Many will categorize Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence as a faith film; it is better described as a film about faith. While “Faith Films” have again been in vogue over the last four years or so, many of those films are so categorized because the subject matter has something to do with the Bible, church, or can in some way be described as spiritual.
Silence is a film about faith because it examines the nature of faith. Silence is also a film about faith because it is realistic in its portrayal about what it is to live by faith when faith is tested and the test results can best be described as “inconclusive.” As it cannot be empirically verified, faith is ambiguous. Living by faith rather than fact or experience means living with ambiguity, wonder, and questioning.
There is much ambiguity in Silence. There is also much suffering and there is not a tidy bow at the end. It is safe to say most film audiences are conditioned to expect happy conclusions, or at least happiness in the conclusion of films. In life beyond the screen however, even life informed or lived through faith, happiness is oftentimes experienced through the veil of sadness and despair. Such is the experience of watching Silence.
Silence is based on the Shusaku Endo, 1966 historical novel of the same name. In the novel and film the main character is the Portuguese, Jesuit priest Fr. Sebastiao Rodrigues ( Andrew Garfield), a character Endo based on the 17th century Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Chiara. After receiving reports that their mentor Fr Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson) had committed apostasy during persecution of Christians in Japan, Fr Rodrigues and Fr Francisco Garupe ( Adam Driver) insist to their superior, Fr. Alessandro Valignano ( Cerian Hinds) they be allowed to travel to Japan to find Fr. Cristovao.
Though both priests have all the faith imaginable, neither of these last two priests in Japan is prepared for what they encounter and experience upon their arrival. Throughout their training and ministry, the priests have never experienced a realized, or lived faith such as that of the surviving, “hidden Christiansm” living on the islands of Japan. While the priests have brought tangible reminders of God and the Church, crosses, Scripture, rosaries, and the Mass, in the eyes of the villagers they have brought God.
The priests who will soon wonder about God’s silence to them, are themselves God’s answering the prayers of the Japanese Christians. Yet even as they bring a witness of salvation in Christ, by their presence, the Priest also bring danger and suffering that tests the faith the Japanese Christians near them.
To fulfill their mission to find their mentor, the priests follow clues that lead them into the heart of Japan. As they journey deeper into the country they encounter the darkness that is the persecution by the Buddhist Inquisitor as well as their own fears, doubts, and perceived silence of God. Fr Rodrigues’s faith is strained to the breaking point by what he observed as God’s muted response to the suffering of those living out their faith and trust in God. It is up to the Priests, as well as the audience to determine what is more difficult, God’s silence and lack of response, or God’s response that does not end the the suffering. Both Moses, who heard God through a burning bush, or Elijah, who heard God in sheer silence, the response was not what they wanted, go back into to their land and face their enemy.
Watching in the enlightened and protected comfort of 21st century America, it might be difficult to understand the power of apostasy. After seeing characters suffer and die for not stepping on a small wooden crucifix, I found myself wanting to tell them “step on the thing, its only a piece of wood; step on it and live to worship another day.” This desire to speak became a desire to shout when stepping would save the life of others. Seeing the agony every character faced regardless of their decision to step or not, leads to reflection on the nature of apostasy.
What is it to commit apostasy? How does one commit apostasy? Is stepping on an image of Jesus, or spitting on a crucifix apostasy? How and why? Is rejecting the teaching of Jesus, such as not following his commandment to love neighbors / enemies as one loves oneself likewise an apostasy? Is one committing apostasy when one rejects “others” because one lives out of fear rather than faith, or when one does not hunger and thirst for righteousness, nor seeks to make peace? When one does not turn the other cheek, or give their cloak, or carry a persecutor’s sword an extra mile, is one committing apostasy?
Viewing Silence is a humbling experience. One is humbled by the faith of those depicted on the screen who, we know, represent millions who have suffered beyond measure and chosen martyrdom throughout the ages.
I was particularly humbled because prior to the screening I spoke with a clergy colleague about the challenges and difficulties of ministry today, the rise in apathy within congregations, the bureaucratic challenges and frustrations at the denominational level, and the growing antipathy society has toward the Church. Two minutes into the film, I felt shame at what we had just voiced. Were laity to watch the film, they may feel humbled at complaints and conversations they have had regarding worship wars, the color of church carpeting, or grumbling about the slaughter of a no longer effective sacred cow ministry or custom.
Lastly, included in this film about faith is the question of pride and faith. The priests are called to consider if and how pride in themselves could be a part of their faith in God. Is there a point where their actions cease being acts of faith to Christ and become acts of pride in themselves?
At one point while torturing some villagers the Inquisitor Inoue, (Issei Ogata) in an effort to break Fr. Rodrigues, tells him that “the price of your glory is their suffering.” Does, and if so at what point, pride in one’s faith tarnish or even dissolve the object of one’s faith?
Some viewers may choose not to attend because of the heaviness of the film. It is heavy and while few would describe the film as escapist, if viewed with keen eyes and an open mind and spirit, Silence offers the opportunity for true escape.
For the majority of viewers, the film will allow them to escape their troubles with the realization that what they currently consider suffering is perhaps more an inconvenience or disappointment. And if one is truly suffering, there can be comfort in knowing they are not alone in their struggles, now nor through the ages.
Persons of faith who choose not to see the film will miss an opportunity to reflect upon what faith, suffering and apostasy is, and what they are not. They will also miss out on the reminder that the times they falter, the times they step on Christ by rejecting his teaching and command, or reject God, there is grace to hold them AND for them to hold on to. As the final scene in the film indicates; like faith, grace, even the size of a mustard seed, is all that is needed.
Silence is a beautifully shot and powerfully acted film. The performances of each of the characters are beyond compelling. Scorsese masterfully integrates and depicts the duality of natural elements, the inspiring yet humbling power of the ocean, the cleansing and muddying effect of the rain, the cover and mystery fog and mist provide and inflict.
In every element of filmmaking, script, acting, cinematography, sound and score Martin Scorsese’s Silence speaks volumes.
Silence is rated PG-13