Silence by Martin Scorsese

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Released 1 January 2017

Review by Roger Macy

The missionary, Martin Scorsese, is an apostate. He had promised us, in a votive epilogue to the recent academic volume Approaching Silence (Mark Darren and Darren J. N. Middleton eds., 2015), to let us understand what cannot be shown. He even invoked the Eisenstein principle of montage and ‘third meaning’ as a tool of God to be employed to understand His meaning (Scorsese’s punctuation, not mine). However, what we finally got after two-and-a-half hours – and, be warned, we head straight to the spoiler, here – was something mundanely shown, without montage, in our plain view; that thing destroyed without possibility of transmission, which had lain hidden from all but his closest family whilst he spent his career as an effective persecutor of the tangible and intangible assets of the church in Japan. Scorsese is hardly an untalented filmmaker, and this little thing had, I grant, been seen to be hidden in an earlier episode, subtly, in an unsubtle place – much closer to where Allied P.O.W.s hid something precious. But it’s unlikely that Scorsese was thinking of that. Let me paint a broader context.

Scorsese has adapted the famous novel of Endo Shusaku. The novel is set mainly around the 1630s at a time when the violent eradication of Christianity in the early Tokugawa era was mainly achieved, apart from isolated villages in the far west. Two firebrand Jesuit priests are landed clandestinely to make contact with any remaining faithful and discover the truth of the rumoured apostasy of their own mentor. By doing so, they bring the remaining flocks into mortal danger and diabolical temptation to betray, and not just by thirty pieces of silver.

The first half of the book comprises letters back of one of these priests, Rodrigues, to his mission headquarters in Macao. Most of the second half, after the priest’s capture, takes the form of a narrative of the torture of the faithful. This novelised, supra-human narrative, nevertheless, reports the arguments within the mind of Rodrigues in a much more internalised, naked, form than his reports to head office had previously revealed. Spoiler alert, again – he does apostatize and, after that, there is a short section of supposed reports of surveillance of his house arrest from his spy-masters to their head office in the bakufu.

If, reader, you think I’ve given much away, I can reasonably deduce that you are not a reader of the novel, nor of any of the academic essays on the nature of that apostasy, the most recent collection I mentioned at the beginning.  The contested meaning of this apostasy lays bare the considerable difficulty in portraying the book on film.

Scorsese’s is not the first adaptation of Endo’s novel. Less than five years after its first publication, the director Shinoda Masahiro made his version in 1971, which is available in an English-subtitled DVD. Mark Williams, the author of the English-language monograph on Endo, Endo Shusaku: A Literature of Reconciliation (1999), writes of Endo’s “well-documented disappointment” at the only film version in his lifetime, in the way it depicts Rodrigues’ “abandonment of a silent God”. Williams is an assiduous scholar but there is a conspicuous absence of any reference to support “well-documented”. That disappointment is, indeed, universally attested, but Endo would have had a problem documenting his objection since he is not only credited with the original story but also its adaptation. It’s not hard to see what he disliked. Shinoda’s film has Rodrigues making, finally the required gesture of renunciation – the stepping upon the image of Christ, the fumie. All that happens afterwards in that film is that Rodrigues is assigned a young widow to marry, and Shinoda closes with Rodrigues ravishing his acquired wife with gusto. That wife was played by Shinoda’s wife, Iwashita Shima, and this scene just happens to generate the still that was used for the poster in Japan. So, in a painful double irony, Endo found himself credited with a total repudiation that he then spent a lifetime attempting to reverse.

The appeal of Endo’s novel to the left in Japan had much to do with the parallels that could be easily taken with the phenomenon of tenko – the required renunciation of views that was required of dissenters by the militarist authorities during the ‘dark valley’ of totalitarian rule up to 1945. It’s not difficult to discern this as the appeal of the story to the leftist Shinoda, but whether he appreciated the irony of inducing a career of reverse-tenko for the original author, I cannot say.

