It’s Hard Out Here For An Imperialist

Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ asks moviegoers to side with the spiritual suffering of Westerners over the pain of the Japanese peasants they seek to convert

At my first screening of Silence, George Lucas introduced Martin Scorsese’s new Japan-set spiritual drama at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre by praising it as a film that belongs in the 20th century. Whatever Lucas meant by that, Silence feels far older, even archaic, bemoaning as it does the arduousness of European colonialism. “It’s Hard Out Here for an Imperialist,” the period piece could be subtitled. Or, perhaps: “Sympathy for the White Devil.” That Silence asks its audience to care more about the narcissistic crisis of its Portuguese protagonist than the welfare of the 17th-century Japanese populace is howlingly infuriating and racially insulting.

Silence is a passion project for its director, who has reportedly wanted to adapt Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel for more than two decades. The film follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who set sail for Japan in 1633 to rescue the mistreated Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The Tokugawa regime banned Christianity in the early 17th century, and Silence opens with the torture of professed believers by picturesque scalding springs. It’s been argued by several critics that, with this film, Scorsese has made his very own religious torture porn, à la Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Garfield’s impotent and later imprisoned Father Rodrigues is forced to stand by and watch while Governor and Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata) kills, racks, and threatens converts by the dozens. One Christian village is massacred in full, leaving behind a surreal hamlet of cats. The persecution will stop if Father Rodrigues complies with the inquisitor’s request: Renounce Jesus by stepping on a relief of his image. In an industrial-scale case of racial fridging, the Japanese die while Rodrigues cries. Though he is in tremendous emotional pain, the priest’s dilemma is that of a privileged outsider: Should he care more about the converts’ lives or their souls?

But Silence also makes it extremely hard to care about Rodrigues’s predicament, especially given the larger (and barely acknowledged) colonial context in which the story takes place. Rodrigues is a caricature of an imperialist: He and Driver’s Father Garrpe sneak into Japan with seemingly no knowledge of the language or culture, but full of the conviction that their religion holds the key to their deliverance. Rodrigues calls Japan “the ends of the Earth” and doesn’t bat an eye when Japanese Christians introduce themselves as Monica and Juan. “They live like beasts and die like beasts,” Rodrigues writes to his superior (Ciarán Hinds), echoing the idea of the white man’s burden — a worldview that justified colonialism by portraying non-European lands as “backward” and thus in need of European salvation. To rise from beasthood to personhood, so goes classic colonial thinking, the colonized have to reject their own cultures and think, act, and worship like the colonizers. Part and parcel of this Orientalist discourse that divides the world into East and West is the assertion that non-European peoples are ruled by cruel tyrants — whose planned overthrow not-so-coincidentally dovetails with the colonial project of building imperial bureaucracies in their stead.

Silence isn’t as arrogant as its protagonist. Scorsese and Jay Cocks’s screenplay is cognizant enough for one of the Japanese officials to decry Rodrigues’s colonial fantasy as a “selfish dream.” In one of his few moments of self-awareness, the padre wails, “If we [the Portuguese] left, [the converts] might still be alive.” But the point remains that we’re asked to empathize with, if not necessarily root for, a character who represents one of the purest exemplars of European colonialism. It’s nearly impossible to muster up compassion for a character who essentially wants to raze a culture and a society he doesn’t know the first thing about — and has no interest in learning anything about, either. (For his cultural hubris, he’s punished by the film’s end, forcefully assimilated through the adoption of a Japanese name and family and employed to keep Christian objects out of Japan.)

The Portuguese and the Spanish (one of the other colonialist hopefuls mentioned in the film) voyaged elsewhere in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Their most famous destination was the Americas, where the Iberians were party to genocide, enslavement, exploitation, and resource extraction. There aren’t very many contemporary narratives lamenting the conquistadors’ difficulties in “taming” the natives, and for good reason. Silence shouldn’t get a moral pass in its misguided attempts to direct our sympathies toward Rodrigues just because an accident of history prevented the West from colonizing Japan the way it did, say, Vietnam and the Philippines. (Many scholars see Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 “opening” of Japan to trade under military threat as an extension of the Western colonial project, but that’s another discussion.) The more the inquisitor’s kill count rises over the film’s 161-minute running time, the more Rodrigues becomes — rather than complex or layered — incensing for sticking his nose where it never belonged.

