Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a movie that I admire for the tough questions about faith and spirituality that it raises but I am ultimately unsatisfied by it for the breadth it limits itself to. There is also much to appreciate in terms of the filmmaking qualities as we would expect from a director like Scorsese. Given that this is a personal passion project by Scorsese to deal with issues of Christian faith and spirituality, I find it appropriate to bring my own personal and spiritual response to the film as a churchgoing Protestant Christian (and it should stir a response for others in their own spiritual background).
The movie is based on Shusaku Endo’s 1971 novel, Silence, a piece of historical fiction that Scorsese had reportedly labored for over 20 years to bring to the big screen. For all of the novel’s exquisite, literate prose, much of the issues that I have with the novel carry over into the film. Both the book and the movie portray a complex portrait of different levels and strengths of religious faith and the story made me think deeply about what it means to follow the Christian God under extreme persecution and agony. However, the kind of faith that the story embraces is not a clear, steadfast kind of faith but a kind that yields to a confusion of one’s own identity.
The story begins in the 17th Century with two young Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) in the Portugese Catholic Church. They receive word that their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who journeyed to Japan to do missionary work, has apostatized and renounced the Christian faith in public. The young priests can hardly fathom that their mentor has done such an act and they decide to travel to Japan to find out.
With the help of a slovenly and sycophantic beggar, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), they find a village of lay Christian people. Among them are Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) and Ichizo (Yoshi Oda). Always vigilant of the officials that are sent to scout the villages under the orders of the Lord of Chikugo, Inoue (Issei Ogata), the villagers protect the priests and hold their masses in the evening as secretively as possible.
What the movie portrays extremely well is the widespread persecution of Christianity in Japan, though by some, it could also be read as a vicious war between two opposing world views of Japanese and Western cultures. The 16th Century period in Japan there was historically one of the strongest and most successful suppressions of Christianity and the film conveys that punishingly in numerous scenes. One of the most powerful and disturbing scenes shows a few Christians being hung on a cross against raging tides on the seas, dying a slow, exhausting death for their beliefs while singing hymns. Also, despite the raw brutality interspersed throughout (including one unsettling decapitation scene), Scorsese, in stark contrast to his usual style of dynamic camera movement, keeps his compositions here mostly static in the tradition of Carl Theodor Dreyer or Robert Bresson.
Moreover, the movie poses a tougher question than self-martyrdom. It is bad and painful enough to die for your own beliefs but what if a priest is forced to watch one of the Christians they have converted suffer? That is the strategy that Inoue and his officials employ to suppress the Christian faith. Amidst this, what if God seems to remain silent through this immeasurable, unendurable suffering?
Ultimately, however, Scorsese, who at one point had studied to become a Catholic priest but now professes himself as a “lapsed Catholic”, is aiming to make a profound spiritual film. This is where I think the film falls rather short, especially compared to the works of Dreyer or Bresson. Scorsese focuses narrowly on the agony of the suffering throughout without contrasting it with even a minute sense of spiritual elation or joy. It does not have to be some big epiphany but it would have been insightful to actually explore what made the Japanese Christians convert to the faith they are so willing to die for. The best spiritual films have done this in small gestures. Even Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which was criticized for being relentlessly focused on the gory suffering of Jesus Christ, interspersed moments of His teachings to balance the mood and provide context for the suffering.
One other problem that diminishes the impact of the overall film is that, while most of the actors are very convincing in their roles (especially Issei Ogata as the frightening persecutor), Andrew Garfield is miscast in the central role. While he has been effective in emotional roles in movies such as Boy A, Hacksaw Ridge, and the Spider-Man movies, he is too much to an open-faced actor to play a priest in spiritual crisis. Even though the suffering around him would brew turmoil inside anyone, he does not really convey the supposed inner confusion. If Garfield did not come off as more of an easily wavering priest rather than a truly conflicted one, I would have been able to accept some ambivalence I have towards the film’s ideas (and I think Adam Driver, who plays the more stalwart priest would probably have fit better in the role).
Then there are my objections that I believe troublingly limits the scope of Christianity that the movie presents. To express them, I will try to be vague to avoid potential spoilers, but if you would like to go into this movie cold, please skip the next two paragraphs.
After all the turmoil that surrounds the priest, one of the concluding points the movie posits is that love for Christians must prevail even at the cost of apostatizing and blaspheming Christ (represented in the movie by stepping on a crude drawing statue of Christ’s face). However, this is only true if one ignores crucial verses from the Bible that state in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” The verse is indeed a troubling one, even for the most faithful of Christians, although it does not misleadingly mean that one should willingly abandon their family for God. What it does mean, however, is that when one is left with a difficult choice between betraying God and the sacrificing of others close to us, a Christian must choose not to betray God. Not only does this verse never seem to cross the mind of a Catholic priest, but in the most perturbing moment, one character even says, “Christ would have apostatized for His followers,” which simply flies in the face of all Biblical teachings.
In addition, both the book and the movie propose that betraying Christ over and over again is acceptable in the eyes of God (a point more heavily emphasized in the lesser read Gospel of Judas than the Bible, the former of which Scorsese seems to embrace more). It is true that the Bible says that no sin is unforgiven, but there is also a crucial verse in Hebrews 6:6 citing that “[Those who have been saved] and fallen away – to be restored again to repentance, because they themselves are crucifying the son of God all over again and subjecting Him to public disgrace.” The fact that the story portrays that repeated betrayal is okay is meant to express that God is all-loving and all-forgiving. While the Bible does express those two qualities in abundance, it is also said that He expects true faith, which is far from what the movie presents in the form of someone who lives an outward life of betraying other Christians while supposedly holding a certain faith inside (the dichotomy between inner and outer selves is a common theme of Scorsese films). However, to be fair, the movie (not the book) does counter this view a little by showing a character who seems to break away from his pattern of betrayal.
So is the movie worth seeing? For the reason that there are few movies that ponder the questions and situations that the movie raises, I cannot dismiss it. Certainly, it works as a discussion starter and it will leave many people to start their own conversations. However, for me personally, on balance, I think it is far from the rich spiritual experience the movie aspires to be.
USA. 2016. Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese. Based on the novel by Shusaku Endo. Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Issei Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, and Yosuke Kubozuka. Rated R for some disturbing violent content.