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Martin Scorsese Ponders the 'Silence' of God

Jan. 24, 2017
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In the 1500s Spanish and Portuguese traders reached Japan and in their wake, Roman Catholic priests. The Jesuits won tens of thousands of converts until the early 1600s, when the shogun shut the gates to the outside world, sealing the islands against the imperial reach of Europe and the corrosion of foreign influence. Those who refused to renounce Christianity were hunted down and killed, yet many continued to believe and worship in secret.


Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver
Director: Martin Scorsese
Rated: R

Based on Shusako Endo’s historical novel, director Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a story from those persecution years. The protagonists are a zealous pair of Portuguese priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who enter Japan in search of the legendary Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Ferreira was a much respected missionary who, it is said, turned apostate. The young priests refuse to accept those rumors and set out to find the missing missionary.

Smuggled into Japan with the aid of a troubled and unreliable guide, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), they encounter an underground community of Japanese Catholics before being caught in the grip of the shogun’s ongoing campaign to root out Christianity.

What happens next in this nearly three-hour film is a series of conversations or monologues involving Rodrigues, the Japanese grand inquisitor and his officers, the mysterious Ferreira and the even more mysterious God addressed by Rodrigues in prayer. The perspective of Japanese authorities can be discerned in the words of the wizened, smiling inquisitor: Christianity is the handmaid of empire-building European powers. Moreover, while Christianity might be true in Spain or Portugal, it’s not true in Japan—the sort of argument heard in recent times by apologists for Third World tyrants against the claims of democracy. Rodrigues argues for the universality of truth, which he claims is embodied by the Roman Catholic Church.

And then comes the clash of idealism and pragmatism. Rodrigues is prepared to die for the truth, but is tempted by the wily inquisitor who offers to spare the lives of Christian captives if he publically renounces his faith. Is he a cultural imperialist and xenophobe, as the inquisitor suggests when he stubbornly holds out? Is his “imitation of Christ” an act of arrogance, as the guilty-looking Ferreira says?

Epic in dimension yet intensely personal, Silence is suffused with Roman Catholic martyrology in its images of Japanese Christians tortured, crucified or burned alive for their faith. A Judas betrays Rodrigues for silver coins and suffers intense guilt. The unsettling, sometimes hallucinatory visuals unfold in a setting of cinematic beauty. Silence engages eternal questions of the universal versus the local, the possibility of transcendence and the likelihood of changing human nature. Silence brings alive a world in which the agony of sin, the promise of paradise and the reality of devotion to things unseen are integral to life and death. God remains silent throughout, yet Rodrigues hears a whisper…


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