“Message” films can be very tough. They often come across as exploitive or heavy-handed. Masahiro Shinoda’s 1971 film is sort of a message film. At least it starts that way. Silence follows the plight of two priests (“Padres”) in 17th century Japan as they deal with violent Christian persecution by the Japanese ruling class.
Before I talk more about some other elements, I want to go back to the words exploitive and heavy-handed. What is an exploitive film? Well, obviously, one that exploits. Generally speaking, an exploitation film is one that takes a subject, topic, theme, etc and exploits it for purposes of sales, message, etc. So-called “exploitation films” (a rather vague term) are commonly known as films that exploit sexuality (mostly) and violence (frequently) to pander to a specific crowd.
Heavy-handedness is something else entirely. I had a conversation with a friend recently after watching Black Swan. He disliked the film, saying it was heavy-handed. I disagreed and he brought up a film that I often cite as heavy-handed – Crash (the Haggis film, not the Cronenberg). So what is heavy-handedness? Over-reliance on symbols? In some cases. Using the narrative/story elements to reinforce a theme one too many times? I think so. Dialogue that is too “on the nose”? Definitely. I dislike Crash largely for the latter two reasons. I found that every narrative element reflected the global racism theme too much (despite the fact that “that’s the point,”) and that all dialogue seemed too obvious and, in fact, not believable for that reason. Now I can see the same argument for Black Swan: all elements point to Natalie Portman’s obsessiveness, much of the dialogue reflects this, etc. The difference for me is that one (Crash) deals with a very specific topic, where the other (Black Swan) is dealing with an emotional/psychological state that is far broader.
Back to Silence. The first 100 minutes – of the 129 total – feel very heavy-handed. The dialogue, though refreshingly sparse at times, is generally far too candid and lacking any subtext. But far worse than that is the overwhelming amount of Christian imagery that any familiar with any form of Christianity is sure to pick up on. At times it seems Shinoda is trying to be subtle and simply failing (a mangled ear) where other times it can be nothing but obvious and intentionally so (three crosses in the ocean). It’s a fine line. Shinoda’s Japanese rulers are clearly aware of Christian iconography and they use it as mockery in torturing the Christians. These usages – narratively embedded – didn’t bother me. It’s those other ones, where the lead actor is constantly, through simple appearance and actions, portrayed as a Jesus figure. It gets old fast. Symbols are fine, and in fact, often quite effective, but the skilled director must determine at what point they have reached their full potential and the film is better served with good old-fashioned plot development.
Unfortunately, the print of Silence was dubbed. I hate dubbing. Everyone should hate dubbing. It’s therefore difficult to give a full criticism of the acting, but, dubbing aside as much as possible, I really dislike the performance of the lead and some of Shinoda’s direction to him. His line deliveries felt forced and rarely hit the correct dramatic note. The most egregious error – laughable, in fact – throughout the film, is the lead actor’s screams. He is constantly making sudden shifts from a calm demeanor to over-the-top screams at something or other. It’s comical. His screams are ridiculous (whether dubbed or not: his facial expressions are the same). It feels false and detracts from what could be a nice build or a tensely quiet moment.
There is, however, some good in Silence. The last 25 minutes get much more interesting. I often dislike films where everyone and everything is so black and white. That is to say good=pure good and evil=pure evil, and that only. This is the case for the majority of Silence and it gets tiresome. I was praying (eh?) that Shinoda would introduce a character who is not a persecuted Christian or an evil Japanese persecutor. In short, give me a complex character. Finally at the end a new priest is introduced. He has been in Japan for 20+ years and he has given up the faith. At first he fits firmly and annoyingly into this black and white category. He’s now evil Japanese – he’s even given a Japanese name. But gradually his multi-faceted nature is revealed.
SPOILER here: at the moment of the main character’s (whose name I clearly forget and imdb is no help) “denial” of Christianity there is a reaction shot to our “complex priest.” His face is not one of triumph, as are the other captors’ faces. His is one of pain. His conversion is perhaps not real. And this is reinforced through the lead priest’s own retraction of faith. Earlier in the film he states that he plans to be a martyr, and he means to do as much through his death. He ultimately revokes his faith in order to save others from torture, becoming another kind of martyr altogether. He goes, it is implied, the same way as the other, already-“converted” priest.
Shinoda does create some magnificent scenes and one in particular comes to mind. In a rather intense moment our protagonist looks into a courtyard from a jail cell. In the courtyard are two Christians being tortured. The man is buried up to his neck. While the woman watches, the Japanese captor releases a horse which gallops back and forth, coming precipitously close to the buried man’s head. It’s a great setup for tension and Shinoda does not let it go to waste. His shot selection here is smart and appropriate, cutting between reaction shots of the man in the ground who remains calm, the woman who is on the breaking point (it is she who can save him by renouncing), the priest who is powerless, and the captors who watch the scene in glee while also noting the reactions of the Christians. Another shot puts the camera on the ground with the buried man’s head in the foreground and the horse in the background, further emphasizing the size of the animal and the impending danger. The scene is expertly cut and framed and all elements work together to build the tension to a boiling point. It’s fantastic.
I won’t spend much time on these, but there are a few other interesting, directorial moments to note. This is outside of the script. One specific scene is where the two priests – the renounced priest and the soon-to-renounce priest – debate. At the end of their argument there is a change in focus – a rack focus. One would expect that the rack would be from one priest to the next. Instead, the focus changes past them and, in an unorthodox move, leaves them soft and puts the background sharp. The background is of a Buddhist statue. Is this foreshadow? Irony? I think both, and very well-played.