But just because Silence is more woke than Rodrigues doesn’t mean the film still doesn’t read like classic Orientalism. That’s in large part because the film subscribes — intentionally or not — to an imperial map with a well-intentioned (if not always successful) West and a mostly barbaric East comprised of Christian sheep and their heathen slaughterers. In an early torture scene, Scorsese alternates between close-ups of the Portuguese priests and wide shots of the Japanese. There couldn’t be an apter summary of the way Silence sees its characters: the mostly anonymous Japanese and the much more sharply defined Westerners.

The Japanese character that gets closest to resembling a real person is the inquisitor, the kind of campy comic-relief figure you can easily imagine grinning as a man is sawed in two in front of him (so not actually a real person at all). The inquisitor exemplifies Silence’s colonialist tendencies, particularly in its depiction of Japan as a country of aestheticized, unreasonable savagery. The rulers aren’t just brutish; they’re savants of creative sadism. (We’re repeatedly shown examples of intricate, near-fanciful torture, such as the slow pouring of boiling water on victims’ chests and the slow-drip of blood through a cut behind the ear while victims are hung upside down — both tactics to elongate suffering.) More importantly, the fact that we’re never given a reason for the harsh persecution of Christians — such as the threat the foreign religion may pose to national unity — render the inquisitor and his advisers a pack of effete but vicious predators, rather than rational administrators cornered into ruthless measures that their real-life counterparts very well may have been.

And, of course, the Catholic Church was itself responsible for all sorts of blood-curdling brutalities during the Spanish Inquisition and in colonial ventures across Asia, Africa, and the Americas. But don’t expect Father Rodrigues to experience any cognitive dissonance about that — he’s too busy thinking about how hard his mission is to ponder the hardships these missions have caused for others. And the film never really questions the priest’s right to proselytize in a country that’s opted for cultural self-determination instead of foreign infiltration — only the sacrifices of doing so.

Silence might have felt less like a colonial artifact if it were more interested in humanizing, rather than othering, its Japanese characters. The film does wallop the priests for their utter ignorance about the country they’ve entered illegally, but it doesn’t have much curiosity about Japan, either. There’s a compelling tension inherent to the plot between the need to bolster cultural unity for political stability’s sake and the desirability of new ideas, perspectives, and spiritualities (a debate the U.S. is wrestling with right now). But because the film focuses so intently on the deformities of Japanese civilization (especially its governance), rather than its logic and its inequities, we never really know, for example, why the Japanese peasants took so quickly to their syncretized version of Christianity or what it consisted of. (The converts continue worshipping in Buddhist temples — or so they tell officials.) Compare Silence with Chinua Achebe’s classic post-colonial text Things Fall Apart — also premised on the arrival of European missionaries, this time in Nigeria. Achebe’s novel writes against Western imperialism by giving voice to Nigerians, specifically by explaining why some Igbo tribe members embraced Anglicanism instead of their native belief system.

In his interpretation of an originally Japanese story, Scorsese does the opposite by retrenching the people whose work he’s translating as the Other. As film critic Jen Yamato writes, the Italian-American director adapts the book “without granting the Japanese Christians or their tormentors the full breadth of [religious or socioeconomic] context and complexity that Endo wrote into his novel.” Thus, Scorsese continues a centuries-long tradition of colonial imagining that paints non-Westerners as barbarous, irrational, and in need of Western enlightenment. It’s galling enough that Scorsese’s Silence asks us to reserve most of our compassion for an archetypal imperialist in the 21st century after history has judged modern European colonialism a vile cruelty — especially in a cinematic landscape already stuffed with white saviors. “Why did they have to suffer so much?” Father Rodrigues repeatedly asks, when we should learn instead who the sufferers are and why they’re willing to undergo far more than the priest ever has to endure.

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