One thing for sure, director/screenwriter Martin Scorsese sure knows how to push the religious hot buttons. From his controversial The Last Temptation of Christ to Kundun, Scorsese (a lapsed Roman Catholic himself) has decided to go after another controversial and faith-based-book-to-movie again, this one from the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo.
We start with feudal Japan circa 1639 and something very bad. Looks like the Japanese hierarchy don’t like the Christian ‘padres’ coming to their islands and converting their Buddhist population over to Christianity. In fact, they’ve outlawed it and any priest caught is tortured to the point of public “apostasy” (renouncing their faith). News reaches Portugal that learned Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has done apostasy in light of his fellow pupils being tortured and crucified by the Japanese Inquisitor, Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata). The only way to tell if these rumors are true is to go to Japan and find out, and two eager priests are willing: Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver)
The two reach Japan, with the help of Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), an drunk fisherman who lives only for himself. At the village of Tomogi, the priests find the local Christian population driven underground, scared to death of the Inquisitor who visits to find and kill any Christians. After arriving and doing what they can, Rodrigues and Garupe split up to save as many souls as they can: Garupe leaves for Hirado, and Rodrigues goes to Goto, the last place Ferreira lived, only to find it abandoned. Facing a personal crisis, Rodrigues wanders around Goto as he struggles over whether he is self-centered and unmerciful and if the people are suffering because of God or him.
He eventually reunites with Kichijiro, but after seeing a reflection of Christ in a stream as his own, he is betrayed like Judas, and captured by samurai. Imprisoned and forced to see hardship and pain all around him, the Inquisitor mocks him and his religion using The Interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) as a sorta devil-ish liaison. Inoue, the Inquisitor, tells Rodrigues that other captured Christians there will die unless he commits apostasy. Inoue even ups the ante by showing him Father Ferreira, who now goes by Sawano Chūan. Looks like Ferreira committed apostasy while being tortured and now lives as a Buddhist monk and denouncing Christianity. Gasp! Rodrigues still won’t bend or comply, even at the sight of others being beheaded.
But his breaking point comes when he is forced to watch five others die slowly, unless he steps on a plaque of Jesus Christ, committing apostasy. Hearing the words of Jesus himself, he capitulates and saves their lives, but loses his faith in the process. His faith broken, Rodrigues must now accept his fate as a fallen priest and render to the Japanese Inquisitor and his law. The third act is a sad epilogue to Rodrigues’ life and his forced work with Ferreira to hunt down any religious artifacts flowing into Japan, but deep-down inside he remains faithful to God, despite his apostasy.
Adapted by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, jr (Gangs of New York, The Age of Innocence) and clocking in at almost 3 hours, this is perhaps Scorsese’s most religious film to date, with a heavy Christian/Catholic theme running through it. Most remarkable is the script that does not paint these priests as dregs, pedophiles, idiots, scum, or some sickos that many other films like to do. These are caring, loving, peace-keeping men who only want to bring the word of God to others, but clearly at the wrong time and place. Even more remarkable is the passion and internal struggle that Rodrigues has of keeping and maintaining his faith (as many of us go through) when all around tells him differently. Garfield (who found God because of this movie) conveys this in a brutally honest and heart-breaking performance; Driver does his best as well, but looks overwhelmed.
Japanese actors Kubozuka, Asano, and especially the Inquisitor (Ogata) are just amazing and, in many scenes, outshine the American counterparts. Although it’s supposed to be in Japan, the movie was shot in Taiwan and looks beautiful, but I have to warn you, the R-rating is there for a good reason. There are a few gut-wrenching, disturbing scenes of torture and decapitation that are very difficult to watch, thanks to Scorsese and his penchant for blood flow. But the acting here is nothing less than first-rate and the story, if you’re of the religious persuasion, is very gripping and thought provoking.
The Mission (1986)
Jesuit priests whipping religion on a race of people that have no idea what or who Jesus or God is can be a tricky situation, just ask the indigenous Guarani Indians of South America in 1748. They kinda got the wrong idea and crucify a priest on a makeshift log and toss him over a local Argentinian falls. That’s on the movie poster, BTW.
The Spanish have the idea to bring Christianity to these Guarani’s in order to ‘civilize them’ (like they need it) and in doing so, bring them only pain and suffering. Enter Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) who, by any means, is going to build a mission in the Guarani community. Initially, the warriors sluff him off as an oddity, but them come to embrace his strange and spiritual ways. With the help of fellow priest John Fielding (Liam Neeson), they teach the people there, but run into a snag: a merciless mercenary and slave trader named Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert DeNiro) who kills and sells Guarani for the Spanish and Portuguese.
But after Mendoza murders his own brother in a fit of anger and jealousy, he resigns himself to die in jail, that is until Father Gabriel convinces him to repent and reconcile for his murder. How? Become a Jesuit! Mendoza, through deep heart and soul-searching does just that, but not without painful sacrifice and having to eat crow when confronted by his old slave-trading boss, Spanish Governor Don Cabeza (Chuck Low). Situations get worse when the Cardinal himself shows up and argues that the Guarani people are savages and ALL of their land (rich in goodies) is now Spanish land! “No! It’s Portuguese land!” say the Portuguese!
Sides are chosen and a war is eminent, and worst yet, if the Jesuit’s side with the Indians, their order will be denounced! Yikes! Who will win? The hundreds of local and lethal Guarani or them sneaky Spanish and Portuguese bastards with their own WMD? Doubly worse for Gabriel and Mendoza who prepare to fight with ‘their people’, in the name of God, knowing that they are facing their own demise. While Mendoza sets up booby traps, Father Fielding leads the enemy away in a wild goose chase, sacrificing himself as a pawn, while Father Gabriel says an outdoor mass during a mass slaughter. No, it does not end well for anyone.
Robert Bolt wrote the Oscar nominated screenplay (and you can see why) and Roland Joffe directed the hell out of this movie (he got a Best Director nom) with a tight grip and a no-nonsense attitude. The picture, shot on location in the beautiful and lush jungles of Columbia, Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, are just breath-taking and beats any CGI background. Based on the true story of The Treaty of Madrid, this depressing tale shows man’s ultimate need for greed in taking what isn’t theirs by any means possible. Sound familiar, hmmmmm? The cast is fantastic with Irons, DeNiro, and Neeson (who’s also in Silence) being so effortless in their acting they make it look easy. And the Guarani local people are excellent as extras!