I had not read the original novel by the Japanese author Shusaku Endo, so for me there is no way to understand this movie compared to the original text. I wanted to watch what Martin Scorsese has been lately up to and I was intrigued by the subject matter of the movie. I expected a good director to make a solid film about that subject matter and Scorsese did not disappoint me.
A director can pursue the topic of 'failed Portuguese Christian missions' in 17th century Japan from one of the 3 ways: the human drama of folks involved, theological debate underpinning between traditional Japanese Buddhism and European Christianity or to contextualize visits by these missionaries from oceans apart in then political and social structure of Japan. Scorsese has filmed few dialogues between the young protagonist Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and the inquisitor; between the protagonist and his predecessor Father Ferreira (Liam Nesson) for whom these two young Portuguese disciples are searching; as well as monologs of Rodriques when he is traveling alone or in captivity. But clearly, a film is not the place where one can conduct deep philosophical questions and Scorsese understands that.
It is the human drama of Rodrigues, his companion (Adam Driver), their guide (Yosuke Kubozuka) and the inquisitor (Issey Ogata); that is what attracted Scorsese. No doubt, the novel itself would have concerned more about the fictionalized lives of these characters though reports say that it contains reams and reams of theological discussions. (But then, 'text' is the right medium for ecclesiastical discussion.) Scorsese doesn't over dramatize lives of these characters. Scorsese knows that the canvass of these people's lives is large enough and human suffering involved unsettling enough. He takes the straightforward chronological order which ends in the natural death of the protagonists and succeeds in surfacing agonies of human life in the missionary context. I liked such a straightforward approach.
The question is has Scorsese succeed in rendering the authenticity of these core characters and have those actors done the job? (Predominantly male cast, another of the bold choices by Scorsese that he does not succumb to flimsy political correctness in mixing any unwarranted female cast.) Some criticize the choice of picking Rodrigues as the protagonist or the fulcrum of the story as well as the weak performance by Andrew Garfield in this lead role. But I think such a criticism ignores the success of Scorsese in portraying the winning character of the inquisitor in addition to Rodriques. It is as if, for all cruelty and suffering heaped by Japanese power-be on those poor Japanese who converted to Christianity; Japanese ruling class does provide a compelling argument for what happened. All that is brilliantly enacted in the inquisitor role. And as far as the weak performance of Garfield, it may be the case but I think Scorsese wanted the naivety, innocence and the literal sense of Bible adopted by these young missionaries fully exposed. Least because that is the cleanest and simplest way of highlighting the core moral and theological dilemma of the movie - how do you keep your faith in your God and your religion when the cost to do that is inhuman suffering and killing of poor practitioners of the faith who are already engaged in existential struggles. And this is all when that very religion is founded on alleviating sufferings of poor.
Coming back to the depiction of ruling class of Japanese gentry in 17the century - for me, the most important and fantastic performance by Issey Ogata delivers it in highly competent manner. Neither the novel nor Scorsese would have anticipated what a great acting can do to this character. By the force of his acting, Ogata almost makes the inquisitor as the central theme of the movie. Ogata seems to be a classical, old style actor and hence brings priceless facial expressions. But obviously he is more than that, his fan waving, his whining; all that carries exceptionally well the 'air of the ruling class'. In one scene when the old inquisitor portrayed by Ogata attempts to stand up, he did not get the requisite help. The inquisitor hits his servant with a fan and then the back of his dress is shown in the frame where an immaculate dress of rich is awkwardly crumpled. All those creases in wrong places on the expensive dress are beautifully filmed. Not only Scorsese has given enough space and footage to the inquisitor (like keep showing him in the background in his compound when the main drama involving Rodriques, Father Ferreira and poor practitioners who are tied upside down is unfolding in the courtyard; to imply the constant overlooking by the powerful inquisitor); Ogata has delivered probably the most powerful performances among these capable and accomplished actors.
Liam Nesson portrays well the reticence of a past Christian who has crossed the line towards Buddhism; all in the process of assimilating to the native land. Throughout the history of Christianity, we have numerous examples where missionaries finally have been absorbed into lands of their visits by abandoning the mission and their original faith. That process in most cases is not thorough, generally tentative leaving the new converts constantly paining about the core betrayal. Liam Nesson is trying to enact this conflicted mind and to a certain extent he succeeds in that. Equally, competent acting is done by Yoshi Oida and Shinya Tsukamoto as village elders.
