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Silence Review

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by Casimir Harlow Aug 9, 2007 at 12:00 AM

    The English attempted their silk-fuelled missions to dominate China, and the Spanish took their own shot at colonising Japan, but the Portuguese also attempted to bring Christianity to the island-nation's shores, sending missionaries from Macao over to Japan to spread the word. Although the new religion flourished to begin with, it was not long before the beliefs and preaching threatened to disrupt the tight rule of the ruthless Japanese magistracy, and pretty-soon the practice of Christianity was banned, with Christian sects driven underground and anybody caught disobeying persecuted, tortured until they apostatise, and then killed anyway. Did I hear somebody say crucifixion?

    Chinmoku (aka Silence) is based on the renowned novel by Shusaku Endo, a 1971 movie that follows the path of two such Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who journey to 17th Century Shogunate Japan to infiltrate the underground Christian sects within the community and re-establish the Church. It is not long before they are separated and on the run, driven to hide and survive by the government's enforcers who seek to eradicate Christianity. One of the priests, Padre Rodrigues, soon finds himself in hell, forced to watch as his fellow Christians are beaten, hung and drowned, all because they refuse to denounce their faith. His own future is also looking increasingly bleak, particularly with the stark revelation of what really happened to his mentor, a senior priest who had visited the island some years before and disappeared mysteriously.

    Although I have not read the original source material, and despite the fact that the writer collaborated in the making of this movie, it is reported that the production does not faithfully follow the depressing tale of violent cultural conflict in Japan. Indeed, Martin Scorsese himself has been working on his own treatment of the book, having sought to make it off the back of Gangs of New York but shelving it in favour of The Departed and - apparently - Frankie Machine, a new De Niro gangster flick. Whilst I'm keen to see De Niro do another good movie (it's been almost a decade now) - and what better way to do it than to return to working with his long-time accomplice Scorsese? - it would also be interesting to see his take on this tough subject-matter. It is clear from his similar study of Chinese religious history, Kundan, that he has interests in this area and, frankly, he could hardly fail to succeed this 1971 interpretation.

    Whilst I tend to put little faith in the opinions of IMDB subscribers, there is a reason why this movie has only received 29 votes. It is a low budget, poorly-filmed, extremely dated movie that only barely manages to get its message across in the haunting final act. It is a shame really, because there is plenty of depth and allegory to the tale, with several glaringly obvious parallels to the persecution of Jesus himself, as well as a nod to Conrad's Heart of Darkness (and, in turn, Apocalypse Now) in the movie's final twist. The trouble is that the Director's vision is distinctly flawed - from the flowery kimono-like robe that the hero wanders about it (no doubt the height of late Sixties/early Seventies fashion) to the Geisha's own patchwork outfit, the costumes are off. The scenes are shot with a distinct lack of flair, often adopting positions where only one of the speakers can be seen and failing even to adopt a broad scope that could properly convey the beautiful Japanese landscapes. The score oddly uses both pseudo-Spanish guitar-work and Japanese twanging, making for a discordant, painful-to-the-ears combination that - whilst attempting to be quite distinct and unusual - ends up being barely tolerable, and also heavily dates the proceedings. Between all this, some lip-synch issues from the dubbing, some bad hairstyles and shoddy acting (at least on the Western front), the result is a movie that is strong in terms of depth of story, but not in any other respect.

    Oddly enough, the historical significance of this work, as well as the current (get a move on Scorsese!) lack of any alternative production covering the same subject-matter, means that - unless you want to read the book (which is probably recommended), this is the only way to spread the word of what happened during this culturally shameful period. And just in case my words may be misconstrued as a sleight on feudal Japan, let me clarify: I'm not supporting the decision to spread a foreign religion into a country that - at the time - was culturally leagues ahead of its Western counterparts, I'm merely observing that some of the actions taken to make the Christian Japanese apostatise were inexcusable and unforgivable. If you want to broaden your knowledge of the cultural history of Japan, or merely want to see a culturally interesting alternative to the likes of Scorsese's masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ or even Ken Russell's The Devils, Silence might be up your street. Please note, however, that due to the quality of the movie, this production falls towards the bottom of your cross-cultural religious-persecution must-see list.