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Scorsese's Silence Is A Movie About Race As Well As Religion

11/01/2017 12:04 GMT | Updated 11/01/2017 12:04 GMT

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(Photo: Andrew Garfield and Yosuke Kubozuka in Silence, courtesy of Paramount)

Martin Scorsese's new epic Silence is an exploration of belief, faith, and religion (specifically Catholic Christianity), within the context of a hostile environment - the seventeenth century suppression of Christianity in Japan.

However, there is also a much more important theme to the movie - one which is hidden in plain sight. Scorsese's Silence is a twenty-first century exploration of race and empire. The viewer is required to ask the difficult question of why would two white Portuguese Jesuit men feel it necessary to risk their own and others' lives for the spread of their religion among the Japanese.

Silence is a faithful adaptation of a book (of the same name) that Scorsese first read over two decades ago, by the Catholic Japanese writer Shusaku Endo. It tells the story of a young priest (Father Sebastian Rodrigues), seeking both a mission and martyrdom on the far edge of Asia, during a time of harsh punishments of Christians by the recently centralised Japanese state.

However, there is a fundamental difference between a book written in Japanese for a Japanese audience and a film written in English for consumption mainly in north America and Europe. Despite his meticulous exploration of the complex themes of Endo's writing on faith and Christianity in Japan, the western audience will read the message of Scorsese's version of the story through their own particular historical perspective.

That is, the film is about early European colonialism in Asia - whether we look at it in narrowly 'religious' terms, or otherwise.

Thus, although Endo's Japanese novel is about reclaiming a hidden Christian history within Japan, this film serves more to educate a western audience about a forgotten element of the spread of Jesuit-based Catholicism in East Asia.

The presence of Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield) and his companion Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) in Japan might be motivated by their faith. But they are also part of an army of Christian missionaries who represented, relied on, and also advanced the colonial and commercial interests of the Portuguese empire. And the Portuguese (along with other European colonialists) were themselves ready to use violence to achieve their aims, when necessary.

Thus, although the Jesuits in this film are shown in a suffering context, the film could also be seen as an unsympathetic account of Japan's successful historical resistance to European colonialism and domination during this time.

However, this is not the issue that Scorsese wants us to dwell on. His narrative is more focused on the young and idealistic Rodrigues and his struggle with his faith. The priest enters a situation in which he expects danger, torture, and quite possibly death and then he tries to build his faith from this suffering.

Always ahead of Rodrigues is the image of his teacher and mentor, Fr Chistavao Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson), who is rumoured to have refused martyrdom and instead accepted apostasy -- a public refutation of his Christian faith to become a Buddhist. Although the character of Rodrigues is fictional, the bones of Ferreira's story are historical.

Within this path to either martyrdom or apostasy is not merely the Jesuit's fear of torture. Rodrigues also has to take responsibility for the torture and death of those who he is meant to be serving (and saving) -- that is, the hidden Christians of Japan. To what extent can a European Jesuit priest reconcile his self glorification in martyrdom and refusal to 'apostatise' against the pain and suffering inflicted on others because of him? By renouncing his faith does he save or abandon those others.

To Scorsese, this is primarily a matter of faith and theology - it is an exploration of the morality and piety of a man of faith. But it is much more than this. Indeed, in this case the religious is the political.

There is no pure kernel of theology in this narrative, it is about both an individual man's and a European empire's ideas of religion, race, and power. It is about the connection between white male European identity and Catholic Christianity within a seemingly alien environment.

Rodrigues enters this narrative with a clear aim to be a white saviour of souls. Indeed, he finds his most satisfying role when providing his priestly services to Japanese Christians held in a Nagasaki prison, where the threat of their torture and execution is ever present.

And so, Silence's story cannot simply be reduced to one particular person's faith, finding his path through the silence and the voice of god -- despite the best intentions of the director.

It is also a film about the historical problems of a European empire and the intersections of race and religion.