Based on a book by Sushaku Endo, Martin Scorsese takes the story of systematic religious persecution of Christians in ancient Japan (1630s) and manages to shake the faith of the audience not in religion but also in humanity itself. The story is told by two young priests who arrive in Japan in search of their teacher and discover life so wretched, their faith in God is tested. Martin Scorsese’s is at once cruel as it is beautiful. A tough watch.
You’d never expect Andrew Garfield (whom you saw in Spiderman!) to be able to give what could be the best performance of his career as a young Jesuit priest Father Rodriguez who comes to Japan in search of his teacher with another young priest Father Garupe (Adam Driver). They hear many rumors about the teacher: Liam Neeson, who has turned Japanese and denounced Jesus, but want to find out for themselves.
In the search for the teacher, the two priests discover that ever since Christianity was outlawed, the faithful are not just put to death in gory inhuman ways, but that there is a secret band of faithful Christians called Kakure Kirishtan living hidden, wretched lives. They live in hiding and in constant fear of the Inquisitor and his band of cruel enforcers. When caught they are not only asked to denounce Christ but are tortured in ways that are so cruel, you want to look away from the screen.
Those familiar with the life of Christ, and stories from the Bible, know how God tests the faith of the ones who are his nearest and dearest. Father Rodriguez dreams of a picture of Christ and begins to look at his own life as parallel to Christ’s life, his faith is tested at every step. Andrew Garfield cuts a sympathetic figure and scores with the audience in the scene where he gives away his possessions - all the religious symbols: crucifixes, rosary beads et al - to the villagers. The Inquisitor finds new ways of testing the padre’s faith. The faithful are beheaded, drowned and burned and there is not a single scene where you think it is inelegant.
That’s the beauty of Martin Scorsese’s masterful touch. The torture is done with as much dexterity and beauty as the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Sound impossible, but you will not be able to look away from the screen at all. You will watch as the sea fills in crevices and brings in the tide to overwhelm and take away the lives of three faithful who refuse to denounce their God.
‘It took four days for Mokichi to die, but the hymn that he sung before he died lingered on…’
You hear Mokichi sing unfamiliar words, but you watch in despair as the sea slowly consumes him. The movie consumes you just as slowly, but you don’t realise it because you are watching from behind bushes along with the Padres how the Inquisitor offers silver coins to the villagers who will inform on Christians hiding in the village. As the Bible story goes, there is a Judas, and there is betrayal. And the story plays out but not as how you would expect.
Liam Neeson shows up much later in the movie and you are tested even further: You believe that the Son rose three days after crucifixion, but how do you teach this to the Japanese who only know of the one Sun (the one in the sky) and see it and witness it rising every day. Liam Neeson is not in a role where he needs to fight, but you see resignation and you begin to look for that one sign of faith on his furrow forehead just like Padre Rodriguez…
Did thousands perish in reality, as written in the book, valiantly embracing death for promised ‘paraiso’ (paradise)? Could Buddhism - a religion based peace and love - really advocate violence to root out another religion? Can a country really be called a swamp where nothing can take root? Human suffering has been documented in movies like Good Earth, and in war and disaster movies. But here we see an inhuman side of people, systematically break down another’s belief system in order to impose their own and you won’t emerge untouched.
The beauty of any movie that moves you enough to make you think along with the characters, feel for and with the characters, and despair and mourn with the characters cannot simply be chalked off as a 161 minute experience. The despair remains with you much longer than the movie, and even though the director offers you a salve in the end, you begin to look at everything Japanese in a new cruel light. You will not want to eat sushi after the movie, that’s for sure. But you will go down on your knees thankful and grateful that you are living in less uncivilized times.
(this review appears on nowrunning dot com)