I was privileged to attend a screening of Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence, two weeks ago. It has stayed with me and occupied my thoughts for much of the time since. I can’t respond to this film as a dispassionate critic reviewing the merits of an art object, as this is a film that reaches in and grabs at the core of my own Catholic faith. I will assume for the purposes of this post that my readers are familiar with the basic outline of the scenario; if not, I will refer you to Alissa Wilkinson and Steven Greydanus’s reviews to begin with.
I would also like to share, and in part respond to, a couple of other perceptive pieces that I have read which I have been meditating over. In these cases, I have serious disagreements with the interpretations offered, but I feel that they are also thoughtful, serious, and important points of view to reckon with. I don’t think a “review” works for films like this, if by review you mean a take that can be summarized in a thumbs up/down, or given a star rating that can be crunched into an aggregate to determine its percentage of freshness. So I won’t share any of the more shallow or dismissive reviews I have read, which, sadly, have come from Christian writers of various backgrounds.
The film is about as perfect of an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel as I can imagine. Two missionaries, Fr. Garrpe (Garupe in the film) and Fr. Rodrigues, as they face torture, betrayal, and the testing of all that they believe and stand for, represent the extreme physical limits of the faith trials that most of us Americans experience only internally, or even theoretically. But additionally their intrusion into a politically motivated purging of the Western influence in Japan represents a clash of cultures that requires a complex and sensitive response even from this historical distance. These issues have not been resolved in the intervening centuries from the 17th century setting of this story.
The only other film to challenge me so much in my actual perception of how my own Catholic faith should be lived out in the world is the 2010 Xavier Beauvois film Of Gods and Men. After Silence, I have to say, I’ll be looking at my sacramentals (for non-Catholics, those are objects and actions which we use as aids to prayer) with renewed awe and gratitude, for one thing. It’s easy to take for granted our access and freedom to use religious imagery in the practice of our faith, and the depiction of the persecuted Japanese Christians’ hunger for a tangible way to grasp their faith convicts me in my complacency toward the abundant rosaries and crucifixes I possess and am surrounded by daily.
On the drive home from the screening, I kept thinking of the scripture passage, in relation to Kichijiro, a sort of Judas figure whom we see commit repeated acts of betrayal and denials of faith: “Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:7-8) But as science-fiction author (and atheist) Adam Roberts asks in this valuable discussion on Endō’s novel, “If you were tortured for your beliefs, it would of course take strength to hold out. But if others are tortured for your beliefs, and you still refuse to yield, do we still call that strength?” That’s the situation that the priests face as the Japanese authorities discover that martyring the priests only intensifies the faith of the hidden Christians, while causing the priests to recant their faith will demoralize them. Critic Jeffrey Overstreet remarks in his observations on letterboxd that “[Silence] asks us to realize that faith is made perfect in weakness, in failure, in coming to see that while we must follow Jesus, we cannot become Jesus through a show of grit and determination. Our ‘hero’ must learn to surrender his imperfect measures of achievement in order for Christ to do a real work of transformation through — and to — him.”
I think one of the hardest things to accept in the Creed sometimes is “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” This film makes us wrestle with what that means for others, and most importantly for ourselves. To identify with Kichijiro means to admit that we commit the same failings again and again. But Fr. Rodrigues scorned him and looked down on his weakness. Ultimately that was where he failed to identify with Christ, who comes to us in our weakness (cf. again the passage from Romans above) and only when he himself had been broken of that pride could he find where Jesus’ voice was in the silence. To recognize this is not the same as to excuse either Rodrigues for denying Christ, nor to excuse the Japanese officials for their brutal persecutions. It is simply to understand that even in this most bleak of situations, surely a no-win scenario for all the Christians, both Japanese and the foreign priests, that Christ was still present. And the possibility of his mercy could extend both to the “wretched” Kichijiro—whose repeated failures provoked laughter to many in the audience I attended with, but has evoked a wry recognition from myself—but also to the stubborn priest Rodrigues, whose sins may be seen as arrogance and foolishness.
It is interesting to think about the Voice of Jesus as it was portrayed in the film, at the pivotal point of Rodrigues’s final temptation: it could be seen as a manifestation of his own inner justification, or as a genuine voice of God. Visually, Scorsese presents us with the subjective identification of Fr. Rodrigues with his own idea of Jesus as a recurring vision of a pale portrait that the priest had carried in his memory. This is most acute in a shot where he sees his own reflection in a creek, which becomes the image of that portrait of Christ. A priest in Catholic theology presents the Sacraments “in persona Christi,” in the person of Christ. Rodrigues clearly identifies with Christ not only in the sense of his priestly role, or in the common sense that all believers must, but also particularly in his growing desire throughout the film to die a martyr’s death, sacrificing himself for the sake of his flock. So is the commanding and reconciling Voice which Rodrigues hears also merely a subjective manifestation of his own ideas about Jesus, or an authentic encounter with Christ?
