I wonder if Martin Scorsese considered using this quote from Julie Roys (from her editorial in The Christian Post) for a promotional blurb for his film, Silence: “Though the film certainly has important redeeming qualities...it is deeply disturbing -- and potentially hazardous to one’s spiritual health.” Too wordy for a poster of course, so perhaps he could use just use “Hazardous to One’s Spiritual Health!”
I’m not about to discount the idea that films can have a negative effect on people. I’m always amused by people in the film industry who proudly proclaim that their pet project will make great inroads in social justice, further the causes of tolerance, justice, and truth -- and then deny that, say, a violent act might have been motivated by a film, because, after all, “It’s just a movie.” Film, like all other art, can have an impact on the way we think, feel and, yes, our “spiritual health.”
Roys’ problem with Silence is that it presents a seemingly impossible moral and theological dilemma and doesn’t offer a solution (at least not, she writes, “a biblically viable one.”)
So I’m going to write about that dilemma; in order to do so, I’m going to have to reveal much of the plot of the film (based on historical events), so if you don’t want the film “spoiled” for you, read no further.
Silence is based on the 1966 novel by Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo, which he based on historical events in 17th century Japan. The Catholic Church sent many Jesuit missionaries to Japan, and it is estimated that at one time there were as many as 300,000 Christians there. The government was not pleased with this and began a widespread persecution of the church.
The film opens with two young priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) being sent on a mission with a dual purpose: to minister to the persecuted faithful and to search for the missionary priest (and the young priests’ former mentor), Father Ferreira, who was no longer in communication with the Church.
Arriving in Japan, the priests are greeted warmly by faithful Catholics in a small village. They hide the priests in a remote cabin and urge them to only come out at night. The village believers are thankful to have the priests to perform the sacraments, and they share with their scarce food and provisions with the priests.
The authorities learn there are priests in the area, and thay take three villagers as hostages, threatening their lives unless the priests are turned over. The authorities also force those in the village to renounce their Christian faith, asking all to step on an image of Christ and some to spit on a cross.
Rodrigues and Garupe disagree on how believers should deal with such persecution. Garupe argues the believers should not compromise in their faith in any way, whereas Rodrigues argues it’s not worth losing one’s life for not desecrating something that is, after all, just an image. “Trample, trample,” he urges believers asked to step on the image of Christ.
The priest flee in hope of bringing relief to the village, but the persecution continues.
The priests split up, but eventually Rodrigues is captured and turned over to the Inquisitor. Rodrigues tells the man that even if he is tortured and killed, he will not renounce his faith. The Inquisitor agrees with Rodrigues that this is probably true, he probably could endure much torture for himself. They tried that on priests before, “but we have learned from our mistakes.”
He tells the Rodrigues that instead, he must watch other Christian believers tortured for their faith.
The Inquisitor tells Rodrigues that if he is a good priest, he will renounce his faith to save his flock from further persecution. He argues that if the priest clings to his faith to the detriment of his people, he is a bad priest. This is the impossible moral quandary that Roys bemoaned. It reminded me of Paul’s desire to save the Jewish people (“For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race.”)
Rodrigues learns that Garupe has been captured as well and given the same options. But Garupe chooses to die, seeking to rescue a believer being drown in the sea, he drowns himself.
The film presents many images of Christians dying courageous deaths, at times singing praise to God in their deaths. (The authorities of the time practiced a wide variety of creative means for torture and death and many of these gruesome means are portrayed in the film.)
Rodrigues is then presented with a special visitor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has indeed turned apostate, renouncing his faith after many sessions of torture and after watching scores of others tortured and killed for their Christian faith. (It’s worth noting that often the Japanese believers were tortured and killed even after they renounced their faith.) Ferreira has even gone so far as to write a scholarly work (in Japanese) to present the Christian Gospel as a wicked deception.
Eventually, Rodrigues too renounces his faith. He takes a Japanese wife, the widow of a Christian martyred for his fatih. He joins Ferreira in the work of examining imports to Japan to prevent Christian words or images from entering the country. He is regularly required to renounce the Christian faith. And eventually he dies, the last Christian priest in Japan at a time when it seems the church itself in Japan is dead.
This is certainly a different kind of story than what is typically presented by Christian filmmakers where not only does everyone become a Christian, but the Christians win “the big game” at the end.
So does it harm a Christian’s faith to consider the choices faced by believers of other times and places? Especially to consider those who choose to deny Christ when Jesus said in Matthew 10:33 “whoever disowns Me before men, I will disown before the father in heaven?”
I don’t think so. My favorite character in the film is the man who serves as a guide for the priests at the beginning of their journey. Kichijiro is a drunk and a traitor. He at times denies he is a Christian and at other times admits that he believes. We learn that he betrayed his own family of Christian believers, and, in time, he betrays the priests. But he also continually returns to the priests asking for an opportunity for confession and forgiveness. I don’t know if Kichijiro ever reaches the 7 times 70 limit of requests for forgiveness, but he seems to press it.
At one point in the film, he says, “Why couldn’t I have been born in a time without persecution?” Those of us who live in times and places of great freedom should consider the blessings we have and consider how we make compromises under much less pressure.
And we should consider what I think Endo ultimately suggests in his work, that God is not silent, He suffers alongside both the martyrs and the apostates.
Scorsese dedicates his film “For the Japanese Christians and their pastors,” adding the words “Ad majorem Dei gloriam” which is the motto of the Jesuits, “For the greater glory of God.” Though the Inquisitor in the film argues that Japan is a swamp in which the Christian Gospel can never take root, the church in Japan endures.
So giving a Steeple rating is difficult for this film. The Apostate Priests probably would rather not be given any steeples. But for the martyrs of the Church in Japan, we give Four Steeples.