The making of Martin Scorsese's film Silence was, in various ways, an act of faith. Its first act of faith was relying on the film's audience to know the history of the Jesuits in Japan. The Jesuit priest Francis Xavier first arrived in Japan in the year 1549 when Japan was a disorganized collection of clans at war with one another. His mission was successful far beyond his wildest expectations, and succeeding missions to Japan resulted in the conversion of thousands of Japanese people to Christianity and establishing churches. But the many "daimyos" - or fiefdoms - in Japan were being consolidated into a single centralized government which regarded the Jesuits and the Christian religion as a threat to its power. By 1614, when there were an estimated 300,000 Christians in Japan (out of a total population of twenty million) along with Christian colleges, seminaries, hospitals and a growing local clergy, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered the immediate expulsion of the Jesuits and the suppression of the Christian faith. By the time the action of Silence begins in 1643, most of the Christians in Japan had been slaughtered by government authorities or run to ground (the so-called kakure kirishitan or hidden Christians). News of one particular priest in Japan, Padre Ferreira, has caused special concern in Macao, the center of Christian leadership in Asia, and two priests are dispatched to Japan to discover Ferreira's fate.
By the time I encountered Silence a few weeks ago, I knew how special it should be, since it took more than two decades for Scorsese to finally make it. In all that time, the film took shape in Scorsese's imagination - plenty of time to arrive at a precise shooting script and storyboard. Watching the film certainly gives one a sense of the exactitude of its conception and construction. I knew that Dante Ferretti, who designed the sets and costumes for the film, was brought on board to Scorsese's plans quite early. As it turned out, he was prevented from realizing his project until two years ago. I think it is a formidable achievement, but one fraught with problems that arise from its conception as a statement of Scorsese's own Christian faith.
Shusaku Endo's novel Chinmoku (Silence), published in 1966 and published in English translation in 1969, is a carefully-wrought and moving memorial to the people who were converted in the 16th & 17th-centuries by waves of Portuguese Jesuits. Losing ground in Europe to Martin Luther's Protestant faith, the Jesuits expanded the Catholic Church's reach to North and South America and Asia. The results of this attempted expansion, as Silence but also the Roland Joffé film The Mission (set in Portuguese South America) dramatically show, were a disaster for the native populations. Both novels/films are tacitly critical of the Jesuits' zealotry, inflicting a foreign religious dogma on people living, albeit precariously, under dogmas of their own. But Endo's novel has a broader reach: Christianity in Japan survived two centuries of suppression and persecution.
There are two accounts of how Scorsese was introduced to Endo's novel, but he must have known that it had already made its way to a film adaptation in 1971 by Masahiro Shinoda. Whatever Endo's intentions in writing the novel were, an important qualification is the fact that he was a Catholic. Some critics (without a trace of irony) called him the Japanese Graham Greene. Shinoda, a non-Catholic, was one of the best filmmakers of the Japanese New Wave. Writing his script with Endo's collaboration, Shinoda evidently approached the novel as a work of historical literature rather than as a work of religious art. This would account for the closing scene (in stark contrast to Scorsese's), in which Padre Rodrigues, now living as a Japanese named Okada San'emon, forces himself on his Japanese wife as Ferreira (now Lord Sawano) peeps in on him. Endo reportedly hated Shinoda's ending. All Endo gives us of Rodrigues's fate is from a fictional contemporary Japanese diarist who describes how Rodrigues lives out his final days in Nagasaki. Scorsese follows this account in his film's last scene, but includes what is known as an "auteur's touch" by showing us Rodrigues's body as it is being cremated with a tiny crucifix enclosed in his hands. Some critics even called it a "Rosebud moment." No one bothered to ask Scorsese how the crucifix got there.
Looked at objectively as films, the two versions of Silence both suffer from the sheer lack of spectacle. In fact, the action of the story, if it can be called action at all, is restricted to confined spaces, to huts and prison cells. It makes one wonder what could possibly have attracted either Scorsese or Shinoda to adapting the novel in the first place. It seems strange to me, given the similarities between the two films (the pacing of each scene and the framing of individual shots, even the buzzing of the cicadas) and the qualities to be found in Shinoda's film, why Scorsese wanted so badly to cover the same ground again.
