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My god is better than your god
A UK region 2 DVD review of SILENCE / CHINMOKU by Slarek
 
"In this world neither God nor Buddha exists. There's nothing at all any more."
Monica, the wife of a martyred Christian samurai,
imprisoned for her choice of religion

 

It's difficult to detach yourself from your own beliefs and prejudices when reviewing a film whose subject matter lights a touch paper under them. Such is the case with Shinoda Masahiro's 1971 Silence [Chinmoku], a compellingly made and grimly effective story of religious persecution in which I, somewhat perversely, occasionally found myself siding with the views of the persecutors rather than their victims. But I'll come to that.

The setting is 16th century Japan, a time in which Christianity has been banned and the worshipping of the Christian God an offence punishable by torture and death. The religion itself first took root as an import from Portugal some years earlier, when missionaries and their work were tolerated as harmless. But when the converted Christians put obedience to their God above that to their Shogun, this collective insubordination was seen as a threat, hence the 1587 and 1597 banning orders issued by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who executed 26 Franciscan missionaries as a warning to others who might follow in their footsteps. Followers of the Christian religion were driven underground and by 1638 Christianity was all but extinct in Japan.

Silence opens during this period of religious oppression, as two Portuguese Christian missionaries – Fathers Rodriguez (David Lampson) and Garrpe (Don Kenny) – arrive somewhere on the shore of what is probably Kyushu (it's never clearly identified) under the cover of darkness. They are met by a small group of Japanese Christians, who welcome their patronage and dedicate themselves to keeping the presence of the pair on Japanese soil a secret. As the persecution of the Christian locals continues and the hunt for the missionaries intensifies, Garrpe and Rodriguez become separated, and the latter reluctantly falls in with scruffy Kichijiro, the only one of the village Christians to submit to pressure from the authorities and denigrate the fumi-e, a plaque bearing sacred Christian imagery designed specifically to expose the religion's followers by requiring them to step or spit on it. His subsequent collaboration leads to the arrest of Rodriguez, and while the Padre debates his fate and beliefs with his captors, Kichijiro struggles with his guilt and a desire for redemption.

That the story is told largely from a Christian viewpoint is unusual for Japanese cinema, but not so strange given that the screenplay was co-written by renowned Japanese scholar and devout Catholic Shusaku Endo, based on his own widely respected novel. Its parable structure casts the bearded and bedraggled Father Rodriguez as Jesus, complete with loyal followers, a wilderness wandering, an oppressive ruling government, a walk through hostile crowds with his arms tied to crossbeam, and a Judas figure in the shape of Kichijiro, who trades Rodriguez in for 300 pieces of silver, an inflationary build on the 30 of his infamous forebear. Functioning primarily as a story of the testing of Christian faith and the reaction of the Japanese authorities of the time to the perceived threat it represented, the film also questions whether Christianity could ever really take hold in Japan, though the suggestion is that without such rigid repression it may have achieved a more widespread acceptance.

The concept of a foreign religion as an alien and potentially disruptive force is not sidestepped here and becomes the subject of arresting debate between Rodriguez and his captor Inoue. Both men are shown to be intransigent in their views, but Rodriguez's increasingly self-righteous indignation makes it disarmingly easy to sympathise with his unruffled and smiling host. It is in these exchanges that the film touches on the key question of the validity of one version of spiritual truth over another, with the missionaries functioning as disruptive invaders whose word of God is not necessarily any more correct than the one they are seeking to usurp.

They are also hopeless unprepared for the consequences their actions and even presence could have for others. "You selfishly force your own dreams on us," Inoue says to Rodriguez, as those the Padre has come to assist are systematically drowned to prompt him and Garepe to recant their faith. "You never think of the bloodshed you are causing." It's a valid comment that strikes at the very heart of the missionaries' calling and marks an effective dividing line between the devout and those for whom religion itself represents a self-imposed method of intellectual oppression. For many of the more committed Christians, teaching the gospel and the conversion of unbelievers is central to their calling, and they do not see national or cultural differences as barriers to this. But for those not sympathetic to the Christian teachings, such actions are equitable to those of an enterprising heroin dealer, using deception to create a market for a product the user has no real need for, but on which they will ultimately become dependent. Just how sympathetic you are to Rodriguez's fate will depend to a large part on which side of this line you stand. Certainly it's hard not to feel for anyone victimised and humiliated by a force that is both powerful and morally repressive, but even as I watched and sympathised with unrepentant Christians as they are beaten and crucified in water until drowned by the tide, I was reminded of tortures that easily eclipsed those being administered here, dished out to the falsely accused by the Inquisition in the name of their Christian God.

