Directed by Martin Scorsese
In 1640 two young Portuguese Jesuits, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) make a journey into hostile Japan in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira, a missionary who is rumoured to have apostatised – renounced his faith – and gone native. They want to prove the rumour wrong. Bright-eyed and (in the case of Garfield) bushy-haired they set off, but soon become separated, and the story settles on Rodrigues, who along with his Judas-like guide Kichijiro (Kobazuka Yosote) enters the lives of secretly-Catholic peasants. But Kichijiro is a serial apostate, and has soon betrayed Rodrigues and his pious followers. Following long marches and imprisonments and hideous tortures and deaths, the priest’s ultimate dilemma is that the authorities demand his apostacy to save the peasants from more suffering. His faith becomes a bargaining tool.
The Japanese are slickly efficient at their putting down of Christianity. But we shouldn’t feel too superior – during much of the previous 100-year period Englishmen had been burning people alive and dragging their guts out because their version of Christianity differed marginally from their own. And the Japanese rulers had a political point too – either intuition or knowledge of the wider world may have taught them that hastening along just behind that message of Christian Love came its ugly brother, Imperialism. They preferred to take their trade pure, on their own terms, as we see at the end of the film.
But it’s Rodrigues we’re centred on, and Scorsese’s attempt to make the priest one of his tortured heroes gets woefully (and literally) bogged down in the long marches and enforced imprisonments during which he is forced to see his people so mistreated. While clearly enjoying the opportunity to pay homage to the landscape of his beloved Japanese classics, Scorsese seems to have lost his narrative knack, and however much pain there is, however much anguish Andrew Garfield can twist his face into, it becomes a bit – dare I say it? – repetitive and, well, boring. Not helped by the regular popping back of Kichijiro asking forgiveness for yet one more betrayal. What we are interested in with Rodrigues, and presumably this is the theme of the film, is the nature of faith, what exactly is the impulse that sends a man into such danger, and what makes a martyr. This issue is raised when, calling on his god to help, he sees in his own reflection a vision of Christ’s face. Is this a miracle, showing Christ’s support, or is it a kind of narcissism that makes the priest feel he himself is Christ?
This is a question reiterated by Father Ferreiro (Liam Neeson) when the film actually gets interesting again. Because Ferreiro has indeed renounced his faith, and it’s his confrontation with Rodrigues that actually verbalises the dilemma, questioning whether, in a religion where symbols and objects and rituals are so laden with importance, outward profession of the love of God should always override love for his creations.
Rodrigues makes his decision, and is forever afterwards diminished, like Goodfellas’ sparky Henry Hill living in suburban witness protection. But it seems despite the anguish and the pain, we have never truly done the journey with him. Scorsese had this film project in mind for 23 years, and maybe that was too long, too thought-about, to convey its potential power as fresh as you expect from such a director.
Seen at Tyneside Cinema January 2017