Andrew Garfield with Tadanobu Asano
Christianity was first brought to Japan by St Francis Xavier and companions in 1549. By 1610 there were more than 300,000 Japanese Christians, mostly based around Nagasaki. They were largely accepted. One group was even given an old monastery.
But in 1590 the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi won control over the country and this new religion, seen as an unwelcome foreign influence, was outlawed. In 1603, another warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasu, created the strongly centralised regime that would remain in power until 1868. Under him, many thousands of Christians were tortured and killed for their faith.
Martin Scorsese's stunning new film 'Silence', which opens in the UK on New Year's Day, based on the classic 1966 novel by Shusako Endo, centres on two idealistic young Jesuit priests, Fr Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Fr Garrpe (Adam Driver), who travel to Japan during this turbulent time, in search of their missing mentor, Fr Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who is reported to have publicly abandoned his faith.
"The moment you set foot in that country, you step into high danger" they are warned.
On their arrival they are welcomed by Christian villagers still praying together in secret, who are thrilled to see them and desperate to receive the sacraments.
But it is not long before the two priests are arrested and fall into the hands of the oily, polite and terrifying Inquisitor, beautifully played by Issey Ogata. "It's just a formality" he says as he asks Christians to step on a picture of Jesus, or be tortured and killed.
This complex film has great depth and deals with many themes and questions about faith, loyalty, mission, martyrdom and reconciliation.
The two priests both respond very honourably in different ways to the challenges they are confronted with.
At one point Fr Rodrigues says: "I pray but I'm lost. Am I just praying to silence?" - which reminded me of Mother Teresa's long dark night of the soul.
There are horrific scenes of torture and martyrdom - some reminiscent of the Coptic Christian men killed on the beach by IS/Daish last year.
It's one thing to sacrifice one's life for cause - but what would you do if you were told that your martyrdom would mean the torture and death of others?
This film is not for the faint hearted, but especially at this time, when so many Christians are suffering persecution around the world, and we have just reached the end of the Year of Mercy, Silence is a powerful meditation on our faith and what that means.
All the cast give superb performances. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver both prepared for their roles at St Bueno's in North Wales. Fr James Martin SJ was an advisor on the film.
Watch Fr James' interview with Scorsese here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbYiGdinejU
Damaris Media have produced resources about Silence for use in parish groups. See: http://www.silence.damarismedia.com.
See the official trailer for Silence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqrgxZLd_gE
The memorial day of the Martyrs of Japan is kept on 6 February. In 1981, St Pope John Paul II visited to Japan, during which he celebrated Mass in the Korakuen Stadium, Tokyo, and visited the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, the Hill of Martyrs in Nagasaki, town of the Immaculate founded by St Maximilian Kolbe in Nagasaki, and other places.