This is the second time Liam Neeson has played a 17th century Jesuit priest, but this is a far cry from his role in The Mission. The film opens with him watching his fellows being tortured for refusing to recant their faith. Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield were his students, inspired to follow him to persecution. They re told he has vanished, so their proposed journey to Japan where Christianity has been outlawed is futile. They will likely die before they learn of his fate. But they have faith, they must go.
They arrive in a Japan which is a far cry from the modern one: bleak, muddy, almost perpetually raining. The young priests are smuggled into a small village where they have to hide from the authorities for their own safety and for that of their small but devoted group of followers. They are helped by a man who saw his family executed for being true to their faith, refusing to step on an icon of Christ, a piece of history that Yoko Ono has made use of in her art.
It is a long, gruelling film, and the arguments made by the Japanese against foreign missionaries drift into colonial empire bashing – almost. But there is so much brutality shown by the Japanese it makes you realise part of the willingness of converts to die for their faith is that their lives were so horrible they seem to have been left with no reason to live. Which echoes the origin of Christianity itself. Redemption through suffering.
A friend gave up on this film -she couldn’t cope with it and it is a hard piece to watch. But it raises a lot of very deep and challenging concepts about faith, community, and self sacrifice. The priests are ordered to apostatise, but when they refuse, they are forced to watch the torture of their followers. You are forced to confront ideas about why they held fast, the agonies of the priests when told the peasants were not dying for Christ but for them.
At the end, I was struck with a thought – didn’t Christ sacrifice himself so that his followers would not have to? And it makes me wonder if there is anything so important that I would die for. We live in a world largely without faith, and yet the recent bomb attacks show that there are still many among us who risk their lives for what they believe is their faith. The people who rushed to help others show a different type of faith – faith in others, in community, in humanity as a whole, not some higher being.
I remember years ago news footage of a bomb exploding at a funeral in an Irish cemetery. Some people rushed towards the blast, others retreated. Nobody stood still. There was no middle, no neutral space. I often wonder how I would behave. This is an incredible film, but not for the faint hearted. And watch it to the very end.