silence and the shape of water



shusaku endo’s novel (and scorsese’s film) is set during the persecution of portuguese jesuit missionaries in 16th-century japan, but its impact is more 20th-century existential: the story of rodriguez’s slow progress to apostasy is closer to winston smith’s growing to love big brother in orwell’s 1984: the two protagonists’ end-states are similar – defeated by torture, and acquiescent (at least) in the locally dominant ideology

for orwell it’s pretty clear that winston’s end is a bad one – he has been defeated, and defeated into thinking that his defeat is good; and for endo too, yes, rodriguez has been defeated, and similarly defeated into thinking his defeat is good – but the difference is that orwell & winston disagree, but endo & rodriguez (i think) agree

drodriguez (at least in the novel) never loses his faith exactly; rather his faith changes – exactly as the faith of japanese christians allegedly changes – ferreira (rodriguez’ hero, now apostatised, living as a japanese, and wheeled in to smooth the young jesuit’s apostasy) claims that the hundreds of thousands of japanese converts to christianity were never orthodox believers, but had signed up to a syncretic version which equated christ with their traditional solar deity); likewise, the jesuit makes his own version of christianity, one (as inoue, the chief inquisitor, explicitly asserts) which is compatible with trampling on an image of christ (the fumi-e), the very antithesis of rodriguez’ portuguese faith; to endo japan is a swamp, hostile to the foreign plant of christianity; if ferreira is right, we are all swamps, and ideas can only survive if they adapt to the swamp

so far endo, himself a catholic, presents us with a strong religious relativism – perhaps god works through different faiths, each suited to its own soil?

scorsese’s film – the result of a lifelong ambition – follows the film extremely closely; he deviates significantly once, and disastrously – his own catholicism unable to accommodate endo’s moves towards universalism, at rodriguez’s cremation the camera enters the coffin to show a crucifix in the jesuit’s hand – this annoying ‘rosebud’ collapses endo’s careful ambiguity as to whether rodriguez fully apostatises internally too – this indication that underneath he has just been pretending robs the story of its central power…

…which is the primary christian message of the cross, clear in both novel and (until the final scene) film, that christ would have trampled on his own image, that dogmas, symbols, are trivial compared to relieving the suffering of others: ferreira tells rodriguez ‘Certainly Christ would have apostatised for them’, and the recurrence of an icon of christ’s face in rodriguez’ thoughts throughout his life leads straight to the moment when he has to trample on it as a christ-like act

and it is the silence of a god who, when japanese christians are tortured, does nothing, says nothing which first leads rodriguez to doubt (the sea is a persistent image of this silent force); as his faith is transformed we see him realise that he has been as silent as the god he accuses (p216); he has to become the voice of this god, telling peasants to trample to save themselves – as he finally does himself

and yet the novel’s strength is in giving no clear answer: kichijiro, the judas/gollum-like japanese christian, so terrified of pain that he frequently and readily apostatises, and in fact betrays the missionaries to the authorities for silver, is the most pitiable figure in the story, racked with inconsolable guilt and desperate for the absolution he cannot accept – trampling on symbols is not insignificant, not without meaning, but love for others is greater: endo is too subtle to quote paul ‘But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love’


in other news, scorsese brilliantly casts liam neeson as ferreira: reprising his role as angel from the bbc sitcom rev, where he appears to tom hollander in the easter crucifixion scene

the shape of water

a myth of the male outsider, the alien, awakening a young female: theseus, jason, beauty and the beast, scylla and minos

and a myth of the incarnation: dionysus in the bacchae, jesus, shardik, ET

the film is so like pan’s labyrinth, i’m not sure if i was pleased or disappointed when i learned too late that they’re by the same director… both depict, in a fascist context, a lonely woman’s finding escape through her relationship with a fantastic being, and both girl and being get shot at the end: the girl in pan’s labyrinth, however, imagines the being, and dies when shot; in the shape of water girl and (real) being come back to life after the shooting, and (we presume) swim off to the amazon

the girl (elisa) is mute; she lost her pharynx when young – three scars remain on the side of her neck – these resemble gills… and someone says at some point that elisa was found by a river: might she have been, like the amazonian being, amphibious, and might the removal of her gills have been the main reason for her operation? in which case their connection and romance are more obvious

how they are related

The villain in Shape (the only weak point of the film, as he’s so extremely and simply a ‘baddie’) likes Elisa because she’s mute. He muzzles his wife during love-making: it turns him on. It’s, presumably, a power thing. But this works the other way: Elisa in fact has power over him – he doesn’t get it when she signs him to ‘f u c k o f f’, and at the end of the film she can even recover from his gunshot wounds. The power of silence, of non-power, is what drives Silence: Rodriquez has to learn that a noisy God would just be playing humanity’s game; a silent God can let a deeper magic slowly bring about revolutionary change.

After her sexual awakening Elisa sings: love breaks the aphasia. And when Rodriguez realises that he can’t wait for a silent God to say or do anything, and that it’s he who has to speak, and he shouts at the peasants to trample on the fumi-e, it’s love breaking through the silence. And then, in Rodriquez’ final apostasy, it’s God himself who tells Rodriquez to trample on him.

The fantastic amphibious beast is silent, and, we are told, worshipped as a god by the Amazon people. It’s this god who gets Elisa to speak and to love, and it’s into Endo’s silent sea that they both plunge in the film’s final scene.

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