Scorsese does not indulge himself much in trying to untangle what 'political and economic' interests of Japanese ruling class made them crush nascent Japanese Christianity. Famous insular socio-economic practices of Japan, which for thousands of years have sustained Japan as an independent nation against multiple attempts by just visiting or invading foreigners, clearly contributed to missionary failures. This hostility towards otherworldly ideas and people is well captured in one after the other gruesome torture scenes of the movie (each getting built towards even more cruel scene like a clockwork); but clearly there is much more to say and to show about the underpinnings of economics and politics of Buddhist priest class and their incestuous relationship with rulers of Japan which crushed Christian missions and their poor native followers. Maybe Scorsese realizes that it is pointless to attempt such a vast topic in an already long movie when there is so much to the show about human life itself.
Scorsese gives justice to the scope of the story in an almost 3 hours long movie. I do not complain about long movies, having raised on Bollywood movies where any less duration is often times considered as lack of 'value for money'. Some criticize for the slow pace of the movie. I think Scorsese got it right in keeping the pace of the movie slow, that is the only way to rebuild 17th-century life intimately on screen by forcing viewers at each step to notice a different world. When most movies are nothing but trivialization of human life at a fast pace, a deliberate approach to human drama only entrenches the weight of suffering. This pace also perfectly showcases kinds of death - slow deaths when bodies are endured for days at sea (Scorsese takes minutes just to show carriage of a body from a wooden cross to a pier!) and sudden death when in an instant a head is chopped by a Samurai.
The focus for Scorsese is to craft each scene with its slow pace. At times Scorsese's tendency to eliminate 'clutter from the scene' gives the impression of 'over produced / over tidy' cinema making. But such 'sleekness' is par for the course in today's 'multi-million productions'. Audiences tend to enjoy such filming indulgence - whether it is the 'commercial ad style' overhang shot of 3 black robe priests climbing down white marble steps splashed over the entire screen, or surreal setting of a completely empty long white hall at the end of which 3 priests are talking in black robe; or numerous sumptuous scenic shots all brought to the earth by agonizing human pain. The question is whether such 'decorative art' will help Scorsese to sell his solid, thematically coherent film. When I went to the local cinema hall, we were less than 40 folks, most of the theater was empty. But my hunch is the film likely to make money overseas in markets like China, Taiwan (where filming happens), Korea and Japan even though in Abe's Japan it may be on a politically incorrect side while contemporary Japan is busy unshackling past sins. But then contemporary, thoroughly globalized Japanese society has enough 'political space' for basic liberalism as indicated by the popularity and acclaim of the original novel.
Meanwhile, it may be outside of the cinema hall that Scorsese would be stirring the pot lot by provoking questions in minds of audience. Outside Europe - torture, cunning and proselyting missionaries paving the way for capture of trade and livelihood of locals; all that is a familiar story. That all culminated in post-WWII Third World Liberation swelling UN country count close to 200. But what the world may forget is enormous personal risks, sacrifices and personal suffering all undertaken by these missionaries in spreading Christianity. Missionaries were pioneers of globalization in some sense. They may have carried a rigid orthodoxy with them but were equally tortured in foreign lands. Intolerance goes both ways. Highlighting that is I guess Scorsese way of questioning anti-globalist views which will be inaugurated this week in Washington. For my taste, Scorsese way is far more enduring and substantive way of encouraging Americans not to fall for 'restrictive vision' of the world when they and the world watch the glorious art of Silence; rather than bit flashy Trump tirade by Meryl Streep at an award ceremony. The thing is 'instant, narcissistic tendencies of restricted political vision as exemplified by Donald Trump and his Republican enablers who want to wash their hands by enacting ideological policy changes' cannot be fought by 'viral going rebuttals at awards ceremonies'. Donald's Tweeter account will NOT be answered by Tweeter replies. It will be answered only when Americans and non-Americans alike take the time needed to 'think' through what is at stake and be wise about understanding our world around.
Scorsese would be more than delighted if that is the role his movie plays in days and years to come even if it struggles at box office initially.