Silence Review

Based on a novel by Shusaku Endo, one of the most emminent names in modern Japanese literature, the scope and content of Masahiro Shinoda’s Silence (Chinmoku) is an almost impossibly ambitious one. Set in early 17th Century Japan where the growth of Christianity has been curtailed by a strict ban, it examines the complex notions of faith from a number of angles; from the authorities fearful of its practice, from the perspective of poor villagers persecuted for their beliefs, and from the point of view of the missionaries, struggling with the contradiction between their promise of eternal life and effectively bringing death to their congregation. Silence fully realises the epic qualities of the theme and the setting, without ever losing sight of the more personal and intimate considerations the situation gives rise to.

Facing a deep crisis in Europe in the 16th Century with the protests of Martin Luther, the Catholic church has striven to spread its message of Christianity further and managed to quickly gain a substantial foothold in Japan. Fearful that the Jesuits were merely preparing the way for the conquest of Japan by the Spanish and Portuguese, and witnessing the growing discord coming from the Protestant Reformation groups, the shogunate banned Christianity and its practice was brutally oppressed by the ruling authorities. Arriving onto Japanese shores, two Jesuit priests, Padre Rogrigues (David Lampson) and Garrape (Don Kenny) come looking for one of their brethren, Padre Ferriera, who has been working in the region for 20 years, but has not been heard of in the five years since his arrest. The priests are welcomed by the citizens of Tomogi village, who have not had the guidance of a priest to hold mass for many years. Despite the great danger it means for them and the severe reprisals that will be carried out against the village by the authorities, they shelter the priests.

The situation of Silence is one that is full of dramatic potential and Shinoda leaves no element of the diverse levels unexplored. On the larger scale, there is the conflict between the strength of faith of the Christian missionaries and the brutal repression of the Japanese authorities. Both represent two diverse cultures and ways of thinking that would seem to be incompatible and immovable, and the end result of this uneasy mix is indeed violent and brutal. In between, the lives of the ordinary, poor, hard-working people are deeply affected also by this division, attracted by the Christian belief that their reward will be great in the next life, but not fully able to reconcile it with their essential Japanese character. It gives many the strength required to affirm their beliefs, but the decision is not however an easy one, since the consequences of failing to renounce the banned religion are severe.

Shinoda manages to demonstrate the deep sense of confusion, guilt and crisis this means for the people by bringing it down to a more human, personal level through the character of Kichijiro, an islander who feels he has betrayed his faith, his people and himself by renouncing the faith while others died for their beliefs. While there are some who unflinchingly are prepared to be martyred for their beliefs, Kichijiro represents the ordinary man, with normal weaknesses and doubts. As he cries out in despair at one point in the film, at an earlier time when the religion was permitted, he would have lived and died a good Christian – so why should he be so tested now? The crisis of faith is equally great for Father Rodrigues. Initially intolerant at the thought of anyone giving up their faith under duress, when he witnesses for himself the suffering the poor people endure – beatings, torture and execution – he tells them to do as the Magistrate says, and to step on the Christian painting when asked. With more and more villagers being taken hostage and dying on his account, he is struck by the suffering he is bringing to their already miserable lives. With his head worth 300 pieces of silver, when Christ was sold for only 30, he is unable to handle the impossible position in which he finds himself and leaves the village.

Shinoda incredibly finds many ways of simultaneously representing the crisis of the individual within a larger picture, fully exploiting the all the dramatic possibilities that come with it. The sense of insignificance of a mere man and the immensity of powers outside his control are represented in the remarkable cinematography - in ancient volcanic rocks, in the powerful seas and the verdant richness of the land that the villagers cultivate, against which man is often framed like a dot on the landscape. Even when the crisis of Father Rodrigues is depicted like the Passion of Christ, complete with his own Judas and an interview with Pontius Pilate, the full extent of the human sacrifice required is completely felt.

