Hypocrisy & Imperialism in Scorsese’s “Silence”

By Alex Doe

“I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?”

These are the words uttered by father Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit Priest (Andrew Garfield) who is sworn to find and bring back his mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) from a 1640, anti-Christian Japan. Rodrigues, alongside his fellow missionary, Father Garupe (Adam Driver) are director Martin Scorsese’s two soldiers for Christendom in a country which is described by its leaders as a “swamp” in which Christianity cannot grow. The task is large, if not impossible, in a great story guided by the direction of man that most relates to New York Mob violence, Robert Deniro, and Wall Street Tycoons addicted to Quaaludes. Nonetheless, Scorsese notably delivers this story in a dramatic, cinematic fashion that articulately portrays a piece of a historic persecution with which most are unfamiliar . Silence is a tale of what one undergoes when holding a zealous belief in a land where that is punishable by death, and – in the case of Rodrigues – cause another to suffer the most egregious torture. As a counterpoint, the film also lays out themes of hypocrisy in religion, as well as the idea of Imperialism.

While the film itself lays its foundation on the two missionaries rescuing their fellow friar, it is also a window into 17th century Japan. During this period Japan was formally a feudal administrative system (Danka Seido) which required its citizens to be affiliated with a particular Buddhist temple. This in turn helped to monitor and detect minority devoted Christians who were seen as threat to the traditional Japanese state. In Silence, the state is represented by the ruthless Inquisitor who exposes fervent believers by subjecting them to a test of apostasy. The task is a simple – “only a formality” – to lay one’s foot on a tablet with Christ’s impression. The penalty for loyalty however, is torture followed slowly by death.

Scorsese is no stranger to violence. Many of his films are built around it. Unflinchingly graphic and realistic violence, in fact. Believers lashed to crosses while being plastered by rising tides or being wrapped in straw mats and burned alive, or possibly – for the lucky – a quick beheading by a sharpened Katana. These are the threats that are forced upon the Christian minority.

While Scorsese accurately portrays the obedience, as well as the fear, of the Christian peasant from the state, he also captures the fear and doubts of the shepherds of the sheep. A major theme of Silence is in fact right in the title: the silence of god and the absence of justice. Why does God subject his followers to utter pain, embarrassment, and suffering? These are the questions Rodrigues asks as he sees his fellow man perish. Rodrigues is time and time again called to apostatize to cease the torture of many prisoners. A moral dilemma arises out of the film. Is it worth the renunciation of faith, the scare of hellfire, to end the suffering of others? On the other hand, other hypocrisy is easily seen by the “Buddhist” inquisition as they torture and kill their Christian prisoners. A major precept that is part of the Buddhist tradition is the abstention from violence and actions that cause the suffering of living beings. As the movie shows the ideologies of religions and governments rarely add up in the real world actions of their followers.

Maneuvering into another theme that also relates to government is Scorsese’s look at imperialism. Christianity was unarguably a catalyst for the European Renaissance, with Rodrigues and Garupe embodying western European Christianity in its quest to evangelize every living soul. The Japanese feudal system, however, was in complete contradiction to this idea, made very clear by a story told by the Inquisitor involving 4 concubines (Portugal, Holland, England, and France) and a King (Japan) who found that it was in his best interest to let the women go and find peace by himself. Scorsese looks at this impasse very nicely. Japan wants its own identity, but at the price of the beliefs of its people. On the other hand, it is the drive of the Christian ministry which pushes the inquisition harder. Turning again to the moral dilemma that Silence gives us, a question is asked by father Ferreira. “Do you have the right, to make them suffer?” The film forces the viewer to ponder the question.

While Silence begs many questions, it also leaves the viewer with many emotions. While the film can be ambiguous at times, the story is nonetheless moving and powerful. Garfield and Driver deliver spectacular performances, the scenery is beautiful, and the story is mesmerizing. And the two larger themes of hypocrisy in religion and imperialism that are central to the film are important for the viewer to meditate on. I, myself, am still meditating on it.

