Movies focusing on Christianity (no matter what branch) are always going to be divisive. That’s just how it is. On one side you will find movies like Fireproof (2008, dir. Alex Kendrick), War Room (2015, dir. Alex Kendrick), and God’s Not Dead (2014, dir. Harold Cronk), which seem tailor-made for the choir, and on the other hand you will find films like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, dir. Martin Scorsese) and Last Days in the Desert (2015, dir. Rodrigo Garcia), which most Christian audiences find not only troublesome and difficult, but possibly blasphemous. But films of faith are not uncommon or new. Depictions of Christ were common occurrences in the silent era in such films as Cecil B. Demille’s King of Kings (1927) and even The Birth of a Nation (1915, dir. D.W. Griffith), among other films. Ingmar Bergman is famous for tackling man’s struggle with faith in his movies. Religious themes and art are always going to go hand-in-hand, and that’s just how it is. As long as man is able to continue creating freely as well as worshiping (or not worshiping) freely, then man will continue to create works of art related to religion.
Now comes the topic of this post: Silence, a movie released in 1971 by director Masahiro Shinoda. Shinoda was a part of the Japanese New-Wave in the 60s and directed one of my favorite movies, Pale Flower (1964). Silence, based on a Japanese novel of the same name, is about Catholicism and the persecution of Japanese Christians during the 17th century in Japan. I will begin by saying this is a deeply troubling movie and its point seems to be that Christianity will never work in the nation of Japan, and yet that seems superficial as the author of the novel was a devout Catholic himself. Throughout the film there are various depictions of Christians being tortured and killed because of their faith. Some of these Japanese Christians renounce their faith, but some die and are martyred because of their beliefs. At one point a Japanese guard tells a prisoner: “Renounce! It won’t change what you believe, it is only a formality!”
The whole film is from the perspective of one man, Sebastian Rodrigo, a Jesuit Priest from Portugal. He has come to Japan to look for another priest, Father Cristóvão Ferreira, about whom there are rumors circulating that he has abandoned the faith and become a pagan. Throughout his journey Rodrigo finds disturbing sights across the entire island. In one town he finds the villagers worshipping a statue of a female Buddha in place of the virgin Mary. The island seems to teeth with a Christianity mixed with Paganism. As someone who is not Catholic, I felt the whole movie that many of the issues came down to core issues with the Catholic doctrine, but that is a discussion for another time and place. One of the ways the Japanese officials force Christians to show their renouncing of their faith, for instance, is to step on a carving of the Virgin Mary or of the Christ. I found this a bit baffling as they are clearly just images, idols really, and don’t mean anything, yet to these Catholic Japanese people stepping on these carvings was the greatest form of treachery. That feeling of dishonoring a belief you hold dear is something I can understand very well, even if I do not understand the belief itself.
As the film progresses many Christians are killed, turned from their religion, taken from their homes, tortured horribly, thrown in prison, fall away, return, fall away again, ask forgiveness, return, and then betray priest Rodrigo into the hands of the authorities. For the remainder of the film Rodrigo spends his time in jail. It is here that he discovers the whereabouts of Father Ferreira, a surprising and shocking revelation. Ferreira has not only renounced his faith, but has totally assimilated himself into the Japanese culture. During one of the film’s mightiest monologues he explains to Rodrigo why Christianity will never flourish in Japan. It is at this point that Rodrigo’s faith begins to waiver and we see his faith crumble to pieces. The film ends on a three-part note. The first denotes Rodrigo’s renouncing of his faith, the second hints that he is trying to allow Christianity to flourish and work inside of Japan, and the final reveals the depravity which has overtaken his soul. In the final moments of the film Rodrigo holds a chalice in his hands, a chalice which is very clearly for the purpose of drinking wine during Mass, and is asked by the Japanese magistrate if the item is a Christian artifact or not. Rodrigo looks over it, examines it, turns to share a glance with Ferreira, and then says no, it is not. He is clearly lying. It is the film’s final sequence which is most troubling.
Earlier in the film Rodrigo tells the tortured Christians to step on the image of Mary and to save themselves. “Step on it!” he yells, “It’s only an image! God will forgive you!” So at the end when Rodrigo steps on a image carved of Christ, despite his hesitancy, we wonder if those very same words are echoing through his head. His hesitancy is a question of whether or not he was correct. When he finally places his foot on the image we, even though there is pain on his face, we think he has come to grips with what he said earlier to the prisoners facing death. But then comes the final scene of the film in which Rodrigo enters a room with a woman, the very woman he had told to step on the image, which she did in an effort to save her husband from death. Her husband, however, was killed. But now she sits before Rodrigo. He reaches for her, takes her in his arms, and violently attacks her. Her face remains blank and emotionless. Rodrigo, however, has completely separated himself from all that he believes. The man who once championed martyrs failed to become one, and instead has become a monster.
Silence, as I said before, is a difficult and troubling film. It raises more questions than it answers. Can a bad man achieve good things? I don’t believe so. I think in the end Rodrigo failed and became what he hated. But stories of failure aren’t out of place in this world, and the story central to both the film and novel Silence is a mostly true one, based upon a real man. Christians are still a very small percentage of the Japanese population, and it’s no wonder why if this film is anything to go by. A most interesting detail regarding the relationship between Japan and Christianity is revealed in the film’s opening narration. When the Catholics first came to Japan they brought not only their religion and trade with the western world, but guns. Is it possible for a man to hold peace in one hand and death in the other? I doubt it. This film is a beautifully made film. The cinematography, acting, and scripting are all on point. The central performance is moving and heartbreaking. But the film is not an easy sell, not only because it will prove to be controversial no matter what, but because its message is bleak. Nevertheless, Silence is great movie, even if it is a difficult one.