Shinoda's film, photographed by Kazuo Miyagawa, famed cinematographer of such classic films as Rashomon and Ugetsu, is handicapped by its use of two unknown foreign actors, David Lampson and Don Kenny - chosen, I suppose, because of their command of Japanese. Neither actor is the least bit compelling in their roles, and their style of acting clashes unflatteringly with that of the Japanese actors. This clash in acting styles reaches its climax when Rodrigues is finally confronted by Padre Ferreira, played by none other than Tetsuro Tamba, whose false beard and bushy eyebrows fail to conceal the Japanese actor beneath. Further, the role of Kichijiro, the man who is in a perpetual cycle of informing and begging forgiveness, is played by the Japanese-American actor Mako Iwamatsu, better-known as simply Mako from such American films as The Sand Pebbles and a well-known face on 1960s & 70s American television.
Shinoda's film has, I think, the right tone of remoteness and abstraction, and his use of music composed for the film by Toru Takemitsu further diatances us from the action. He clearly wasn't trying to bring the world of Endo's characters any closer. And for all the comments about Scorsese's depiction of the tortures inflicted on the faithful, Shinoda includes a quite hair-raising scene of torture in which a Christianized samurai is buried up to his neck and a man rides a horse back and forth over his exposed head while his wife is forced to watch. Only her placing her foot on the holy image (fumi-e) makes the horse and rider stop. But her sacrifice doesn't prevent her husband from being stabbed to death moments later. This same woman, played by Shinoda's wife Shima Iwashita, is given to Rodrigues as his wife after he himself apostatizes.
Two threads run through Silence, intersecting and intertwining: identity and faith - or nationality and religious allegiance. Significantly, at the start of the film, Kichijiro is asked two questions, Are you really Japanese? and Are you really a Christian? At the end of the film, with apostatized Padre Rodrigues adopting a Japanese identity and a Japanese wife, he knows that he is neither Japanese nor Christian.
As much as I dislike end-titles curtly announcing people's subsequent fates, I expected to see them at the end of Scorsese's film. I think it is significant that he excluded an historical note telling us of the astonishing survival of Christianity in Japan. All he gives us is a kind of dedication: "For the Japanese Christians and their pastors Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam." It's the motto of the Jesuits and it means, To the Greater Gloria of God.
In his translator's preface to the English edition of Endo's novel, William Johnston wrote: "in 1865, when Japan was reopened, the crypto-Christians came out from their hiding, asking for the statue of Santa Maria, speaking about Christmas and Lent, recalling the celibacy of the priests. They are still there in their thousands, in Nagasaki and the offshore islands, clinging tenaciously to a faith that centuries of ruthless vigilance could not stamp out. Some of them are united with the world-wide Church; others are not. In their prayers remain smatterings of the old Portuguese and Latin; they preserve pieces of the soutanes and rosaries and disciplines that belonged to the fathers whom they loved; they retain their devotion to Santa Maria. And it was while living among them that Shusaku Endo wrote Silence."(1)
I think that Scorsese excluded this information deliberately because he wanted to concentrate our attention on Rodrigues and Ferreira. In so doing, I think that Scorsese has misread Endo's novel, because it isn't about Father Rodrigues or Ferreira and their strange transformations into ordinary Japanese men and their subsequent fates. Nor, indeed, is it the story of Christianity and the remarkable cruelty with which it was inflicted on uneducated and unsuspecting peasants. Silence is the story of the Japanese, and how they managed to cling so tenaciously and steadfastly to their faith in a foreign religion, a foreigner's religion.
The film that Scorsese's Silence reminded me of almost immediately was a half-forgotten film made by the Australian Bruce Beresford in Canada in 1991 called Black Robe. It, too, tells a story of a 17th century Jesuit missionary. Also based on historical accounts of the native Americans' first encounters with Christianity and its disastrous effects on their lives, it, too, ends with a sense of the futility of it all. Father Laforgue has at last arrived in the remote Huron village in the dead of winter only to find the inhabitants are afflicted with smallpox, one of the foreign diseases introduced to the natives along with Christianity. The villagers plead with Father Laforgue to baptize them, hoping perhaps that God will cure the disease. The film closes on the baptismal service and a title informs us of subsequent events:
"Fifteen years later, the Hurons, having accepted Christianity, were routed and killed by their enemies, the Iroquois. The Jesuit mission to the Hurons was abandoned and the Jesuits returned to Quebec."
When Roger Ebert reviewed the film, he concluded: "I will not reveal the conclusion of the film, other than to say that when it was over, I sat there in a state of depressed suspension, wondering if that could possibly be all there was."
Heavens, is that all there is to the story? What uplifting conclusion was he expecting? I wonder which film version of Silence Ebert would've been more gratified by - Shinoda's, in which Padre Rodrigues is last seen "making the beast with two backs" with his Japanese wife, or Scorsese's, in which Rodrigues's dead body is secretly revealed to be clutching a crucifix?
(1) Silence by Shusaku Endo, William Johnston, translation (New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1969).
(2) see https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/black-robe-1991