As a lapsed Catholic I’m always keen on a tale that documents the folly, arrogance and optimism of religious conversion and missionary zeal, especially in a colonial setting. Also, I like Japanese food and Scorsese pictures so what could go wrong?
Not much as it turns out, though apart from a tea ceremony and some less than desirable snacks things are pretty grim on the catering front. There is, however, a smorgasbord of torture techniques to enjoy as this epic unfurls, a crucifixion in the surf amongst them. But 17th century Japan wasn’t fertile ground for Jesus, and in this film, the specific set of skills possessed by Liam Neeson’s Father Ferreira doesn’t include successfully converting more than a few hundred souls before losing his religion.
Sent to rescue him from the heathens and his apostasy are two fervent young Jesuit priests, played with naïve intensity by Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-man) and Adam Driver (Girls), but the show is well and truly stolen by the wonderful Issei Ogata as the Samurai inquisitor, possibly the most reasonable torturer in cinema history. Through him we get closer to understanding why the Japanese had no truck for this introduced spiritual species. He’s also the only flicker of comedy in this slow moving religious western.
Scorsese’s take on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel basks in the rhythm and rhyme of Catholicism and doesn’t bludgeon with sermon. But nor does it have the charm or power of his best work. It reminded me of a rosary: repetitive, a little boring, but also calming and mesmerising. It’s a punishing journey to be sure, but if you can handle a marathon, that’s also the beauty of it. You’ll want it to end, until it does.