19 February 2017

Martin Scorsese's 'Silence' - Review

Japan is a unique country. An island off the coast of East Asia, it is literally on the edge of the world. Westerners reached it only in the 1500s. And almost immediately, Christian missionaries started going there - to convert them to Christianity. But around 1600, the Japanese cracked down. They banned Christianity and outlawed missionaries. Today only 1% of Japanese are Christians.

In 1966, Japanese-Christian writer Shusaku Endo wrote a novel called Chinmoku ('Silence') about this chapter in Japan's history. In 1971, it was made into a Japanese movie. And now Martin Scorsese has made its Hollywood version.

The story is set in the 1600s. A Portuguese missionary called Ferreira (Liam Neeson) goes to Japan and disappears after some time. Then his two disciples - Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) go to Japan to search for him. They reach Japan and find some villagers who are secretly practising Christianity. They stay with the villagers for some time, but are eventually caught. Garrpe is executed and Rodrigues is taken to Nagasaki. There he meets senior Japanese officials - and also Ferreira. He is shocked to find out that Ferreira has renounced Christianity, embraced Buddhism and now works for the Japanese government - writing anti-Christianity books. Finally Rodrigues also becomes like Ferreira.

The first 2 hours is a typical story about Christianity told by a Christian. It glorifies the truth and greatness of the Christian religion. But in the last 30 minutes, the story does a complete U-turn. Here Christianity is brought face-to-face with Buddhism - when Rodrigues debates with the Japanese officials and also with his ex-guru Ferreira. And here, Christianity comes off as irrational and intolerant - as against Buddhism's rationality and tolerance. Of course, this is a debate not just between Buddhism and Christianity - but also more broadly between Aryan religions and Semitic religions.

What was Shusaku Endo thinking when he wrote that last part? Was he just trying to be an honest writer/artist and give space to an alternate viewpoint? Or was it his Japanese side triumphing over his Christian side? And what does Martin Scorsese think about that last part? Does he realise the power of those arguments against Christianity?

Silence is an honest and intelligent movie about Christianity - and religion in general. Not surprisingly, it has flopped in America. And the Oscars have given it only one nomination (for camerawork). Artists say the purpose of art is not to give answers but to ask questions. If that is true, then Shusaku Endo's Chinmoku and Martin Scorsese's Silence are very good works of art.

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