I finally caught up with Martin Scorsese's Silence over the weekend. First, let me say it is a beautiful film, and I highly recommend it. It is well acted, full of gorgeous cinematography, and elegantly constructed to allow the rich narrative to unfold with nuance. Moreover, it challenges your soul and morality in ways few films do these days.
The film is based upon the Shusaku Endo novel with the same name. Not unexpectedly, Scorsese offers the film a twist in the end that was not covered in the book.
The story is set in mid-17th century Japan, where there is a state sponsored persecution of Christians underway. A couple young Jesuit priests (played by Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) hear a rumor that their mentor, Fr. Ferreira, has renounced his Christian faith (a.k.a. apostatized) for the state. Under extreme danger, the young Jesuit priests decide to travel to Japan to confirm the fate of Ferreira.
When they arrive, they are greeted by Christian peasants in hiding, joyful to have priests in their midst that are able offer the sacraments. When the state authorities get wind of the priest's presence, suspected Christians are rounded up and tortured in the hopes of luring the priests out into the open.
The film primarily focuses on Fr. Rodrigues, one of the young Jesuit priests, who is eventually captured and subjected to horrific psychological torture to temp his faith. Many of the Christian peasants risk their lives to protect him, and are in turn, tortured in his presence. In order to free the Christian captives from their torture and suffering, Rodrigues is invited by the Japanese authorities to apostatize by trampling on a Christian image. He refuses over and over again, until he comes across his spiritual hero, Fr. Ferreira.
Rodrigues finds the rumors to be true, and that Ferreira is now a Buddhist practitioner under the protection of the state. The disgraced priest then tries to persuasively get his former student to do the same. In a pivotal scene, while the Christian captives are being tortured, he corners Rodrigues in an argument for practicality; in that while he prays for the suffering, he should pray with his eyes open.
In the midst of anguish over the screams of the tortured Christians, Rodrigues hears what he takes to be the voice of Jesus himself telling him to trample on the image. He follows the voice, and in turn, follows the footsteps of his former Jesuit mentor Ferriera.
Rodrigues lives a fairly long life, renouncing his faith publicly every year until his death. The one major twist Scorsese offers from the book is he shows the corpse of Rodrigues inside his coffin clutching a small crucifix. This leaves us with a sense that Rodrigues held on to his inner Christian faith throughout his life in Japan.
I appreciate the subtlety that film displays around faith and conviction. Is it appropriate to renounce one's values to end the suffering of another? Is inner conviction enough to justify the consequences? Should we be conditionally principled when the circumstances call for it?
Yet, I can also hold the opposing view around this. Bishop Robert Barron takes another position on this film, making the well-thought out point...
“Like any great film or novel, Silence obviously resists a univocal or one-sided interpretation. In fact, almost all of the commentaries that I have read, especially from religious people, emphasize how Silence beautifully brings forward the complex, layered, ambiguous nature of faith. Fully acknowledging the profound psychological and spiritual truth of that claim, I wonder whether I might add a somewhat dissenting voice to the conversation? I would like to propose a comparison, altogether warranted by the instincts of a one-time soldier named Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit order to which all the Silence missionaries belonged. Suppose a small team of highly-trained American special ops was smuggled behind enemy lines for a dangerous mission. Suppose furthermore that they were aided by loyal civilians on the ground, who were eventually captured and proved willing to die rather than betray the mission. Suppose finally that the troops themselves were eventually detained and, under torture, renounced their loyalty to the United States, joined their opponents and lived comfortable lives under the aegis of their former enemies. Would anyone be eager to celebrate the layered complexity and rich ambiguity of their patriotism? Wouldn’t we see them rather straightforwardly as cowards and traitors? 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. And it is all too willing to dismiss passionately religious people as dangerous, violent, and let’s face it, not that bright.”This is an astute observation, and displays this curse we have with complexity. There are few of us willing to die for our beliefs in the postmodern era. We hold our convictions lightly, if at all. We can't relate to the the Christian peasants who remained courageous and dedicated to their faith, even when it took them through horrific torture and eventually their death. Instead, it's easier to understand the decisions that Ferreira and Rodrigues made given the circumstances they were put under. Why give up a life for something so rationally untenable as God?
That's what makes this such a great film: you can look at the issues surrounding faith, conviction, and morality from many different angles. And yet, if one was to look for the right response to the tests the Jesuit priests go through in the film, the answer may only lie in the silence.
Father Rodrigues: I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?