Martin Scorsese has turned his camera toward the subject of faith in the past. The results have often been met with much negative press. His film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) was denounced by the Catholic church, inspired boycotts by non-Catholic Christian groups, and caused protests in general. These reactions seems strange because, in large part, Scorsese is simply a man trying to come to grips with his own personal struggle with his Catholic faith. The difference is that, as opposed to a man who struggles with his faith in private and behind closed doors, Scorsese does it out in the open on the public screen. His inner difficulties become public matters and many viewers take his personal struggles as an affront to their own presuppositions, beliefs, and faith. While The Last Temptation of Christ takes the faithfulness of Christ and deals with it in somewhat disturbing ways, Silence (2016) deals with a similar issue but from the opposite position. Instead of wondering “what would have happened if Christ rebelled?” here Scorsese asks “how much forgiveness will God offer to a man who rebels? — Is there a limit to God’s forgiveness?” Such questions can be difficult to come to grips with as the human nature tries to wrestle with something that is beyond and outside of itself.
The realm of Christian films today tends to fall into the realm of the sloppy-hearted, mushy, all-ends-well, stories that are preachier than they are informative or revealing. Films like War Room (2015, dir. Kendrick Brothers) and God’s Not Dead (2014, dir. Harold Cronk) are aimed strictly at the choir and lack hitting any big ideas or questions. These films make Christianity as easily accessible and digestible as possible for the purpose of evangelistic ideals, but they fall short of this because their detachment from reality is so glaring that only Christians typically latch onto their messages. Films which dig deep, ask big questions, and aim to challenge the viewer to any actual introspection are usually too deep and too big for Christians to latch onto and get behind. A film like Silence is not easily digestible and therefore will be swept aside as dangerous because it not only asks for but requires introspection on the part of the viewer. War Room is a film of answers, but Silence is a film of questions. This fundamental difference will push certain segments of Christian viewers away because they go to see films which affirm their beliefs and view any questioning of belief as an attack. It would be very simple (and shallow, in my opinion) to walk away from Silence with the idea that it is an attack on Christianity (Catholicism specifically). It will incite discomfort in its viewers (I’ll wager of any religious background) as it is a highly disturbing film in many respects, but should be taken as a prompt toward reflection. In my experience, most of the audience which attends films like God’s Not Dead will be unwilling to give this film much attention beyond a surface level look. The “typical Christian film” succeeds because of its simplicity and the graspability of its message: at the end there is an answer. This is not to decry those films, but merely draw a distinction between the intention of those films and films like Silence. Silence, by the way, is a rare film that offers questions for faith but meanwhile seems to affirm faith all at once. It neither affirms nor denies. It simply presents questions and expects the audience to answer them.
These questions were addressed in a similar fashion in another film also called Silence (1971, dir. Masahiro Shinoda). These two films share their source material: a novel by the same name written by Shusaku Endo. How these films approach the material could not be any more different, however. I am completely unfamiliar with the book (although it comes very highly recommended), and so I am unable to judge the films in relation to how they handled the book’s material. That said, Scorsese’s film seems far more personal than Shinoda’s does. The recurring theme of the film is apostasy. The thought of abandoning the faith permeates every frame of the film and is manifested, in some fashion, within almost every main character. The film’s plot involves two young priests who secretly enter Japan during a time of Christian persecution under the Tokugawa Shogunate (which was a vicious and brutal period of Japanese history). The Japanese government actively seeks out and tortures any Christians they can find in an effort to stamp out the religion. These two young priests are seeking their “father in the faith,” Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The question which is present from the word go, however, is if the rumors surrounding Father Ferreira’s apostasy are true or not. Did he abandon the faith? The film is really a personal journey for priest Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) as he tries to come to grips with his own faith and his struggle with the “silence of God.” At one point in the film, after Rodrigues has watched first-hand as Japanese Christians were tortured and killed, he cries out: “Am I just praying to silence? Is he silent because he is not there?”
The main point of conflict comes via the character of Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka). Multiple times throughout the film he abandons Rodrigues and even turns him over to the authorities, but he always come back seeking forgiveness from the very man he betrayed. Finally, during the film’s climatic moments, Rodrigues is told to apostatize by stepping on an image (a fumi) of Jesus and renouncing his faith. If he does not do so then four innocent Japanese people will be executed he is told. Father Ferreira attempts to persuade him: “Jesus would apostatize and save those people.” Rodrigues finds himself in a catch-22 which has no answer. “I’ve seen these people die for the cause of Christ!” the young priest responds. “No,” Father Ferreira says, “they died for you.” Rodrigues renounces his faith, the four people are spared, and he, for all intents and purposes, becomes a Japanese person. In the original film the question at the heart of the movie seemed to be if a man could do something objectionable and yet still achieve good. In that film Rodriguez apostatizes but seems to remain faithful and allows Catholic artifacts (such as cups for the mass) to enter the country secretly. In this film Rodriguez is shown purposefully keeping Catholic artifacts out of the country. Here the question seems different and seems instead to ask how much forgiveness will God give to one man? This all seems wrapped up in the character of Kichijiro, the man who is shown to apostatize many times throughout the film’s runtime. I wonder how these two conflicting portrayals correspond to the book. I wonder if Scorsese is putting on display a personal demon he struggles with: how much forgiveness will God give to one man?
When Rodrigues stands over the image of Christ and he is trying to decide if he will step on it and renounce his faith, the voice of God seems to echo in his mind. Yet it seems to me, and I might be mistaken, that it was the voice of Liam Neeson. I wonder, after all that Rodrigues had seen and suffered, if he was any different from the Japanese Christians. Ferreira says that the Christians who died did so strictly to protect Rodrigues. Yet why did he come to Japan in the first place? To seek out Ferreira and prove that he could never abandon the faith. He does this, it seems, to try and prove to himself that faith is real. If Ferreira can apostatize, we can almost hear him wonder, what could stop me from doing the same? Then in that moment when God seems to call out to him it seems to be the voice of Father Ferreira that echoes in his mind. It is as though the very nature of Rodrigues faith seems in question, and, to be certain, the film quickly depicts the final ten years of his life wherein he lives as though he had never been a Christian. Briefly he and Kichijiro share a moment when the Japanese man wishes to have confession one final time. “I am not a Christian!” Rodrigues says. Yet he listens to the confession anyway. The film’s final image is the most puzzling of all. He is buried in a traditional buddhist funeral, but inside of his coffin he grasps a small wooden cross which was given to him one of his first days in Japan. The final bit of narration in the film reminds us that only God knows the hearts of men.
The performances are great. The cinematography is stunning. The story is troubling. Just as I warned with the 1971 film by Masahiro Shinoda (and just as I said earlier in this review) the questions raised in this film are not for everyone. For some they will be reaffirming, for others the subject of much introspection, and for some it could even be faith-shattering. I would not, however, call Silence a bad or dangerous film. It is simply a very difficult one and it asks much of its viewers. Some will be able to engage the film in the conversation that it tries to provoke and others will not. But Silence is a wonderful and powerful film and is possibly Scorsese’s best ever. On one hand I highly recommend it, but I do so with the disclaimer that you must be prepared to be challenged. If you only wish to watch a movie and not spend any time in reflection afterwards, then Silence would probably best be avoided.