The official trailer for the newly released Martin Scorsese film Silence gives the impression this movie is about missionaries in Japan and how Catholics bravely endured persecution for the sake of the Faith. That however is not the real focus of this very disturbing movie and movie-goers should not be lured into believing they are about to view such a film. Anyone familiar with Scorsese’s film oeuvre knows that this is an artist who, when it comes to matters religious, will deliver ambiguity and troubling conclusions and in this regard Silence does not disappoint. This movie is not about Christian martyrs. It’s about Christians who avoid martyrdom.
The film faithfully adapts Shusaku Endo’s fictional book of the same name. The story is set in seventeenth century Japan when Catholics endured persecution under the Tokugawa shogunate. Two Portuguese Jesuits, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) travel to Japan to seek their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who is rumored to have publicly apostatized. The young priests cannot believe their spiritual guide would ever do such a thing, are motivated to find the truth and if Ferreira did deny Christ, feel duty-bound to save his soul.
They are guided into the country by the spiritually tortured Japanese Christian Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) who literally confesses to Rodrigues that he is an apostate. When anyone is suspected of being a Christian he or she is forced to step on fumi-e, bronze or wood-carved images of Jesus or Mary. By this denial of the Faith one is usually spared torture and execution. Kichijiro escaped suffering by stepping on the image while his family members refused to deny Christ and were burned alive.
The two priests faithfully minister to Japanese Catholics who are forced to practice their faith in secret. Having been deprived of the sacraments they are overjoyed to now have priests to give them spiritual nourishment. It is not long however before the authorities discover this nest of hidden believers and select four to be executed. It is here, barely half way into the film that Silence ends its narrative about heroic martyrs and becomes a film that explores the silence of God in the midst of suffering as is experienced by its main character Rodrigues. He not only shocks Garupe, but the audience too, when he vigorously urges the Japanese Christians to “trample” on the fumi-e! What is the source of such counsel? For the idealistic Rodrigues the practice of faith in a strange land under terrible conditions has raised within him questions and confusion regarding the presence of God. He has begun to struggle with God’s apparent “silence.” It is a weakness of the film that there is little character development regarding this crisis of faith. It’s just suddenly there.
The movie is driven by the drama of Catholic Christians: whether they will stand up for their faith and face terrible deaths (indeed it is amazing the ingenuity put to human torture) or whether Christians will trample on Christ and escape such terrors.
At the heart of this drama is the tension created by Rodrigues’ own struggle to remain faithful even while he paradoxically urges and even prays that others will deny Christ and be spared. Later in the film he even futilely exhorts Fr. Garupe, and the Catholics with whom he has been arrested, to apostatize.
Silence is focused on apostasy as the means to avoid suffering. Rodrigues urges it several times in the film but only when the suffering of others is at stake. Oddly, while this path is urged for others, Rodrigues desires to remain firm. Early in the film he narrates that he is in love with the face of His Lord and thus cannot trample upon it.
Finally Rodrigues too is captured with a small group of fellow Catholics. As a prisoner the authorities arrange for the lost mentor Ferreira to visit him. Rodrigues is horrified to hear from the very lips of his teacher that indeed he did apostatize—the rumors are true. Ferreira now lives comfortably as a ward of the state, married with children; practicing Buddhism and writing books for the government that debunk Christianity. Here is where another level of Scorsese ambiguity kicks in. Ferreira tells Rodrigues that there are no real Japanese converts. Rather all those so-called Japanese Christians have never really taken to the faith. They are counterfeit Christians who don’t believe in Jesus, Son of God, but really still believe the true “Son” is the red orb that rises in the morning. They are just a bunch of pagans, who when martyred are not really dying for the Faith at all. It is unclear whether this speech is meant by the film-maker to be a real assessment of Japanese Catholicism or whether Ferreira is simply trying to demoralize his former pupil. If the former, then certainly there is no authentic Christianity in Japan, the martyrdoms are hollow and the viewer is forced to grapple with this possibility. In any case, Rodrigues’ former mentor has at least convinced himself that this is true.
Rodrigues puts up a good fight before Ferreira, before representatives of the Inquisitor and even the Grand Inquisitor himself. He is their trophy. Strike the shepherd of the flock and the sheep will scatter. But the means of striking the leader is to strike the sheep as one of his tormentors tells him “the price of your glory is their suffering.” The more he holds out, the more others are tortured and in this conflict Rodrigues experiences the silence of God as abandonment.