The Sunday after I saw the film was celebrated by Catholics as the feast of Epiphany. This is the day in which we reflect on the coming of the mysterious “magi from the east” to do homage to the child Jesus and bring him the gifts that were worthy of a king. One of the key theological implications of this story is that the Savior came not only to the Jewish people, but that his salvation (and his kingdom) was to be for the whole world. As we sang in the refrain of the responsorial psalm, “Lord, every nation on earth will adore you.” The magi came of their own will to seek a foreign wisdom, as sort of reverse-missionaries. But as we profess in the Creed, the Church is “apostolic,” a word deriving from a Greek term meaning “to send.” We are sent out as apostles by the mandate of Christ to preach the gospel to the every nation on earth.
If either the missionaries or those that they seek to preach to see that mission as overlapping or even coterminous with a mission of cultural imperialism, then the gospel is bound to have serious human barriers. I think that this is at the heart of the conflict experienced by those who see Silence as yet another “white savior” story, but I feel that this interpretation does not do justice to the Christian viewpoint animating either Endō’s novel or Scorsese’s film adaptation. Jesus came first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles, as we see in the Epiphany narrative. So all of us Christians who are not Jews can lay no exclusive or primary claim to the message of Christ. Christians see Christ as the king of every nation, yet he said “my kingdom is not of this world.” So authentic Christian apostleship must resist attempts to conflate the mission of evangelism with the mission of temporal power. But it is not evident to me that the priests in this story were even guilty of such an error, though Fr. Rodrigues may have been guilty of hubris and even condescension towards the Japanese peasants he was there to serve. Endō addressed this problem more directly in his novel, The Samurai, in which an ambitious priest serves as an envoy and translator for a group of samurai travelling abroad (like the magi, emissaries from the east), in hopes of being able to win the appointment of Bishop of Japan. But in Silence, Endō’s concerns are centered on the personal issue of faith under persecution, both for the missionaries and the native Japanese, and with the question of whether the Japanese culture as a whole could be compatible with the Christian religion. For Christians who celebrate Epiphany, and profess the Creed, we have to answer “yes,” as Rodrigues insisted for much of the film—that Christianity is for all nations and all people.
The other main criticism of the film I have seen was best articulated in Bishop Robert Barron’s review. His concern is articulated thus:
My worry is that all of the stress on complexity and multivalence and ambiguity is in service of the cultural elite today, which is not that different from the Japanese cultural elite depicted in the film. What I mean is that the secular establishment always prefers Christians who are vacillating, unsure, divided, and altogether eager to privatize their religion. … I wonder whether Shusaku Endo (and perhaps Scorsese) was actually inviting us to look away from the priests and toward that wonderful group of courageous, pious, dedicated, long-suffering lay people who kept the Christian faith alive under the most inhospitable conditions imaginable and who, at the decisive moment, witnessed to Christ with their lives.
While I acknowledge that there is always a need to present to the faithful the example of the courageous martyrs and heroes of the faith that were willing to die rather than renounce their faith, I think that ultimately Endō (and Scorsese) are looking at a different question, and one, we should remember, that was situated in an actual historical moment. That is, there were real martyrs in Japan, and there were real apostates. We already, justly, venerate the martyrs in both liturgy and in our stories, but this story dares to ask where God’s mercy is for those who fail that test of faith. It may be as Bishop Barron says, that the authors of this story are providing an endorsement of the martyrs by way of contrast. But I don’t think it stops there—the story continues in a way that forces us to reckon with those failures as people. The apostasies and the martyrdoms in the film are both disturbing, for a viewer of faith, and they should be. But I think without a full depiction of the consequences of both of those choices, we haven’t truly wrestled with what the choice means.
by Makoto Fujimura – the book itself is a work of art.
The most profound, most personal, and most valuable guide to Silence I am aware of is the book by Makoto Fujimura published in 2016, Silence and Beauty. Fujimura, a Japanese-American Christian visual artist, recounts his own experience with the novel, and how Endō’s novel and events in his own biography shaped his understanding of faith, culture, and specifically the relationship of Japan to Christianity. Fujimura has recently launced a companion website with valuable resources for further exploration and discussion on the topic of the novel, at http://silenceandbeauty.com.
Lastly, I would like to thank Wade Bearden, of the Seeing and Believing podcast on the Christ and Pop Culture network for the invitation to the screening. Their recent discussion of the film can be found here.