Sunday 26 February 2017

The Current Cinema - Peter Hourigan delves into three iterations of SILENCE by Endo, Shinoda and Scorsese

SILENCE Times Three

Endo Shusaku, author of Silence
I’m probably guilty of overdosing on Silence in the last few weeks – the novel by Shusaku Endo (1966), Scorsese’s new film, and then a revisit to the 1971 Japanese film version, directed by Masahiro Shinoda from a script he co-wrote with the novel’s author.

Everyone by now is probably aware that Silence is a story of the repression of Christianity in Japan in the early seventeenth century, and a priest who is made to apostatise. Exposing myself to the three tellings, it seems that the story is rather like a Rorschach test – each version very revealing about the teller. And the endings are the most revealing of all.

Endo wrote from a very unusual perspective – a practising Japanese Catholic . He’d studied in post-war France and was influenced by such introspective Catholic works as Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos.  The structure Endo used for Silence is interesting. An objective prologue gives us the historical background.

Then the next near-third is made up of letters from Father Sebastian Rodrigues, for as long as he was in a position to write reports for his superiors in Macao. This section ends with his capture by the soldiers of Inoue. This strategy allows us to be party to the private thoughts, doubts, optimism, faith, fervour of Rodrigues.

The next, largest section is a third person account, from an omnipotent narrator.  But the point of view remains with Rodrigues. This probably does not give such an intense insight into his mind and thoughts, but keeps us focused on his faith and conviction. After the moment when Rodrigues does apostatise and steps on the fumie, there is a very short chapter on the immediate consequences of this action – his virtual house-arrest, expulsion from the mission and the priesthood, and his rationalisation of his fall, including shifting much responsibility on Ferreira, the priest he’d come to Japan to find.

The first half of the final chapter again uses a “primary document” , extracts from the diary of a clerk at a Dutch trading firm in Nagasaki which matter-of-factly lets us know of Rodrigues’ duties now to help root out emblems of Christianity (and Catholicism).  Then our third person narrator returns to tell us that Rodrigues has been given a new name by the Japanese authorities and also the wife and family of the former bearer of that name. Somewhat, a ‘happy ever after.”

And a final appendix, extracts from the diary of an Officer at the Christian Residence informs us objectively, dispassionately of the death of Okada San’emon (Rodrigues), the dispersal of his personal items and that he was cremated and buried.  No emotion here at all.
How do the films end?   After the moment of apostasy in Shinoda’s version, a short scene shows us Rodrigues being used to identify whether an object is Christian. He is then returned to his cell, where a woman is waiting.  He falls on her as she lies on her back for him. Freeze frames of his almost brutal kisses are intercut with a cut to Kichijiro (more of his later) mournfully sweeping leaves in the courtyard.courtyard.

So, the implication would seem to be that inside Rodrigues was a repressed sexual man, and the religion had impeded him from his true desires. There is admiration for the strength he’s shown in his convictions, but it’s probably been harmful – to him and to the people he has tried to sway to his way of life and belief.

Scorsese follows the novel to the end, but expands the use of Rodrigues to effectively ferret out covert Christian emblems and objects, and then we have his death and burial. And Scorsese concludes his film with a shot of a small Crucifix clasped in Rodrigues’ hand as he is lowered in his coffin.  Here the Rorschach test reveals a strongly Christian/Catholic mind, that can’t accept that such a strong faith could ever die. Given that probably only his Japanese wife could have placed it there, perhaps he had continued to preach and convert? At least, to her?

Martin Scorsese
This seems to betray the thrust of the story, an exploration of the full journey of a man’s faith. Although it does illustrate Scorsese’s comments, “Silence is the story of a man who learns – so painfully – that God’s love is more mysterious than he knows, that He leaves much more to the ways of men than we realize, and that He is always present...even in his silence.” ((Introduction to novel, 2016)

If you are a person of faith, then, perhaps Scorsese’s film can work as an illustration of a person of faith.  If you’re not, you do have the powerful ‘scope visuals, and a particularly effective (and appropriate) sound design.  But all the way through you’re thinking how easy it should be for a rational person to simply step on the fumie  (perhaps with your fingers crossed) and move on.  By contrast, Robert Bresson’s film of Diary of a Country Priest(1951) really does allow you to feel the faith of the Priest of Ambricourt, steady in the face of his tribulations. Perhaps to the point of self-destruction, but you do ‘feel’ why he can continue in this way.

To me (my Rorschach blot reading) one of the most interesting characters is Kichijiro. He first helps the two priests to land in Japan. But we learn he has already apostatised once.  He still hangs around small, secret Japanese Christian communities, he helps the priests, and he betrays them.

But even after his ‘kiss of Judas’ which delivers Rodrigues into the hands of Inoue and his eventual apostatising, Kichijiro still hangs around. He knows he’s a coward, but it’s clear he also cannot escape his Christianity. If he’s threatened with some violence he wilts.  He’ll deny his Christ. And then come back into the company of other underground Christians, where he is back in danger. His mental torment, his sense of hypocrisy but of self-preservation is indicative of a character I’d have loved to have had more of.

Shinoda Masahiro

His representation is strongest in Shinoda’s film – and perhaps of the three tellers, Shinoda is the one who most understood him.  His presence in the final sequence of shots is telling.  While Rodrigues is violently enjoying the pleasures of a woman for the first time, it is a desolate, despairing, agonising, solitary Kichijiro outside sweeping the leaves.  He betrayed the padre, but he can’t get away from him.

And with that, I think I’ve probably had enough Silence for a while.

Editor's Note: Shinoda's Silence has been released on DVD in Britain on the Masters of Cinema label. Details can be found if you click here.

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