Monday, January 16, 2017
This is a pretty good movie, but it sure isn't for everyone.
The plot sends two Portuguese Jesuits to 17th century Japan to find the priest who trained them, a missionary who has not been heard from in many years. The rumor is that the lost padre has been "apostasized," a verbal construction that I had not heard before but that is spoken constantly in the film.
The source material is a novel by Shūsaku Endō, a story set in a little-discussed period in Japanese history. As the history goes, a Portuguese ship blew ashore in the 1540s, and the result was a Japanese infatuation with European guns and, perhaps to a lesser extent, with Christianity, which may have been mistaken for a form of Buddhism.
Over years, as many as 300,000 Japanese were baptized, but by the time of the novel the country had teams of inquisitors rooting out Christians. Those who renounced their faith might live, but those who did not were tortured and killed.
In the movie, the two young priests meet up with communities of hidden Christians who are persecuted and sometimes killed for their faith. Fate causes the separation of the two padres, and the handsome one (who resembles a Jesus character in a 20th century movie) is followed as he refuses to apostasize and then is forced to watch the torture and killing of devout Japanese believers. The inquisitors explain that Christianity is inconsistent with Japanese culture.
The handsome priest's personal tortures are watching the suffering of the innocents and his sorrow at the failure of God to intervene, the "silence" of the title. When he tells his chief inquisitor that the dead Christians are dying for God, he is told, "They died for you."
(If the movie has a flaw, it is that the superficial beauty of the priest -- or perhaps the actor's limited skills -- undermine the believability of his horror.)
This is the challenge for Christians. From the time of Jesus, they have been taught to endure the torments of an imperfect world in the hope of eternal life. Interestingly, as torn as the padre is about the cruel treatment of Japanese Christians, they seem to accept their own fates more calmly. They may be more true to their common faith.
The movie is beautifully shot and generally well acted. But in a largely post-Christian era where virtuous political beliefs sometimes seem like the dominant religion of the moment, the story told in "Silence" may strike most audiences like something out of a 500-year-old time capsule.
Martin Scorsese had wanted to make "Silence" since reading the source novel many years ago. It has been reported that the famed director considered entering the priesthood as a young man and before getting into filmmaking; if so, it is not surprising that he would be interested in a movie that examines the challenges of faith.
Raising $50 million to make "Silence" was not easy, and there is a strong likelihood that the film will not turn a profit. After three weeks in limited release and a broad rollout (in which it came in 16th) last weekend, it had grossed just over $3 million in domestic revenues.
It's interesting to contrast the muted reception "Silence" has received with that of Scorsese's last movie, "The Wolf of Wall Street." That film, based on the autobiography of a greedy pump-and-dump stockbroker based in Long Island, was notable mostly for its coarseness and vulgarity. (Yes, I hated it.) Scorsese was able to attract $100 million to make that film, whose worldwide ticket sales were nearly $400 million.