This inevitably raises the familiar issue of how we judge the actions and beliefs of cultures other than our own, and one of the very real strengths of Silence is that the criticism comes not from a superior minded outsider but from within, a moral questioning by a Japanese writer and Japanese filmmakers of a troubling aspect their own history. Shinoda never sentimentalises the conflict or Rodriguez's role in it, taking almost an observer's view of events that is repeatedly punctuated by arresting wide shots and telling close-ups, captured in partially desaturated colour by master cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. The soundtrack is also noteworthy, the use of ambient sounds and sometimes hauntingly avant-garde score by Kwaidan and Woman in the Dunes composer Toru Takemitsu having an almost expressionistic quality, an externalisation of the isolation and inner turmoil suffered by Rodriguez as his quest crumbles and the worshippers he came to help are killed.

If what makes a story work lies at least in part in the manner of its telling, then it is here that Silence transcends any barriers that its subject matter may throw up. Strip the film of its religious clothing and it becomes a story of the repression of freedom of speech and thought, of ideas considered contrary or even dangerous to those of the state and the power that can be exercised to suppress them. This reading is particularly evident in the powerful final scenes, which do not play to expectations and are open to multiple interpretations, none of which make for particularly comfortable viewing, whatever your beliefs may be.

The religiously sympathetic have expressed admiration for the film's gripping and insightful exploration of faith and sacrifice, and I have no quarrel with this. For the power of its filmmaking and its refusal to demonise the opposing point of view, Silence is an important and arresting film. Nonetheless, the cultural and religious elements remain central to its story and message and will inevitably effect how you read it. My first viewing of the film was in the company of an older generation Japanese friend of the Shinto religion, and she remained largely unsympathetic to Rodriguez and his fate. At one point, the Padre's cheerful escort describes Christianity as "an unwelcome gift forced on the receiver," adding, "We have our own religion. We don't need yours." My friend's reaction was instantaneous – she pointed at the screen in annoyance and snapped "Exactly!"

sound and vision

Framed in its original 1.33:1 ratio, the early signs are not that promising, with picture detail and contrast lost in the dark of caves and day-for-night shooting, and the black levels are sometimes not quite there. Outside it's a different matter, with the detail crisp and the contrast well balanced. The partial colour desaturation and brown tint are both deliberate, described nicely in the accompanying booklet as "a style reminiscent of early woodblock prints." Grain is visible throughout, but the print is clean of dirt and scratches. As with several recent MoC releases, this is an NTSC disc, avoiding standards conversion issues.

The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack Is clear with only a slight treble bias, but does well enough by the sound effects and music.

The optional English subtitles are clear – what does catch you by surprise is that the English spoken dialogue is subtitled in Japanese. These are burned-in and clearly part of the print this transfer was sourced from – my co-viewer was particularly happy to see them.

extra features

Historical Texts
A DVD-ROM feature that contains reproductions of two historical texts in PDF format: A History of the Missions in Japan and Paraguay by Cecilia Mary Caddell (314 pages, 1856) and Japan's Martyr Church by Sister Mary Bernard (130 pages, 1926). Of genuine historical interest, they will nonetheless prove impossibly heavy going and even annoying to the non-religious.

Booklet
The Expected Masters of Cinema booklet is thinner than some and contains only one essay, Masahiro Shinoda's Silence by Doug Cummings, but it's a damned good one, providing detailed background on the religious politics of the time and place and a fascinating analysis of key aspects of the film.

summary

Silence is a rarity in Japanese cinema in taking a critical view of its own past from a Christian perspective, yet it stands apart from most western tales of religious persecution through its coolly observation approach and the considered arguments it allows the opposition. Belief is in no way essential to understanding and appreciation, but to get the very most out of the what the film has to offer, it probably helps. The transfer is generally up to the usual Masters of Cinema standard, with only the darkest scenes falling a little short.

A final note – an American remake of the film is apparently in pre-production as I write, to be directed by none other than Martin Scorsese. [Since this review was first posted, the project has apparently been shelved.]



Bibliography

  • Masahiro Shinoda's Silence by Doug Cummings
  • Japan-Guide.com – Christianity: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2298
  • Japan-Guide.com – Edo Period: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2128
Silence
Chinmoku

Japan 1971
130 mins
director
Shinoda Masahiro
starring
Iwashita Shima
Kato Yoshi
Don Kenny
David Lampson
Iwamatsu Mako
Matsuhashi Noboru
Tamba Tetsuro

DVD details
region 2
video
4:3 OAR
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
Japanese / English
subtitles
English / Japanese
extras
Historical texts
Booklet
distributor
Eureka! Masters of Cinema
release date
24 September 2007
review posted
19 September 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews