After years of development hell, Martin Scorsese's Silence finally has a release date. The film will have a limited run on 23rd December in order to qualify for Oscar contention, before opening wide in early January. Although nobody has seen the film yet, the mere fact that Martin Scorsese is involved means that the movie — starring Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver — has a serious chance of getting some Oscar nominations. His last film, Wolf of Wall Street had five nominations, whilst Hugo, the one before that, had eleven: winning five. He even won best Picture in 2006 for The Departed.
A lifelong Catholic, some of Scorsese's best films deal with the nature of religion and faith — such as Who's That Knocking at My Door, Mean Streets, The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and Bringing Out The Dead. Even his less overtly religious films, such as The Departed and Goodfellas, are based upon characters for whom being a Catholic is an everyday fact of life. His deeply felt analysis of religious themes puts him on a par with Dreyer, Bresson and Bergman as one of the most important religious directors of all time.
With movies of faith recently so often relegated to the arena of common-denominator propaganda such as God's Not Dead, the return of Scorsese to this subject will be highly welcomed by those looking for a more adult approach to religious themes. But is Silence based on a true story? Let's find out.
Catholicism In Japan
Silence is based upon the eponymously titled novel by Shūsaku Endō, a Japanese Catholic who was moved to write it by his own experiences of religious discrimination. He based the story on the real events in 17th Century Japan in which Catholics were driven underground by the Japanese authorities, the religion officially outlawed and punishable by torture and death. The novel is set in 1639, when the hunt for illegal priests was at its height. Yet in order to understand why the religion was seen as so dangerous to the Japanese way of life, it is important to go back to when it started in the country with;
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Francis Xavier's Arrival
Francis Xavier, along with Ignatius of Loyola, is one of the main co-founders of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. The mission of the Jesuits was to go out into the world and spread and teach the word of Christ. There rationale for this, was to stop people from dying in sin and preventing them from going to hell. Xavier travelled all throughout South and East Asia in order to convert the local peoples, before arriving in Japan in July 1549. At first he found it difficult to land, but was finally allowed to dock his ship in Kagoshima. As a representative of the King of Portugal he was received warmly by the people there.
When Xavier would preach he used a couple of clever tricks in order to breach the language barrier. He brought with him pictures of the Madonna and the Madonna and Child. Not impressed with the European model of religious poverty, Xavier would deck himself out in finery to woo the Japanese people. After two years, he considered his mission a success and left Jesuit priests there to succeed him and spread the word. By 1579, there were around 130,000 converts.
The Persecution of Catholicism
Nevertheless, the Jesuit mission was not one just motivated by religion, but was part of the global desire of the Portuguese to increase trade links and to possibly increase their empire, as had happened with the Spanish in the nearby Philippines. These concerns led Toyotomi Hideyoshi, imperial regent of Japan, and unifier of the country, to ban Catholicism in 1587. This ban, known in Japanese as the "Bateren-tsuiho-rei", led to many Christians in the era becoming martyrs. 26 Christians were executed by crucifixion in Nagasaki in 1597, and in 1632 another 55 were killed. An estimated 1000 Christians were supposed to have been killed throughout the missionary period.
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In order to find out if someone was a Catholic or not, the Japanese authorities would use pictures of the Virgin Mary and of Christ. Putting them on the ground, they would order suspected Catholics to step on them to renounce their religion. If they didn't they would be tortured, and if they still didn't reject their faith they would be executed on Mount Unzen. The novel Silence uses this trick as a key plot device, with Fr. Rodrigues being told to step on the pictures in order to save his people; leading to a struggle between his personal faith and the fate of his people.
This persecution drove many Catholics underground, leading to what is known as;
'The Hidden Christians'
Similar to Catholics under the British rule of Elizabeth I, those Catholics developed a series of secret practices in order to continue their faith away from the watchful eye of the Japanese Authorities. They were known in Japan as the Kakure Kirishitans. In conjunction with priests who remained in Japan illegally, they practiced Mass in secret rooms, reshaping their figurines of the Virgin Mary and the saints to resemble those of Buddha.
Developing a strong oral tradition, the teachings of the Bible were passed from father to son, mother to daughter, allowing the religion to survive and largely without the help of the Jesuits for over 250 years. They were discovered after 1853, when envoy to Japan Matthew Perry (no, not the guy from Friends) re-opened the country to foreign interaction. Upon hearing this, Pope Pius IX called it a miracle. Pressure from the West eventually led the ban to be lifted in 1873. There are now around 500,000 Catholics residing in Japan today, a remarkable achievement considering the persecution Catholics once faced. Martin Scorsese sure has an incredible story on his hands.