Thursday, January 12, 2017

Agonizing Beauty

Reflections on Scorese's Silence, part I
Warning:  Spoilers follow.

This will be the first of two posts on Martin Scorcese's Silence, a movie long-in-the-making version of Shusaku Endo's 1966 novel.  The second post will appear once I see the movie.  So what follows is a discussion of the novel and what some critics have made of the movie.  Here is a good overview of the movie and its content.

First, as expected from a talented director like Scorcese, the movie's visuals are stunning. After extensive success in Japan, Christianity found itself ruthlessly outlawed and persecuted in the seventeenth century. The movie follows two young Jesuit missionary priests who, hearing that their mentor has apostostasized, travel to Japan to confirm the rumors. 

Part of the shoguns' torture juxtaposed excruciating pain with the simplest, and pain-free, gesture. All arrested Christians were given the opportunity to apostasize by stepping barefoot on an image of Jesus (hence the fumie, literally "the stepping-on image").

Come on--what could be easier than that?

This, it turns out, is precisely the point.  The shoguns subject the indigenous Japanese Christians to horrific tortures and deaths:  beheading, drowning, burnt alive, and--one of the most awful punishments I have seen--being suspended upside down over a pit of excrement with small forehead cuts to relieve the maddening blood pooling.

One hand left free to signal "show me the fumie"
source:  Russell Statler's website --which is great, btw

Meanwhile, the captive Jesuit priests resided in relative comfort.  Thus, as one blogger puts it, "Martyrdom is easy...when it's your life on the line. But what if for every second you failed to waver somebody else got hurt?

Of course, it's not even that easy.  Silence is a captivating novel, and Scorcese has made, by all account, a movie equal to its source.  This can only be seen as good news. OK, so the subject matter is absolutely brutal and there are no easy answers.  But 1) that's life; and 2) when a director of Scorcese's talents turns those talents to an unapologetically religious story, and does so honestly and empathetically, how can we lose?

Well, when the story gets interpreted as "it's ok because it's all personal choice anyway."  Thus Daniel McInerney discussed (in 2014, no less!) Endo's "sinister theology:"

You can easily sympathize with the moment of Rodrigues’ weakness. What we can’t understand is his thirty-year acquiescence to the Japanese authorities, during which time he turns government informant and agrees to write a disavowal of Christianity. Is his “private understanding” with God meant to make up for these further betrayals? Or is Endo’s point that Rodrigues, despite his fall, has not put himself beyond the mercy and love of God?
Of course, God’s mercy is still available to Rodrigues, but the troubling thing about Silence is the split that occurs in Rodrigues after his apostasy between the faith he claims to keep in his heart and his habitual public renunciations of it. What is faith if it does not express itself in action? What is love if it is not, despite its falls, willing to die for the beloved? If Endo is speaking for himself through Rodrigues, then he is defending the indefensible.

In an early review of the movie even Bishop Robert Barron floated an argument similar to this. Barron:
I know, I know, Scorsese shows the corpse of Rodrigues inside his coffin clutching a small crucifix, which proves, I suppose, that the priest remained in some sense Christian. But again, that’s just the kind of Christianity the regnant culture likes: utterly privatized, hidden away, harmless.  So okay, perhaps a half-cheer for Rodrigues, but a full-throated three cheers for the martyrs, crucified by the seaside.
The bishop makes a crucial point, because all signs indicate that Endo intended the novel as a celebration of the heroic, and largely silent, native Japanese martyrs.  The seaside martyrdom Barron references featured two Japanese Christians crucified (tied, not nailed, to the cross) and caught in the rising tide.  They sing valiantly as the shoguns, townspeople, and even Rodrigues and Garpe (the two Jesuits) watch from a distance.  The martyrs last for days before succumbing.  So Barron, as he always does, makes a strong and exactly right point.

But the novel does not end there, but instead with a second-hand account of the now-fallen Father Rodrigues' life in the former mission.  He dies thirty years later, apparently complying with the shoguns' request to write anti-Christian missives and live peacefully with a wife and son (from a recently deceased shogun).  So Barron's criticism rest on rock-solid evidence.  However, it is also clear that some Christian resistance survives.  Kichijiro, the repeatedly-lapsing Christian who betrayed Rodrigues to the authorities, remains loyal to the disgraced priest.  Years after Rodrigues' apostasy, records indicate Kichijiro, yet once again, came to possess Christian paraphenalia.

Gee, where'd he get that from?

Endo is far too-talented a novelist to tell the story simply:  "Father Rodrigues recovered his Christian stash and kept doling out the goods."  No, like the rest of the novel before it, the conclusion of Silence leaves us to ponder several things:  the stalwart, silent faith of Japan's native Christians, the agonies--almost modern--of somebody suffering vicariously through somebody else's very real and awful suffering, and the very real question of how one could go on living after so simply losing everything previously held dear.  So, it's implied, but strongly I think, that Rodrigues maintains his faith, albeit, well, silently.

After all, the novel's climax occurs in Nagasaki, which was the center of Christianity in pre-persecution Japan.  The city's twentieth-century silencing by an American nuclear bomb surely weighs heavily in Endo's story--that once again, Japan's people suffered horrifically so that others might live.

The question to answer-via-blog will be the treatment of Ferreira, the fallen Jesuit Rodrigues seeks to find (played by Liam Neeson).  Endo depicts him as fully given over to apostasy and his freely-chosen Japanese life.  Thus Rodrigues' silent Christian resistance stands against the boorish, anti-Christian nagging of his disgraced mentor.  I suspect this might be where Barron's criticism rests, but I'll need to see the movie first.

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