While fully elaborating and brilliantly dramatising the situation from numerous perspectives, Shinoda never resorts to reductive reasoning in the need to provide clarity or comprehension. There are no easy answers and there are no perfect insights to be gained into the workings of human reasoning and personal faith or the limits to which it can be pushed. There is only one source from which answers can come, but God’s silence is almost unbearable here. Rodrigues witnesses great horrors and shockingly inventive tortures enacted on those who refuse to apostatise - as well as being subjected to them himself – but cannot fathom the minds or the reasoning of those who carry them out. Nor can he even understand the reasoning of those suffering Japanese Christians – is it their faith and belief that drives them or some other innate cultural or national pride that is incompatible with the seeds sown by Christianity? Such are the impossible questions raised by the film that the viewer is held right through to the end, never knowing what decision Rodrigues will come to, nor what decision they would make in the same position.

Silence is released in the UK by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series and is numbered #44 in the collection. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is in NTSC format, and is encoded for Region 2.

Clearly working with the best available elements – which in this case would be the Japanese master from Toho - Silence unfortunately suffers from several drawbacks typical of Japanese transfers, namely poor contrast and flat blacks lacking in shadow detail. It doesn’t help that a poor impression is given by the opening scenes which are shot as murky day-for-night. Daytime scenes fare rather better, but red levels are too high and grain is very heavy, resulting in a rather hazy, over-warm image. Fortunately, the progressive transfer is well encoded, with only occasional faint compression problems and dot-crawl caused by the dancing grain, and once or twice camera movement seemed to cause flicker and minor blurring of the image. The print itself however is almost flawless in terms of having no evident marks or scratches. It is transferred at the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.

The original audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and appears to be mono. There are few problems, but it is far from high quality, the tone seeming to be rather dull and flat. Toru Takemitsu’s score however comes across effectively.

The subtitling situation is not entirely satisfactory, but Masters of Cinema are again evidently only able to work with the materials they have been provided with by Toho. This means that fixed Japanese subtitles are present on the screen for lines of English dialogue, while the Japanese dialogue has optional English subtitles. As the majority of the dialogue is in Japanese, this is not too much of a problem, and the fixed subtitles can be mentally blocked out after a while. However, there are some lines spoken in English by Japanese actors which are almost incomprehensible. This is translated with Japanese subtitles, but English subtitles would really be required here as well.

Masters of Cinema choice of extra features is an interesting one, but one that seems perfectly appropriate for the film. Rather than examining Silence as a film, either in the context of the director’s work or Japanese cinema of the period, the focus is on the historical context of the film. Consequently there are two full-colour PDF facsimiles of out-of-print book-length historical texts - A History of the Mission in Japan and Paraguay by Cecilia Mary Caddell (314pp, c1856) and Japan’s Martyr Church by Sister Mary Bernard (130pp, c1926). I haven’t read either of these in any detail, but as my immediate reaction after viewing the film was a desire to know more about the history, these extras would seem those which will most enrich the film. My impression from a brief sampling is that the earlier book is indeed truer and more readable from a historical viewpoint, while the later is rather burdened with the religious perspective of its author and a tortuous syntax that typically produces paragraphs like this:

"With so great a fear was the Prince of Satsuma seized that he issued a decree forbidding his subjects, under pain of death, to abandon the religion of their fathers. For this Prince's toleration of Christianity had sprung from a hope of capturing European commerce, and from no real inward conviction of heart. But not such was the faith of those hundreds of subjects of his, who had become fervent followers of Christ. Death and disfavour was nought to them."

For those who do not wish to wade through the texts, Doug Cummings provides a much more concise overview of the period in the 18-page booklet included with the set, as well as examining Shinoda’s approach to it in Silence. I would have liked a little more background on the director – Shinoda is a complete unknown to me – and some interview material by the director on the film if it had been available, but one really can’t complain too much with the wealth of other material available here.

Masahiro Shinoda’s Silence is a remarkably intelligent and profound work that not only successfully dramatises the difficult subject of faith from the personal as well as the wider historical aspect, but also explores the complex and often contradictory nature of the Japanese people, their culture and their mindset. Bringing the two elements together into a coherent, dramatic film is almost inconceivable, but Shinoda somehow achieves it, on a grand epic level as well as on smaller, more intimate and detailed level. The result is a powerful and highly-charged film that gives the viewer much to think about. Such is the strength of the film and the unique academic qualities of the important extra features on the Masters of Cinema DVD release, that any minor issues with the quality of the Japanese master can be largely overlooked.

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