1633.  Somewhere in Portugal, a grizzled Monsignor, Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) interviews two eager young priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) about going to Japan.  He says he has decided not to send them, because of the persecutions there.  (The viewer has already been introduced to Christians being tortured if they don’t renounce their faith, a rather gruesome opening sequence, even for Martin Scorsese.)  But the two eager young missionaries beg to go.  They say they want to meet up with their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), because it was he who inspired them to want to go “proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth” in the first place.  Reluctantly, he allows them to try to make contact with Father Ferreira, and build on the work he has already accomplished there.

But of course, what they find there is quite different from what they had envisioned.  Instead of a vibrant Christian community eager to receive them as ambassadors of the Gospel, what they find instead is a new wave of persecutions, with the few beleaguered and harried believers cowering in hovels, afraid to even venture out among their own people, for fear of being reported, and sought out for personal torture.  There are no churches.  There are no happy receptive natives eager to hear “the truth” from these foreigners. 

In fact, what they find is that the few refugee-Christians are indeed glad to see them, to receive the sacrament and hear Mass again, but their meetings are small and pitiful, and the people are pathetically poor.  Worse, our missionary padres didn’t even bother to learn the language.  Oh, they know the Latin of the Mass all right, but they have to find people to speak English with them.  And the only English speakers are the ones who went to the schools that were set up by previous missionaries, who themselves have all disappeared, except for maybe Father Ferreira.  And about him the two eager young priests hear the most disheartening news of all:  he has renounced the faith, gone native, become a Buddhist, and married a Japanese woman.  The young priests tell themselves that surely this rumor must be false.  That can’t be true about their beloved mentor.  If it is true, that would be a sad commentary on their representation of Christianity.

It doesn’t take long before “The Inquisitors” (an ironic play on words, because of The Inquisition in Europe at the time, which was the Catholic Church’s version of rooting out the Protestant apostasy) start hunting down the priests.  The priests separate, to try to insure one of them survives, and for most of the rest of the film we concentrate on Father Rodrigues, as he is captured, interrogated, and encouraged by his captors to renounce his faith, like Father Ferreira before him.  Father Rodrigues vacillates between telling himself to be strong, and beginning to despair of ever being released.  He tries to think about what Jesus would do, and even once thinks he sees in image of Jesus in a reflected pool of water, telling him to keep the faith.  But he feels his resolve weakening, especially as he is forced to watch others tortured until he decides to renounce.

But Japan, in the early 17th century, seems to be a religious swampland, where nothing really takes root, except the incipient Buddhism, which the Catholic priests see as shallow nativism.  This is a long, tortuous look at misplaced zeal on all sides.  We’re set up so that we don’t see a good pathway out, and neither do the characters.  It’s dark and gruesome, even for people who currently consider themselves believers.  For non-believers, it will seem like a nonsensical exercise in monumental and indefensible stubbornness.

Questions for Discussion:

1)      Which religions are eager to make more converts, and which aren’t?

2)      Does any one religion have more truth than the others?

3)      What would you be willing to sacrifice for your convictions?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association