Saturday, 22 March 2014

Silence (1971)

Sound of God

For anyone unfamiliar with his work Simon Ditchfield teaches in the history department as an expert in early modern religion. He is also the man I have to thank for introducing me to Masahiro Shinoda’s Silence, adapted by Shusako Endo from his own 1966 novel. Amongst its number of well informed admirers is Martin Scorsese. In fact, the ever-popular director will be releasing his own remake of the cult Anglo-Japanese classic next year.

It was during Dr Ditchfield’s lecture on the hidden Christians of seventeenth-century Japan (known as the Kakure Kirishitan) that I was first familiarised with Endo’s excellent piece of historical fiction. Soon after I took the DVD out of the library and since then the themes of faith, suffering and abandonment have never wandered too far from my thoughts.

Two Jesuit missionaries are sent to Shogunate Japan in search of their former tutor who disappeared on the island many years before. At that time Christianity was outlawed across the country, the emperor and his generals using measures of violent repression to eradicate its heresy from their territories. The authorities offered two prospects to steadfast believers: torture and execution or a swift conversion to orthodox Buddhism. Peasants and priests alike navigated these dark dangers as they propagated their faith across the land of the rising sun.

There is no happy ending in this realistic world. In a similar story arc to Orwell's1984 the protagonist is imprisoned and taunted by his captors. Instead of simply destroying his mortal body, weakening their prisoner’s ideology is the objective of their cruelty. An incredible level of tension builds as the Jesuit brother must decide whether to renounce his faith by walking on a fumi-e (a floor tile decorated with Christ’s image) or die in jail.
Religion is rarely touched by cinema in any theological depth but this celluloid fragment captures the extreme devotion which faith demands. To apostatize is to reject everything that you hold as sacred, including the prospect of spiritual utopia after death. But what if that golden promise is a sham? Could this corrupt world be the only theatre of our actions? For once history and film combine in symbiotic harmony; neither can claim the other has been mistreated.
This is the story of religion from below, as the way it was lived rather than ruled. Or, as Ditchfield would say, religion as a verb not a noun.
Silence is not only thematically piercing but also supremely beautiful. A 300 year old Japanese landscape is recreated amidst the sloping hills and dormant waters of misty valley lakes. Farmers work the land with hard toil in isolated cloves. Lonely fishing boats bob along uneven waters. Then comes the cavalry, the devastation, the death.
Don’t just wait for Scorsese’s remake before you educate yourself with Endo’s sombre religious tale. In 1971 Shinoda could not have done any better. Emotion pours out of his every frame with devastating efficiency.
Thank you, Dr Ditchfield. If only the Kakure Kirishitan had come up in the exam.


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