Endo’s quest to re-narrate the perceived ending of Silence can even be seen in his rare appearance on British television. Should readers not immediately recall Endo’s ownership of the Bookmark programme on BBC2 on 13 April 1988, it is now easily viewable in the British Library Reading Rooms. After Endo speaks to camera on various topics, he chooses to read from this very novel, and specifically from the internal dialogue of the narration leading up to Rodrigues’ apostasy. This characterises his tenko as an act of love for the Japanese who are being persecuted for his faith; and an act of humility in accepting that he is not for him to re-enact Christ’s own sacrifice, the defining act of the Trinitarian church. Rodrigues, in his narrated mind, steers himself into a lesser sacramentalism and love of God through his own imaging of the face and voice of Jesus.

My problem with Endo’s supposed correction of the record is that his reading omits the remarks in the novel immediately before and after this section – which see this view as a self-serving justification. These doubts about the doubts originate from his grand inquisitor Inoue, who had every reason to want Rodrigues to hold to this renunciation. It seems to me that the original novel explored doubt more fundamentally than Endo seems to have later maintained, and much more than Scorsese wishes to depict. Neither of these men had, or has, any ‘Chinese wall’ from their authority on Earth, the One catholic and apostolic church. Soon after the original publication of the novel, the bishop of Nagasaki told his flock from the pulpit that they should not read this novel. Endo was eventually successful in getting the church to soften its position. Scorsese’s attention was initially prompted by the Episcopalian archbishop of New York, but I firmly believe that Scorsese’s project operates within the grace of the Roman Catholic church. This unbeliever also believes that Endo’s confidence in Scorsese stemmed from a wish to repudiate his own doubt.

So, the apostasy of which I accuse Scorsese is cinematic and definitely not doctrinal or sacramental. If Scorsese has steered Endo’s novel into safer waters, he has certainly read the novel. For example, at the moment of Rodrigues’ stamping on the fumie, Shinoda cuts to a momentarily disappointed Ferreira, his Jesuit predecessor in apostasy. For Scorsese, that disappointment is on the face of Inoue himself (whom the novel reveals to be an even earlier apostate).

Scorsese’s coda depicts Rodrigues and Ferreira in a busy public life of persecuting the Faith, whilst one, at least, of them secretly holds to the faith. But that does not begin to convey Endo’s coda. Endo’s Atogaki, or postscript, is in the form of a ‘diary’ by a secret policeman of the bakufu. This has Rodrigues, now with a Japanese name and family, under close house arrest and under pressure to produce further testimonies against the Faith. Mark Williams, in his essay in Approaching Silence, points out that this ‘diary’ is based on a real historical manuscript, the Yoroku, which Endo fundamentally altered to amplify Rodrigues further wavering and doubt. We get none of this in either film version.

The ‘diary’ makes some key references to another character in the novel, Kichijiro, a vacillating figure who makes more apostasies than most of his fellow-villagers had hot breakfasts. Endo clearly invokes the imagery of Judas in this character and both filmmakers pick up on this. But the ‘diary’ in the novel has Kichijiro re-entering the life of a closed Catholic family, in a way that I could imagine reading in a secret policeman’s report from Elizabethan England. Who better to make doubt eternal than the figure of Kichijiro?

This brings me to a brief consideration of actors. A sizeable proportion of the preview audience saw Kichijiro’s continual repentances as a comic turn and laughed considerably. They also laughed at the character of Inoue. This is nothing short of disastrous. The protagonist, Rodrigues, must, according to Endo’s syuzhet, see Kichijiro’s path as the wiser. Inoue, on the other hand, is an informed manipulator, highly empathetic in a thoroughly malign way. Both were depicted by Japanese actors of considerable fame, working outside their native tongue. The inquisitor in chief, Inoue, is played by Ogata Issei, whose comic style of acting is here taken even further than normal in an eccentrically accented English. To my mind, the two actors who acquit themselves well are Adam Driver and Tsukamoto Shinya but alas, both their characters have died humbly for their faith before the crux.

Casting problems lead us to the general problem of language. Endo’s novel is, of course, in Japanese, apart from a handful of Latin phrases. The reader knows from the beginning that it starts as an account by a Portuguese priest to his superiors in Macao, but translation is rarely visible, it is merely implied or elided over with just a few references to a character becoming versed in Japanese. Later, in the novel-form narration of the interrogation, another character steps in as translator for Inoue.

