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 been in vogue in 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 what is it to live in, by, and even in spite 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 could be described as inconclusive. Faith by its very nature is ambiguous. Faith stands opposed to that which is known, proven, and definitively experienced. If it did not it would be fact instead of faith. In the “real world,” living by faith means living with ambiguity, wonder, and questions since the world of faith, regardless of what faith one lives by, is often opposed to the world of experience.
There is much ambiguity in Silence. There is also much suffering, and there is not a tidy bow at the end. While modern audiences of film are conditioned to expect happy endings, or at least happiness in the endings, in the real world, even the real world informed or lived through faith, happiness is usually encountered or experienced through the filter or 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 missionary priest Fr. Sebastiao Rodrigues ( Andrew Garfield), a character Endo based on the 17th century Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Chiara. Fr Rodrigues and another priest, Fr Francisco Garupe ( Adam Driver) insist to their superior Fr. Alessandro Valignano ( Cerian Hinds) they be allowed to travel to Japan to find their teacher and mentor Fr. Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson) after they have received reports that after being tortured he committed apostasy during persecutions of Christians in Japan.
Though both priests have all the faith imaginable, neither of these the last two priests in Japan is prepared for what they encounter and experience after their arrival. Through their training and ministry, the priests have never experienced a realized, or lived faith such as that of the surviving, “hidden Christians” living on the islands of Japan. Although the priests bring 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 wonder about God’s silence, are themselves God’s answering the prayers of the Japanese Christians. Yet even as they bring reminders of salvation in Christ, the priests, by their presence on any island or any village, bring danger to the Christians near them.
To fulfill their mission to find their mentor and teacher, the priests will eventually need to follow clues that lead them into the heart of Japan, and in so doing encounter the darkness that is the persecution of the Buddhist Inquisitor as well as their own fears, doubts and perceived silence of God.
The title of the film and novel refers to the silence Fr. Rodrigues observes and experiences God offers in light and of and response to suffering, even suffering for one’s faith. Most Christians accept that God speaks in some fashion to believers. If not a burning bush, believers may sense God communicating, either in real time, or after looking back on a time in life. What is hardest is when God speaks, as God spoke to Elijah, in the sheer silence.
Watching in the enlightened and protected comfort of 21st century America, it might be difficult to understand the power of apostasy. After seeing persons suffer and die for not stepping on a small wooden carving of Christ the viewer may think to themselves, just step on the thing, its only a piece of wood; step on it and live to worship another day. These reactions intensify when stepping will save the life of others. Seeing the agony many faced regardless of their decision to step or not, the viewer may wonder about 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, not following the commandment of Jesus to love neighbors / enemies as one loves oneself likewise an apostasy? When one lives out of fear rather than faith and rejects an “other,” when one does not hunger and thirst for righteousness, or seeks to make peace, are they committing apostasy? When one does not turn the other cheek, or give their cloak, or carry a persecutor’s sword an extra mile, are they committing apostasy?
Viewing Silence is a humbling experience. One is humbled by the faith of those depicted on the screen who have suffered beyond measure. One is then humbled by the reminder of all the millions through the centuries who suffered and were martyred for their faith. I was humbled because prior to the screening I spoke with a clergy colleague and we discussed the challenges and difficulties of ministry today, where there is a rise in apathy and commitment within congregations and bureaucratic challenges and frustrations at the denominational level. Two minutes into the film, I felt shame at what I 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 carpeting, or not “being fed.”
Included in this film about faith is the question of pride and faith. The Priests are called to consider how pride in themselves could be a part of their faith. Is there a point where their actions cease being acts of faith to Christ and become acts of pride in themselves and their faith. At one point while torturing some villagers the Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) in an effort to coax 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 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, now nor through the ages, in their struggles.
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 step on Christ 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 the natural elements of the story most notably the 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, Martin Scorsese’s Silence speaks volumes.
Silence is rated PG-13