Set in the 17th century, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play a pair of Portuguese priests who go to Japan as missionaries in search of their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who was last seen there several years earlier. When in Japan they find a community of peasants who have continued to practice Christianity covertly since it was outlawed.
I found this film deeply troubling. It seems unlikely that a film would be made on the side of the original missionaries who arrived in Japan to set about converting people, yet this film’s protagonists are simply continuing this line of work. It attempts to circumnavigate this uncomfortable fact by presenting them as the saviours of a persecuted Christian minority, without addressing the root cause of this religious division: the missionaries themselves.
The pair arrive and the impoverished community they find are desperate for a priest to perform their ceremonies and hear their confessions. Rather than teaching them to be spiritually self-sufficient, in true Catholic tradition they remain the sole gatekeepers of the truth. Not only this, but the two characters adhere to an interpretation of Christianity in which belief in God and Jesus, and never publicly stating disbelief (even if you retain your faith) is more important than any earthly benefit, including escaping torture or having your loved ones killed before your eyes. For someone who believes that this life is all we can be sure we have, promoting these kinds of views to desperate peasants is not admirable, it’s criminal.
The antagonists are an inquisition that seeks to force Christians to deny their faith through torture, much as the Catholic Church was doing to people of other religions and none in Europe at the time. What’s more, with Christians at the time engaged in invading, converting and robbing countries around the world, the Japanese authorities clearly have a strong justification for wanting to keep Christianity at bay, even if their methods are unpleasant.
The first two hours essentially consist of increasingly arduous tests of the missionaries’ faith. A religion that sees martyrdom as the ultimate virtue is likely to end up with a lot of blood on its hands, which is evidenced thoroughly here. There’s certainly a lot of evidence against Christianity – what’s troubling is that it doesn’t appear to be intended that way.
I’m sure much of this is very powerful to a believer, but as an atheist it left me feeling cold inside, and I found it difficult to escape the conclusion that a lot of the problems would be solved if the missionaries just left the island. Andrew Garfield’s Rodriguez is outraged when the Japanese try to convert him, oblivious to hypocrisy. It’s certainly possible to make a film with sympathetic characters whose ends you don’t share; but to work for a secular audience they can’t just be religious fundamentalists. I guess it’s what you expect from a Mel Gibson film. What was that? It’s directed by Martin Scorsese? That’s a shame.
The final act brings in some much-needed nuance, and some genuinely interesting and thought-provoking conversations. This, the splendid cinematography, and the performances, particularly from Garfield, are the film’s saving graces. But it was too little too late for me. Two hours of fire and brimstone, and an undercurrent of pro-Christian zealotry that runs right to the film’s end, feels unnecessary and heavy-handed. For all its spirituality it has little humanity, which is the essence of good drama.