Like I do with many great films, I approached reviewing Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” with a reverence tinged with trepidation. No matter how many seemingly objective angles I took to evaluating it, I could not find a path that did not somehow cross with my own experiences and beliefs as a person of faith. Though this underscores just about every review I write, rarely does it bubble up to the surface. But since today is Easter, I thought it made sense to craft a hybrid akin to Scorsese’s work: a personal statement and a prayer.
I’ve been grappling with the film for the past three months; as Matt Zoller Seitz astutely observed, “This is not the sort of film you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like.’ It’s a film that you experience and then live with.” Scorsese himself has wrestled with Shusaku Endo’s novel for longer than I have been alive. Christian thinkers themselves have wrestled with these issues since the religion began two millennia ago. To project any kind of intellectual authority or issue some kind of vast, sweeping statement about the ideology and thematics of “Silence” is naive and preposterous. In its searing specificity, the film gets beyond the simplistic discussions of religion that predominate our polite culture and delves headfirst into the questions that demarcate contemporary Christianity.
It goes without saying that Scorsese’s involvement in the film ensures “Silence” does not issue the kind of self-congratulatory pat on the back and reaffirmation of most religious films. He zooms past the “what” of faith and immediately wades into the murkier waters of the “how,” specifically as it pertains to evangelism and discipleship. 17th century Portuguese fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) set sail for Japan, where their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) disappears and allegedly disavows the Catholic religion.
Their rescue mission brings them into contact with persecuted Japanese Christians practicing their faith in private, an experience that tugs the fathers’ beliefs at opposite directions with equal force. On the one hand, their torture at the hands of Japanese inquisitors makes the abstract concept of martyrdom painfully real, humbling them tremendously. Yet these supplicants also view the priests as direct conduits to God to the point that they take on a God-like status, inflating the latent self-righteousness undergirding many of their actions.
These two competing forces come to a head when the priests face a savage loyalty test honed by the Japanese authorities. Christians are presented with the fumie, an image of their God, to trample and disavow in order to avoid execution. When posed to the “padres,” the Japanese authorities ask for a nominal apostasy of their faith, knowing the damage it will do to the religion – or they will harm fellow Christians. This goes beyond mere conceptual theodicy, a theological term used when debating why God allows evil. It’s a question with profound implications for Rodrigues and Garrpe. How far will they go to protect their own faith? Is maintaining their own sanctity worth letting innocent people die?
We spend most of “Silence” watching Rodrigues deal weigh his options in anguish, a tempest forcefully and emotionally conveyed by Andrew Garfield. He resists renouncing his faith at all costs, which Scorsese gradually reveals as a conviction that honors himself more than God. Rodrigues has noble intentions, yet he often follows missionary zeal to self-serving ends. He takes confessions of Japanese villagers even when he cannot entirely understand their language, unable to resist serving as a medium to God. When they plead, “We need you” (as opposed to God, presumptively), Rodrigues cannot help but indulge their request. And though he reminds himself that Christ died for the miserable and corrupt, he finds it increasingly difficult to live this virtue when it comes to Kichijiro, Rodrigues’ guide who relies on God’s forgiveness as an excuse to continue relapsing into sin.
Scorsese, with the benefit of centuries of perspective accumulated since the missionaries arrived, further holds up their behavior to scrutiny. Many actions and attitudes reek of colonialist attitudes, particularly in regards to martyrdom. Rodrigues has the privilege of choosing struggle. It is forced upon the Japanese Christians. He also calls into question who the journey to save Ferreira really benefits. This father’s importance was primarily intrinsic to Rodrigues and Garrpe, and it significantly imperils many native peoples.
The Christian journey has never been about resolving these difficult contradictions. “Silence,” like much of the valuable thought leadership that came before it, simply seeks to help us reconcile them. What we perceive as a dichotomy from our limited perspective as finite humans is often just an infinite mystery, one that requires our faith, not necessarily our understanding. The film is sure to inspire as many interpretations as there are Christians, and I am glad to have worked through its difficult, challenging passages with people who approach it with different experiences and doctrines. Takeaways are sure to be split as well.
But speaking only for myself, I have come to appreciate how “Silence” instructs viewers to rely less on themselves and more on Jesus. No matter how Christ-like I try to fashion myself, I will never be Christ. And God sent Jesus to make the ultimate sacrifice for sinners because he was the perfect Christ; taking on the pain of others is not a task meant for mere mortals. As a follower, I can try to channel Him all I want – but I should never fool myself into thinking I can replace him. And it’s in failure, not success, when the need for God is greatest. Coming to terms with this realization is simultaneously terrifying and comforting, like so much else in the film.
Minister R.C. Sproul Jr. wrote, “Why do bad things happen to good people? That only happened once, and He volunteered.” Not unlike this quote, Scorsese’s “Silence” poses one question only to make us realize we’re asking the wrong one to start. By transporting us back to a time of misdirected religious fervor, he gives modern viewers the tools to see where we might decrease so that something greater might increase. A- /