Despite the bad reviews, I had originally planned to see Underworld: Blood Wars for review this week. I was going to share the pain with a friend until our plans fell through. Then I thought about doing an Editorial on “Fuck You, It’s January” before I discovered Silence was coming out on Thursday. Between seeing what amounts to a live-action version of Hellsing Ultimate (seriously, watch that instead of Underworld), writing about an entire month dedicated to studios taking out their trash, or a new Martin Scorsese film, the choice was obvious. Does Silence add to his already impressive filmography or is Scorsese too old to direct?
After finding out their mentor had committed apostasy while on mission, Jesuits Rodrigues and Garupe, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, travel to Japan for answers. When they arrive, they and the local Catholic population are forced underground to escape persecution by the government.
Movies about Edo Era Japan are few and far between. The period is full of good material with warring families, samurai as a social class, and the rise of the yakuza in the wake of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s oppression. Remember 47 Ronin? That fantasy movie was based off a real event where a bunch of pissed-off warriors kill a guy and then themselves because it was not ada-uchi, a form a legally sanctioned vengeance. Then there is Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, 13 Assassins, Sword of the Stranger, and Samurai Champloo, each one taking place in the Edo Era.
Another aspect of the period that does not get enough coverage is the banning of Christianity. I understand why the Tokugawa were so brutal, being fervent isolationists and having dealt with a recent religious uprising. On top of that, it is impossible to deny how imposing beliefs onto other cultures is fundamentally wrong. However, it is important to acknowledge the darker side of history. Every nation is guilty of atrocities in one form or another. Japan is no different; they do not call it the Rape of Nanking because it was pleasant. While I do not care if a culture is in denial about their past (Germany), I think the more we know about ourselves the better.
While the oppression of the Christians is on full display, it is not the focus or a vehicle to shame the Japanese. You can look at it that way if you want to complain about something, but I feel the point of the violence in Silence is to examine the concept of belief. Without giving anything away, the story is the Crucifixion. Rodrigues is Jesus, Japanese officials the Romans, and there is a Judas equivalent that I will not spoil. The film uses these parallels to ask if the willingness to die for a faith is equal to wanting to live for it.
In the movie and history, suspected Japanese Christians were made to step on an image of Christ called a fumie. The characters undergo the process, but are executed anyway because Rodrigues refuses to trample the image. He has to prove his faith is so strong he will give it up to save innocents. The other side of the situation is the Japanese are trying to prove that foreign idols do not have meaning in their land. They reluctantly torture their own to force missionaries to understand that spreading a false faith is utterly pointless because they do not care. What is truth in Portugal is deception in Japan.
I hope that makes sense because I saw Silence yesterday and it requires a second viewing to fully understand. You can see it as a simple martyr movie like The Passion or Hacksaw Ridge, trying to convert the audience through sympathy. That being said, the film goes out of its way to avoid gratuity. The violence is presented as just naked force used against others. You are also not told which side to follow and given both perspectives. The Portuguese want to spread Christianity because they think they are right and the Japanese do not want any part of it because it is incompatible with their culture.
Getting to the point of the movie is a chore of epic proportions. Unlike most of Scorsese’s works, you will feel every second of the 180-minute runtime. Casino and Wolf of Wall Street were three hours and you can watch them without complaint. This is because Silence does not feel like a Scorsese film. The shot composition, editing, and score feel like they are from a different person entirely. There is a distinct personal quality where he had a lot of respect for the concept and the material being a Catholic himself. It is very similar to when Spielberg helmed Schindler’s List, a major departure from his previous work at the time. As a personal project, I admire Silence all the more, but it is a tough sit, even for a Scorsese fan like myself.
If you are also a fan, odds are you have already seen it. If you are not, seeing a Scorsese film, in theaters, while he is still making movies at the age of 74, is a requirement for anyone who can. Be ready for quite a challenge to endure.