Two Portuguese priests disembark upon an anonymous Japanese shore. Under cover of nightfall, they seek to infiltrate those Christian sects driven underground by a ruthless magistracy, and re-establish the foothold of the Church on the isolated island-nation. Soon, however, the priests find themselves drawn into the mire of persecution, and gradually learn the truth behind the ominous disappearance of another Catholic missionary decades earlier...
Heart of Darkness meets The Wicker Man
- Silence review by PC
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You rated this film: 5
Two Catholic missionaries arrive by night on a deserted shore in seventeenth century Japan. They hope to be priests to the local clandestine Christian community, who are banned by the authorities, and have no priests or any contact with the Church. The film uses this situation to probe endurance, loyalty and apostasy. Father Rodrigues, one of these two missionaries, arrives with an untested judgmental attitude; he immediately treats with contempt a Japanese Christian who renounced Christianity while under torture, but seeks acceptance and forgiveness from him. Rodrigues also asks after the previous missionary, Father Ferreira, who has disappeared; but no one admits to any knowledge of his fate. This perhaps is one aspect of the “silence” referred to in the title. In the course of scenes of terrible cruelty, Rodrigues’ rigid viewpoint is undone, to the point of a totally unexpected outcome.
The director, Masahiro Shinoda, doesn’t valorise Christianity: it is presented in his film as an alternative belief system - one no more or less valid than Buddhism - that brings the misfortune of illegality and state persecution on its adherents. In the prologue we are told that Catholic missionary activity was a reaction to the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and that western culture simultaneously brought Christianity and the gun to Japan. The film is adapted from the novel by Shusaka Endo who was himself a Japanese Catholic; it would be interesting to compare the film’s take on Catholicism with that of the novel. Yet think of Graham Green – Catholic writers are well able to present their religion as a problematic burden they can’t shake off. Another neutrality is more unsettling: the cruelty of the regime is presented as the immutable situation that gives the film its significance. How much torture can someone endure without submitting to the token gesture of renunciation (stepping on a Christian symbol)? Or, to complicate this further, can a person stand firm in resistance while others are being tortured? There is a particularly harrowing and moving husband and wife scene involving this. This is the point in the film where human weakness tips into virtue. At the same time there is a deep understanding of the parallels between this persecution and a fundamental doctrine of Christianity. The Passion of the historical Jesus, a similar mistreatment by a ruthless state, has been interpreted by most forms of Christian belief as the necessary act of sacrifice that reconciled God and humanity.
In places the film is talky, but the debates between a rationalistic educated Japanese magistrate and Father Rodrigues are necessary; they dig into the issues that the film is probing. Are the missionaries just trouble makers, bringing danger to simple Japanese peasants? Is truth universal, or should one accept that different cultures need different religion? Is the form of Christianity, as it evolved in this isolated community, true Christianity anyway? The one thing that never seems called into question is how a civilised culture can sanction such terrible cruelty. The cinematography (notably in the coastal scenes) is superb: the terrible might of waves pounding and sweeping on rocks gives a sense of humanity’s helplessness in the face of merciless nature. This helplessness is the overwhelming mood of the film: we reach a point where resistance is undone, like it or not; and we have no idea whether redemption is possible, or even what it means. Heart of Darkness meets The Wicker Man might be a bit misleading as a catchy title, but the trials of Father Rodrigues and the questioning of Christian values put me in mind of both.
Brilliant Epic Much Overlooked
- Silence review by Jawbreaker
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You rated this film: 5
Silence or Chinmoku, is an overlooked masterpiece from Shinoda Masahiro. It is a stunning visual feast, as you would expect from a Japanese period film, but also a delightful and powerful tale of two Portuguese missionaries in a foreign and harsh environment. These Padre’s arrive in Japan, following in the footsteps of their teacher to preach Christianity to the local population. Unfortunately the religion is banned, with many peasant workers practising in secret, fearing for their lives if caught.
The villagers have not seen Padre’s for decades and there is a great deal of mistrust and fear amongst the population, which is well founded given the ruthless control exerted by officials. The two Portuguese have a second aim, and that is to find out what became of their teacher when the authorities captured him. Masahiro-san displays the period setting extremely well, and shows just how badly the workers were treated, very much like cattle. The film is littered with fantastic performances, not only from the English-speaking preachers, but the accusers and the victims. Quite simply Silence is one of my favourite examples of Japanese cinema from an overlooked director. If the film was completely in English, then it would have attracted more attention and praise, which it warrants.