Alex Doe is a friend of the podcast, musician, and fellow film fan.

CB Podcast Ep. 60 – Oscar Nominations Recap // “Silence” Review

“With the release of the 2017 Oscar nominations, the bros bring you their biggest snubs and surprises, plus plenty of interesting tidbits about the nominees. Then, the long-awaited film adaptation of Shusako Endo’s ‘Silence’ is finally out in theaters and the bros discuss whether Scorsese’s film lived up to the hype.”

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“Kumiko The Treasure Hunter” Review

“This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

 – So begins 1996’s Fargo, the basis for the new film by the Zellner Brothers, Kumiko The Treasure Hunter.

Kumiko The Treasure Hunter tells the story of Japanese woman who is dissatisfied with her life. She has a job that bores her, no friends to be seen and a mother that keeps hounding her about getting married. Then one day she discovers a beaten up old VHS tape of Fargo. She takes the words at the beginning seriously and sets off on a journey to find the money buried by Carl Showalter at the end of film. These are the broad strokes of Kumiko, but the film is so much more than those.

At its core, the film is a psychological journey through Kumiko’s mind. Throughout the film you ask, is she simply ignorant or is she mentally-ill to believe that she can find this treasure? But then, a third option at times occurs to you that is even more interesting: What if she’s right? What if she does find this treasure?

That is not to say it is some mind-bending thriller though. Kumiko manages to stay fairly grounded, no matter how ridiculous the plot seems, and its pacing is closer to The Godfather than it is to Inception. While the pacing does pick up as the film moves along, toward the beginning, there are times where it is almost unbearably slow. The film was only 105 minutes, but it could have easily been 100 or 95 minutes just by tweaking the pacing a bit.

Still, in these slower moments, you also get fantastic glimpses into the mind of Kumiko through the incredible performance of Rinko Kikuchi. While the role asks for very little dialogue, Kikuchi wears her thoughts and emotions on her sleeve, letting you in just enough through her facial expressions and posture. It is fascinating to watch her display complete confidence in this far-fetched journey, even as those around her smirk at the thought of it.

The greatest aspect of the film though, is the cinematography by Sean Porter. Every frame of this movie looks like it belongs in an art museum. The way he uses Kumiko’s red hoodie as the focal point of most of the film, setting up perfectly contrasting backgrounds to put her against, is completely masterful.

There is one scene in particular though, that blew me away, both for its simplicity and its beauty. The scene has Kumiko start in a doorway talking on a phone. Behind her to the left, a mirror is placed in the corner so that when she moves out of the doorway and behind the wall, the audience can still see her in the mirror. Then she moves back to the doorway, creating a beautiful scene without ever having to change camera angles.

And Porter uses these kind of interesting shots throughout the film, never taking the easy way out. Every shot in Kumiko is meticulously thought out, making it one of the most gorgeous films I have ever seen. Really, even if the story would have been terrible, it would have been worth it just to watch this film for the visuals alone.

And the story isn’t terrible! Throughout Kumiko’s journey there are slightly comedic parts, sad moments and even times of complete wonder. Though most of the film is quite even-keeled and even melancholy, the Zellner Brothers brilliantly mix in these deeper moments that break the tension of some of the slower parts. The comedy especially is perfectly done, playing with Midwestern culture like Fargo does, just in a more down-to-earth, realistic way.

Overall, one of the few flaws I found in the film and one of the few things I could see that other people didn’t like about it was the pacing. It is true that Kumiko The Treasure Hunter is no Indiana Jones and at times it gets pretty slow. I mean, I watched this when I was tired and toward the beginning I had to fight to stay awake. So, yes, that could have been handled better but, Kumiko is such a brilliant film in so many other ways that you can’t help but keep watching (and the pacing does get better).

Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, in the end, is a slightly flawed masterpiece of a film. The performances, story, cinematography and the music (incredible score by The Octopus Project) all completely blew me away. And is there another modern film that looks and sounds so good? I really can’t think of one.