shocked that it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, though that says more about the Oscars than about the film. I am definitely planning to read the book and see the earlier film version.