Saint Mel Gibson of the Masochists, pray for me.

So I recently watched Martin Scorcese’s latest film, Silence, about two Jesuit priests who go to Japan to find and rescue their mentor during a period of Christian persecution there.

First off, spoiler alert for the films The Mission and Silence.

Also, on a personal note, having lived in Japan for nearly two years, where I actually started to get back into going to Mass, I had to try my hardest not to swoon over the nostalgia it induced in me which possibly coloured my view of the film.  Below is a trailer for it off of Youtube.

That being said, I found it interesting that I left the theater with really different impressions of the film than my girlfriend who wasn’t raised Catholic like I was.  Being the New York-Irish Mel Gibsonesque Masochistic Catholic that I am, I was going on and on about how beautiful it was, seeing people’s faith tested, and being martyred, and how it should remind us of all of the suffering and people being killed for being Christians, or Druze, or Shia now by ISIS, or the many Islamic nations with anti-apostasy laws even in the 21st century.

I thought about the 1986 film The Mission directed by Roland Joffe.  Besides the fact that both films feature Liam Neeson and several other Irish and Irish-American actors, they are both also about two Jesuits attempting to proselytize to non-western people.  One of the biggest differences between the situations of the two groups of Jesuits was that Japan was never colonized, whereas Brazil and Paraguay were.  Japan in fact, besides having the notable distinction of being one of the few nations of East Asia to not be colonized by Western powers, held the further honour of being the only major colonial power of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which was not Western.  This came after widespread reforms across he country known as the Meiji Restoration throughout the mid 19th century.  However due to the short lived nature of this imperialism, compared to Western colonialism “It is thus far less complicated and ambiguous a phenomenon than western colonialism: historians do not have to stretch their imaginations over four centuries and worry about the continuities and discontinuities between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ colonialism, as they would with European history” (Iriye, 142).  Part of the implication I think, is that this puts Japan’s colonial conquest and administration further to the fringe of the historical Western canon, for better or worse, in much the same way as conquered European cultures like Ireland, Poland, Lapland, or the Basque country.

Anyway, both Silence and The Mission took place during the period sometimes referred to as ‘old colonialism’, with Silence taking place during the zenith of the Portuguese empire, and The Mission taking place towards its nadir, in the mid 18th century.  However, director Roland Joffe did acknowledge that he was attempting to draw parallels to contemporary conflicts across the world.  He has said that the Mission was:

Absolutely a contemporary metaphor. It’s a metaphor for South Africa, where exactly the same thing is happening, where priests are standing up against the Church. It’s absolutely a metaphor for Central America and the problem of commitment. What I wanted the story to be was two things: in one sense, as a modern metaphor for what is going on in Central America where the forces are exactly the same – a certain element of racism, commercial pressure, ideological struggle, the imperitives [sic] of commerce (Bird 40)

One of the biggest concerns I have with a lot of contemporary post-colonial analyses of literature and film are the dangers of arriving at racially Manichean conclusions.  The danger I think is that those black and white definitions of oppression and marginalization further reinforce an ethnocentric worldview, in which all oppression is viewed through

Political cartoon in a French newspaper depicting Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Japan dividing China shortly before the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion

the narrow lens as part of the Western canon, as if non Western cultures were somehow ‘incapable’ of the same avarice as Europeans.  The Opium War of the early 19th century was an obscene waste of human life, which saw grossly disproportionate numbers of Chinese killed by the Europeans of mostly France and England, and I am by no means attempting to refute that or act as an apologist to it.  My dilemma is that this can not speak for European nations which never colonized foreign lands like Ireland, Poland, or Lithuania, which were themselves occupied by other, far more powerful European nations.  Nor do most analyses of imperialism account for the fact that Japan, a non European, non Western, non white, non Christian nation, deployed troops to brutally repress the Boxer Rising and subsequently continue colonizing China later in the 19th century, alongside mostly European and American forces.

It’s easy to lose sight of the forest focusing on the tree, as the old adage goes, and I think that many (though not all) post-colonial paradigms throughout the humanities of Academia are guilty of this, by often forgetting that the violence and trauma of the past as universal tragedies of human nature.  Below is a piece of artwork by Italian artist Milo Minara which I think captures the sentiment of universality in the violence depicted in Silence and The Mission.

Bericht van @DesideriaSB.


It is in this archetypal experience which I find the most hauntingly beautiful aspects of spiritual expression, of seeking the better angels of our natures and intangible virtues like love and compassion.  And that is what I loved about Silence, and The Mission.  They both depict some of the weakest foibles of human nature as Jungian style archetypes, which transcend any political, racial, or religious identity.  The beauty within these depictions of pain, suffering, torture, murder, mayhem, malice and martyrdom, was the will of characters to believe in things beyond their own world of misery, and the love displayed therein.

Above: Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) marches forward holding the Eucharistic adoration towards certain death alongside native converts.

Works Cited:

Bird, Thomas.  Interview with Roland Joffe.  Bomb, no. 18, 1987, pp. 36-41.

En Chine.  1898/01/16, no. 374, Le Petit Journal, National Library of France.

Iriye, Akira. “Reviewed Work(s): The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945 by Ramon H. Myers and Mark R. Peattie.” Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 8.No. 1 (1986): 142–144. Print.

The Mission.  Directed by Roland Joffe, perfromances by Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro, Warner Brothers, 1986.

Silence.  Directed by Martin Scorcese, performances by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, Paramount Pictures, 2016.

2 thoughts on “Saint Mel Gibson of the Masochists, pray for me.

  1. Four of us went together to see ‘Silence’. I was the most enthusiastic of those present. In fact, I ended up in a huge argument with one of the people in our group, who just kept re-iterating how boring it was. I had some issues with the film; I would have liked, for example, if we had heard a little more from the perspective of the Japanese. It made me think about Richard Flanagan’s novel ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’, which is set in a much later time period, but also deals with terrible acts committed by Japanese people. In that case, however, there was much more of an attempt to explain the mindset behind these acts. I’m always interesting in the ideas/ideologies that underpin acts of horrendous violence. One of the reasons I love books and films is that they have the capacity to put me in the shoes of someone whom I have very little in common with. I did really like the courage of ‘Silence’ however. I think it is very courageous to make a film like that for a mainstream audience.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, I kind of felt like part of it was the limitation of trying to condense the events of such a complex historical period into a two hour film, especially one most Western audiences aren’t familiar with. I actually went to see Hacksaw Ridge shortly after this, which was directed by Mel Gibson. Having lived in Japan before, I kind of went in aware of how pacifist Japan is today, and how much they themselves renounced the militaristic nationalism of their regime during the Meiji era between opening up the country and World War II. However, despite this, most of my students in Japan seemed ambivalent towards the Chinese and Korean perceptions of remembering the past and reparations for war crimes and colonialism. The attitude seemed to play out very tragically when the two Japanese citizens were murdered by ISIS in 2015 when I lived there. The attitude in the media at the time seemed to revert to victim-blaming, and there was some discussion comparing this to the pacifism adopted post-WWII. It was complicated even more by the rhetoric around the controversy of their prime minister moving to erase mention of Japanese war crimes in China from high school history texts and relaxing the constitutional stance of pacifism for the first time since WWII that same year. All in all, it was good to see a film that went in to a different narrative of Western exploration and colonialism, to a country like Japan which successfully repelled that colonization. I think that it allows us to look at the violence in the film as archetypal of the human species, which I always like to use as a grain of salt towards anyone who proposes Utopian solutions to the problems of the world which I don’t think will ever go away.


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