The time is 16th century and Japan is going through a period of extreme religious persecution aimed at those who have embraced Christianity and Jesuits operating in the country. Amidst this, two Portuguese jesuits visit Japan to find out about their mentor jesuit – father Ferrero - who is said to have abandoned his faith in Christianity publicly, and also to help Christians facing persecution in the country.
This is the period which has a parallel with post Nagasaki Hiroshima Japan: when the nuclear attack forced the country into a shell – to rebuild a nation maimed by a war and nuke. Many say these two incidents and their aftermath left Japan with a permanent paranoia for the foreigner (much like what the Opium War did for China) which still informs its public policies. However, people familiar with the bit of Japan’s history Silence deals with will trace the source of that paranoia a little further back in time.
An edge-of-the seat suspense takes you through the first half an hour or so of the film and then it slowly dissipates and the film gradually settles into an easier pace but a certain tension continues to characterize the narrative throughout, thanks to the subject, but also how the director has brought that element to bear upon the narrative.
Given the nature of the subject Scorsese has chosen for Silence, a plaintiveness running across the film is understandable. But the scenes depicting the dehumanizing treatment meted out by Japanese officers to those who have moved to Christianity, mostly poor villagers, leave you with a sour mood. And this I feel helps the evangelist side get sympathy with the viewer and win the argument obscuring the viewer to the fact that the colonial powers often hid sinister intent behind the guise of faith (many advocates of the Opium War on China had used faith as their justification), a point that Scorsese’s movie overlooks.
In fact, many would say Silence is a passionate argument for Christianity - one of the travelling Portuguese padres dies but the other lives and goes through a forced public denial of his faith in Catholicism following which he becomes a Buddhist and never acknowledges his faith in Christianity in his lifetime only to be shown with a cross in his rolled palm when he is being cremated as per Japanese customs - in an apparent show of trump of his Christian beliefs.
Be that as it may, I wholeheartedly rooted for the characters undergoing persecution and the torture scenes left me downcast for a long time.
Silence is easily a classic, something which will stand the test of time and be remembered respectfully many years later for several things – great cinematography (some of the scenes are simply breathtaking), authentic recreation of a period in history (the monasteries, the wooden structures, everything looks so much like they have leapt out of the period) and above everything else a film which powerfully tells a story showing the two sides of religion – devotion and intolerance.
It’s a must watch.