"In this world, neither God, nor Buddha exists; there's nothing at all anymore".
God's silence is questioned yet again in Japanese filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda's harrowing masterpiece, "Silence" aka "Chinmoku" (1971). We have seen similar themes of the crisis of faith examined in classics such as Ingmar Bergman's "Winter Light" (1963) and Luis Bunuel's "Nazarin" (1959). But despite familiar subject matter, Shinoda's film, based on Shûsaku Endô's novel stands out in its own right, given its setting and focus on some very convincing and relevant religious debate.
It is 17th century Japan. The practice of Christianity in banned, and all practitioners, preachers or believers of the faith are being pulled up by the powers that be, and persecuted by means of brutal torture to set an example of what might happen to those who continue to believe. As clergymen from Europe continue on their mission to preach their religion, Japan stands in strong opposition denying Christianity, claiming that they do not need it as they have their own religion! In such a scenario, Father Rodrigues (David Lampson) and Father Garrpe (Don Kenny) arrive in Japan to try and preach the Christian faith and also locate the whereabouts of Father Ferreira who vanished without a trace after preaching for over a decade in Japan.
The rest of the story follows the tense journey of these two priests and their quest, as they attempt to connect with the Christians who live a secretive, Godless existence, with all the former priests either vanishing or abandoning them. As the Japanese officials begin their crackdown on the spread of Christianity, and hunt for the priests who have entered their territory, more and more believers are taken hostages and sacrificed. Amidst all this, danger lurks constantly, for the priests' guide Kichijiro (Mako Iwamatsu) is grappling with his own faith, torn between being a weak human and a strong Christian!
Shinoda's film is a dark, brooding tale that presents a convincing and frightening picture of religion becoming an existential necessity. It depicts a time of shockingly excessive dependence on religion and how its teachings enslave its followers. Be it a preacher or a believer, they all want to embrace the church and follow the word of God. Believers who want to believe in Christ aren't allowed to, but they see no other way, for abandoning their God would mean eternal damnation. Defending their faith is the only way to God, the gateway to paradise, and eventually the only aspect that gives their life some meaning, a reason to live.
But deep within, each one is struggling with their faith, and constantly attempting to resolve an inner conflict. How far can one go to defend their religion? Where does religion end and humanity begin? Can both coexist? These are some pertinent questions raised in "Silence" and the answers are provided eventually as this distressing tale unfolds, leaving the viewer emotionally drained.
As the Tokugawa Shogunate attempts to banish Christianity, countless believers and priests face persecution and eventual execution. Some of these scenes are most effectively directed, making them somewhat difficult to watch. During the priests' journey, they are made aware of some chilling accounts of the atrocities of the so-called devil incarnate Inoue Chikugonokami (Eiji Okada). An old woman narrates the tale in graphic detail in a short scene that is hair-raisingly effective despite not explicitly showing the said deeds on screen.
One of the greatest strengths of "Silence" is in the way Shinoda builds up this atmosphere of persistent dread and unseen horror right up to a turning point in the journey of Father Rodrigues. And then when we are finally introduced to the oppressors we can't help but express some surprise at how expectations are somewhat belied. Shinoda ensures that the opponents of Christianity never come across as pure evil or the devils they are painted out to be. The interpreter (Rokkô Toura), who works for the Magistrate Inoue, provides some justification to deny or ban Christianity, which seems strangely convincing. "Christianity is like an unwelcome gift, that is forced upon the receiver. We have our own religion; we don't need yours!", he explains to a dumbstruck Rodrigues.
The demon Magistrate Inoue, is in fact, depicted as a thorough gentleman with a smiling face, apart from his weird habit of rubbing his wrist. In a scene that is a definite highlight of the film, Inoue makes a very interesting argument in a debate with Father Rodrigues, in which he compares foreign religion to a concubine. Neither party wants to yield or understand the other side, neither wants to step down. Both believe they are right, and only the viewer knows what is most rational, right or wrong be damned! This is one exchange that is at once, amusing as well as thought-provoking.
An important character is that of Kichijiro, the guide, mentioned earlier. He keeps reiterating that he is a devout Christian but he has moments of weakness. He eventually becomes a yokel who is laughed at. But can we really blame him for being human? He fears for his life and puts it above religion, unlike all the others around him. He is constantly frustrated, not able to understand why he cannot be a good Christian. Is that his flaw or virtue? Should we really blame Kichijiro for becoming Judas and betraying his Jesus, Father Rodrigues when his life is at stake? Shinoda leaves that to us to decide.
"Silence" makes a steady progress towards its spectacular third act during which it is revealed what really happened to the missing Father Ferreira. Even more pertinent points are made here, making us applaud the writing. Tôru Takemitsu's eerie score and Kazuo Miyagawa's fine cinematography accentuates the overwhelming experience of the happenings on screen. When a film makes its viewers struggle to take sides, and makes them think, therein lies the power of cinema.