The film did address the subject matter well, and Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver did a very good job conveying the devoted yet ultimately doomed Jesuit priests making their way to Nagasaki (or Bizen province) in the early 1600s to find out the fate of a Father Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson), a Jesuit who is reported to have abandoned his faith in the face of interrogation and torture at the hands of provincial officials. The film (and original novel) take place in the aftermath of the Shimabara Rebellion, a Christian inspired uprising (covered in this blog) by lower caste samurai and peasants against Bakufu rule. The rebellion itself was brutally crushed, which was in part a response to the nearly two centuries of warfare that Japan had been subjected to in which religion had played a role in prolonging and intensifying the conflict. Given that the Christian (or more accurately, Catholic) population of the Shimabara peninsula acted in defiance on central rule, the Tokugawa Bakufu was in no mood to compromise with what were regarded as lower caste rebels with affiliations with foreign powers (i.e., Portugal and Spain) and which might ultimately undermine the relative stability that the Tokugawa had imposed on Japan.
Of course the historical threads behind the edict banning the teaching of Christianity in Japan are diverse and originate further back into sixteenth century Japanese history. As to whether the average person would be aware of this background when they watch the film is unknown, but I think the context behind the novel needs to be understood if one is to get the most out of watching the film. There is a very good element of suspense and danger hanging in the air throughout the film, as you the viewer are made aware of just what sort of risk these Jesuits are taking in attempting to preserve the Christian faith of those Japanese who still consider themselves Christian and who carry out masses and confessions in secret. Discovery can be fatal, although it does seem somewhat odd that it is the Kakure Kirishitan who undergo a majority of the suffering in the film. The existence of Catholic priests in Nagasaki, in defiance of a Bakufu edict, would itself be a cause for execution, yet these priests are kept alive and questioned, and (at least in the case of Father Rodrigues) are persuaded to apostatize .
While I can see the logic behind using former priests to persuade other Christians to abandon their faith, we (the viewers) have no idea whether this strategy actually worked, and so we are left to draw our own conclusion about its efficacy. What we are really meant to focus on is how, having abandoned their faith, these former priests have become shadows of their former selves, broken in spirit and resigned to living out their days in a land that views them with suspicion. Without giving too much away, the film also illustrates to how faith can sustain one in the most trying of circumstances and what one sacrifices in order to keep their faith. It is a profoundly spiritual film, however by running in at nearly 3 hours in length, only those who wish to learn the fate of its main characters will watch it through to its conclusion. It can be ponderous at times, and visceral in its depiction of torture, but that violence is necessary to convey the dangers present and the degree of courage necessary to transcend it.
If I have a particular gripe about the film (apart from its length), it is the fact that you have supposed Portuguese priests speaking English but pretending they are speaking Portuguese (although they do have accents!). While the Japanese cast deliver much of their dialogue in English (which, again, is supposed to be Portuguese), the Japanese that they do use is very much in the modern vernacular. Not that there is anything wrong with this. If they spoke in the language of officialdom of the mid-seventeenth century, most contemporary Japanese viewers would have a hard time understanding what they were saying. The use of English is a bit jarring, but then again the film wasn’t sponsored by Portuguese backers or featured Portuguese actors so I suppose they could speak in whatever language they wish.
The film is ultimately worth watching, just don’t have anything urgent to do while you do so.