As soon as this story is portrayed on screen, some problems will not go away. The missionary priests come from a racial otherness, which marks them as different from the faithful they serve as priests. Casting blind to racial difference would create a comprehension barrier to appreciating the historical setting, and few have attempted it. Shinoda and Scorsese, as you would expect, have Western actors play the priests and Japanese actors play all the other speaking parts. Shinoda’s film was only pitched at a Japanese audience. His two ‘foreign’ actors playing the two priests are given a superficial credibility of foreignness by speaking some non-Japanese, but it’s certainly not Portuguese and it’s not always recognisable as English. Alas, the UK DVD doesn’t subtitle the Western dialogue which sometimes escaped me. It made it painfully obvious that the director of these actors did not understand the dialogue they were attempting. Given that experience, I tried hard to find a native Japanese-speaker to hear the Scorsese film with me, but this could not be, so I can only report as an English-speaker. His film had possibly the highest number of credits for translation I have ever seen. However, nearly all these were location translators for the Taiwan-based shooting. The key credit here was one for ‘Nagasaki dialect coach’. I don’t know whether ‘Fukuda Nobuaki’ had any sway on location, in the scenes as they were recorded but, as far as I could tell, it often wasn’t far from modern standard Japanese. But that’s not really the issue I want to address.

Scorsese’s film has its own conventions about speaking ‘foreign’, which pretty much follow the Hollywood norm. The non-foreign that the three Hollywood stars speak is never Portuguese, but a neutral American-accented English. Perhaps an hour into the film, there is a reference in the dialogue to speaking, or not speaking Portuguese, but the story is written as a setting specifically of the English-translated, and hence English-spoken novel. In the usual novel narration, it is the understanding of the reader that is the ‘home’ language and the actual form of the language spoken can be left unsaid. But, in the film, with language difference being such a crucial element of the story, and of the original encounter, and with known Japanese actors, set in Japan, before my eyes, I found it hard to overlook language difference in the long passages where I was effectively asked to do so. In particular, Inoue, and his actor, Ogata Issei, should never have been allowed to speak English. I guess the Hollywood money wouldn’t permit any other language but English for the showdown.

It was also in English that Inoue delivers the line about the abandoned Christians of the far islands not mattering as their doctrines were removed from those of mother church. Somehow, it sounded much more anathematizing in Scorsese’s framing.

These criticisms perhaps do not give sufficient credit for how Scorsese has depicted the past as a foreign country. It would have been very easy to make 17th century Japan doubly alienated and Scorsese largely avoids unnecessary exoticism whilst convincingly portraying the landing on an unknown shore. He also controls the darkness better than Shinoda, whose filming of the clandestine movements of the villagers was more ambitious than his film stock could always depict. But one thing that particularly marked Shinoda’s film as avant-garde was the music. Doug Cummings, in the Masters of Cinema DVD booklet, writes of “atonal sounds”, but it’s much more jarring than that. Two developed but completely different tuning systems from East and West play their competing scores, which never reconcile or resolve. Takemitsu Toru seemed to relish taking up a constant theme of Endo, who saw two opposed cultures which, in his opinion, could not be planted in the other’s soil. In contrast with that, I confess to not noticing music in Scorsese’s film, except over the end credits.

But I haven’t finished yet. There is another way that Scorsese has committed cinematic apostasy. The Scorsese whose feet I devotionally followed was the prophet of film conservation, the leading name in restoration. The Film Foundation, led by Scorsese himself, has restored numerous treasures of world cinema heritage. I have myself undertaken many pilgrimages to festivals in other lands to keep the faith. In particular, the Sala Scorsese at the Cineteca Bologna has been the temple of scores of film discoveries for countless cinephiles. These pilgrimages have become all the more necessary for the English, as the BFI has increasingly turned away from serious retrospectives of older films in favour of promotions of their new film business, which the government thrust upon them. So what is Scorsese’s Silence doing, having a run, in the main hall of the National Film Theatre in London, twice a night for much of January? Does he not know this venue was, in living memory, a national cinematheque, where we first experienced the films of Mizoguchi, Kurosawa and Ozu, along with names that have disappeared completely in London, such as Gosho and Yoshida – to mention only the non-Japanese canon? Does he not know that there are plenty of other cinemas in London, on which the truly independent have difficulty securing films on first release? I shall certainly dip into the coming retrospective of Mr Scorsese’s work, but his 2016 film should have its run elsewhere.

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