In the film’s climatic scene Japanese Christians are horrifically tortured and Rodrigues is forced to watch. If he would only step on the fumi-e placed on the ground before him the torture would end. Ferreira is there urging him, as Rodrigues himself had urged others, to step on the face of Jesus. And of course the apostasy, as in all other instances, is connected to bringing an end to human suffering. It is this scene that makes the Scorsese film a theological failure. Ferreira is the Judas character—but it is very unclear whether this Judas functions negatively or positively. Is this a Judas who works against Christ—or is this a Judas, ala the Gnostic text, The Gospel of Judas who actually aids Jesus to accomplish his mission? Ferreira tells Rodrigues: “If Christ were here he would apostatize for their sake” and “To give up your faith is the most painful act of love.” (Spoiler alert.) Then the voice of Jesus himself is heard coming from the fumi-e image lying on the ground. It is a bronze plaque of the crucified Christ who Himself urges Rodriquez: “Step on me. I carried this cross for your pain.” With the permission of Christ, Rodrigues denies his Lord. Apostasy, this time his own, stops the suffering of others, and the Christians are not martyred.
This is the most troubling aspect of Silence. Jesus gives permission to betray him, gives Christians permission to fail in their witness. It makes all the difference whether the film intends this to be the voice of Christ to Rodrigues or whether the voice is just something Rodrigues imagines in his own head. In this reviewer’s opinion, Scorsese intends this to be Christ’s voice that clears the path to failure. First of all, technically speaking, it is sound outside of Rodrigues, emanating from the image to him. The voice is not presented as something coming from the interior of Rodrigues’ consciousness.
Why would Scorsese, based on Endo, give us a Christ who provides his followers permission to fail? What end does the “Step on me” Jesus serve? Since Rodrigues recommends apostasy only to avoid suffering, one could conclude that suffering trumps faith—that for the good of avoiding horrible pain, denial of Christ is justified as it is Jesus alone who “carries this cross for your pain.” Of course this consequentialist ethic is contrary to Christian faith and morals—namely to do evil for the sake of good.
One could also just as well conclude that the “Step on me” Jesus is a theology that only Christ’s suffering has any value. Human beings, due to their inherent sinful nature will inevitably fail, despite all high-minded goals and personal expectations and in the end all that matters is the abiding silent presence of God to those that suffer. However, this is an insufficient Christian message—especially when one considers that in God’s eyes human suffering does have salvific value as Saint Paul himself stated: “Even now I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body the Church.”
Or when Rodrigues steps on Jesus this is meant to be indeed the “most painful act of love” as he surrenders his own ideal for the sake of saving others. However, this interpretation is seriously weaken by the fact that he is miserable afterwards and for decades to come will continue to step on the face of Christ in repeated acts of apostasy when no one needs to be delivered from torture.
If however, the voice is just Rodrigues’ own justification to deny Christ—then indeed he is a true apostate and the movie works as a tale of God’s abiding presence to all those who suffer—the suffering of the martyrs as well as the suffering of those like Rodrigues and Kichijiro who are tormented by remorse and guilt for their failure. Jesus is there silently in the suffering of all—as the “voice” from the image says: “I carried this cross for your pain.” And this works well when one considers that Kichijiro commits apostasy over and over again, and is even a Judas who betrays Rodrigues to the authorities. Yet he always seeks out the priest to confess his sins and receive absolution. And indeed mercy is there for those who fail. Silence poignantly illustrates this point. Rodrigues indeed follows Ferreira—who ironically has wound up mentoring him into the life of an apostate priest. But long after Rodrigues quits the priesthood Kichijiro finds him and begs him to hear his confession and Rodrigues again provides him the absolution for which he craves.
Except for Christ telling Rodrigues to “Step on me” this forgiveness scene would be the climax of the film, and thus Silence would be about the silent abiding presence of God to all, even to those who fail. But this possible climax is overwhelmed by the very troubling permission of Christ to fail. The first climactic scene plunges the Scorsese film into a most problematic and erroneous soteriology. The end of the film attempts to show a certain level of redemption for Rodrigues who apparently remained a Christian privately, but is not powerful enough to overcome a depiction of Christ who leads his faithful servant to deny him.
This movie seriously examines Christian themes and ideas. But should a film that, to its credit, does such an examination necessarily be called a Christian film? I think not. A Christian film cannot simply explore—it must conclude and it must conclude in a way that is consistent with the gospel message—however unconventionally, provocatively, or innovatively presented. There must be the Christ of the Gospels who, rather than commanding his faithful followers to step on him, and twists this negativity, this denial of the Light, into “the most painful act of love,” calls them to follow him to the Cross—the Christ who rather ensures his faithful: “From the cup I drink from you shall drink; the bath I am immersed in you shall share.”
Believers hoping for a film that explores Christian ideas from an authentic Christian context—should skip this one. Silence should also not be seen by the young, or those whose faith is not strong as the theology in this movie is complex, clever and seductive. However, if you are a mature Christian looking for a finely crafted, well-acted, disturbing film that provokes thinking and debates—then Silence is for you. Let the debates begin.