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Silence is beautiful, unsettling, and one of the finest religious movies ever made

Martin Scorsese’s film keenly understands Shūsaku Endō’s novel and challenges believer and nonbeliever alike.

Andrew Garfield and Yôsuke Kubozuka in Silence
Andrew Garfield and Yôsuke Kubozuka in Silence
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence (first published in Japanese in 1966 as Chinmoku, then translated into English in 1969) is slippery and troubling, a book that refuses to behave. It flatters no reader; it refuses to comfort anyone. In telling the story of Portuguese priests and persecuted Christians in Japan, it navigates the tension between missionary and colonizer, East and West, Christianity and Buddhism and political ideology, but refuses to land on definitive answers.

Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating film Silence is based on Endō’s novel, which he read shortly after his 1988 film Last Temptation of Christ was protested and condemned by the Catholic Church and other conservative Christians 28 years ago. It’s almost impossible to capture the nuances of a novel like Endō’s for the screen; Masahiro Shinoda tried in 1971, and Endō reportedly hated the ending. But Scorsese comes about as close as one can imagine, and the results are challenging for both the faithful and the skeptic.

Rating


4.5


The struggle for faith in a world marked by suffering and God’s silence is present in every frame of Silence. The answers in Scorsese’s film, as in Endō’s novel, are found not in words, but in the spaces between them.

Silence is a story of persecution in a Japan seeking to expel foreigners

Silence is the story of two young Portuguese Catholic priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver). They learn from their superior (Ciarán Hinds) that their mentor and former confessor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who had gone to Japan as a missionary, is reported to have apostatized — that is, repudiated his faith. The rumor is that he’s now living with his wife among the Japanese.

Liam Neeson in Silence
Liam Neeson in Silence.

Unable to believe such a thing of Ferreira, Rodrigues and Garrpe beg and eventually are permitted by the church to travel to Japan, where they arrive in 1639 amid a government ban on Christianity. They meet a fisherman named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), who agrees to sneak them onto an island near Nagasaki.

The Japanese government’s opposition to Christianity, and the subsequent movement of worshippers to practicing their faith underground, was the result of a complicated set of political factors. Those factors included the influx of Europeans into the country, which the government viewed as a security threat, as well as the Shimabara Rebellion, a revolt of starving peasants against their lords. The persecution of Christians was partly a way to quash the uprising.

On the island to which Kichijiro brings the priests, a group of Kakure Kirishitan (“hidden Christians”) live, practicing their faith in secret to avoid scrutiny from the government — especially Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), who will torture them until they recant. Inoue’s preferred method of ferreting out believers is to force them to trample on a fumie, a simple carved image of Christ. Those who trample, live. Those who refuse are tortured and killed.

Rodrigues and Garrpe live in secret, ministering to the villagers and others nearby. They feel compassion for the people, who live difficult lives of oppression and starvation. But the priests are betrayed by Kichijiro (who is a Judas figure in the story), separated, and brought under Inoue’s scrutiny.

From there the perspective is largely Rodrigues’s, as he witnesses Christians being tortured and is told that if he apostatizes, if he steps on the fumie and repudiates his faith, the others will be spared. But how can he imagine such a thing? And what would it mean for him — a priest, sworn to serve Christ — to choose to do such a thing? As he sees Japanese Christians being tortured, he calls out for answers. But he receives none in return.

Shūsaku Endō’s writing was filtered through his experience as the Other

Endō was Japanese and a Catholic, which meant that no matter where he went, he was an outsider: His Buddhist countrymen viewed him with suspicion for his religion, while the Europeans among whom he lived for years in France considered him a stranger because of his nationality. He was deeply acquainted with the experience of being the Other, and informed the way he understood most everything.

His outlook was further shaped by insights about the links between soul and body he likely gleaned from years of suffering and hospitalization due to recurring bouts of disease in his lungs (at one point, he spent two years in the hospital). For Endō, there are no easy routes to salvation; a person’s body — its ethnicity, its weaknesses, its susceptibility to pain and desire — is as much his link to the life and sufferings of Christ as a person’s soul. (In one of Endō’s novellas, which is at least partly autobiographical, the protagonist is a Japanese scholar of French literature, who is both grappling with faith and studying the Marquis de Sade, for whom sadism is named.)

A scene from Martin Scorsese's Silence
Andrew Garfield prays in Silence.
Paramount

All of these paradoxes seem to have shaped how Endō thought about the paradoxes of his faith: for instance, the enigma of Christ, who in Christian doctrine is both fully God and fully man. Or the conundrum of Christians being instructed to imitate Christ, while knowing that’s an impossible task for flawed humans. Or the friction between the cultures he strongly identified with, which had to include grappling with both colonialism and oppression.

And as a Catholic, Endō would have believed in the doctrine of Incarnation — that is, the idea that Jesus, the divine Son of God, took on a human body in ancient Israel, during Roman occupation. Jesus lived the life of a carpenter and an itinerant preacher among peasants and villagers, and was eventually executed, his body bruised and pierced, for being a threat to the Roman Empire and the religious leaders who capitulated to it.

So the complexity of entering a culture that is not one’s own was not lost on Endō, and he would see it through the lens of Christ’s experience. But as a person who experienced its pain himself — and as a native of a country marked by colonization — Endō would have complicated feelings about this. People are not Christ. Imitating Christ can mean imitating his incarnation, but nobody can hope to do so without cost, and nobody can do it perfectly. Those complexities surface in Silence.

Scorsese is well-suited to resonate on Endō’s wavelength: a cradle Catholic — he once considered becoming a priest — who has at times been rejected by the church, and a man who is obviously haunted by the connections between body and soul, sin and redemption.

Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield in Silence
Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield in Silence.
Paramoung

In Silence, Scorsese has found his natural match for plumbing those questions, which he does with considerable restraint. (Readers of Endō’s novel know the descriptions of torture are sickening; in Scorsese’s hands they are more psychologically than visually distressing.) He dives deep, and comes up not with answers so much as an honest suggestion that whenever we think we’ve found the answers, we’ve veered off track. He’s described making the film as a “pilgrimage” of sorts, which denotes both a journey and a struggle, and it shows. Silence is beautifully shot and moving, but it is not what you’d call uplifting. It’s a film that demands reflection, and a rewatch.

To grasp Silence requires seeing it through Rodrigues’s eyes

The strongest, clearest way to understand the story of Silence is through the character of Rodrigues, because his arc hangs on a double thread: that of his role as a European missionary in Japan — what from the 21st century might seem like a “white savior” complex — and that of his place as a priest struggling to understand how to imitate Christ and realizing, slowly, that he can’t, or at least not the way he thought he should.

This relies on recognizing that the story is largely narrated by Rodrigues, and thus shaped by his perceptions. The point at which there’s a noticeable switch in narrators is the film’s inflection point. Everything hinges on that change.

Note: if you want to avoid spoilers, scroll down to the next image.

Silence aims a two-pronged spear right at Rodrigues’s assumptions about his work. He sees himself as a minister to the people of Japan, and so he is: The role of a priest in Catholic doctrine is to embody, in a small way, the intermediary role that Christ plays between the worshipper and God himself. (There’s a moment early on in Silence, when Rodrigues and Garrpe first meet the hidden Christians on the island, in which the hidden Christians explain that in the absence of a priest to administer the sacraments, they’ve come up with a substitute but non-ordained priest, and they wonder if that’s okay. Rodrigues and Garrpe assure them that it is.)

Rodrigues is more flexible in how he applies his understanding of faith to Japanese culture than Garrpe is. When some of his flock ask whether it is okay to trample the fumie to save their own lives, he says it is. But he holds himself, a minister, to a higher standard: It is one thing for the Japanese believer to trample, and another thing entirely for him.

There is some inkling of patronization here (and this is the 1630s, after all). Rodrigues continually speaks of the believers as miserable, suffering, living and dying as beasts; he sees them as human and worthy of salvation, but not exactly as people so much as a mass that needs tending. (For those watching closely, the film is subtly — but perhaps too subtly — critical of this mindset; Rodrigues is no saint.)

But his experience among them is mixed with a strong dose of real belief. Rodrigues is confident, as he tells Inoue in a conversation, that if Christianity cannot be true in every culture than it cannot be true at all. He believes that the good news is good news for everyone, and he is critical of a government that would seek to keep its people from freely worshipping whomever or whatever they wish.

Yet the confrontation of Christianity via Rome with Japanese culture is far more complicated than he imagined. When Rodrigues finally locates Ferreira, the former priest tells him, with sorrow, that Christianity simply cannot take root in Japan, and that there is much truth to be found in Buddhism (the state-mandated religion). This encounter visibly shakes Rodrigues.

The friction between the two — Japanese culture and Christianity — seems to be a lifelong conflict for Rodrigues, even after he finally breaks down and tramples the fumie, saving the Japanese Christians, then remains in the country to live out the rest of his life. He seems broken, his assumptions shattered; when he’s approached to hear a confession years after he leaves the priesthood, he refuses, unwilling to put the supplicant in danger.

Rodrigues’s so-called salvation looks like anything but

But that he does trample the fumie and live out his life in Japan, having publicly repudiated his faith, is both a kind of rebuke and salvation for Rodrigues. In Endō’s novel, and for much of Scorsese’s film, Rodrigues tells his own story in the form of letters, and mimicking that device, the film subtly gives us the story from his point of view. “Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful,” Rodrigues muses after the baptism of a peasant child, whom he characterizes in terms that seem harsh. “The hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt — this is the realization that came home to me acutely at that time.”

It becomes clear that Rodrigues does conceive of himself and his call to imitate Christ as a call to function as a Christ-figure to the people of Japan, suffering and even dying for them if he must. But part of that call requires being the public Christian, the man of God among them. Kichijiro is his Judas, the betrayer, and Inoue is a sort of Satan tempting him with ease and comfort in the midst of his wilderness, just like Christ.

And yet this perception Rodrigues has of himself is complicated by Inoue’s challenge: trample the fumie, and not only will you live easy, but you will save the lives of these others. This is a direct challenge to Rodrigues’s perception of what it means to minister and have faith, one forged in a European context. That the image of Christ calls him to drop his preconceptions rends his heart and challenges him. He must not just repudiate his religious beliefs externally, but also relinquish his own idea of how he’ll serve God, which in turn causes him to wonder whether he is fit to do so at all.

The agony of Rodrigues’s choice to trample the fumie, then, is the agony of letting go of his self-image of faith for another one, an ignominious one in which he will always be the priest who apostatized, no longer the agent of grace and the sacraments to the Japanese. The movie (and the novel) flip to another point of view after Rodrigues’s apostatization, and now we can only see his actions from the outside, rather than experiencing them through the voiceover of his thoughts, agonies, and prayers that we heard before. Rodrigues’s faith, as it were, has become silent. His suffering for Christ isn’t physical, but spiritual: He is questioning whether his faith is faith at all, and whether God is with him even when he seems to be so far away.

But the fumie is an image of the Christ he is meant to imitate, and it is covered in mud, stepped upon by feet, nothing compared to the glorious image he holds in his mind. It’s more in keeping with the Bible’s depiction of Christ (as lowly, crucified in the manner of a thief), but its very kindness in the face of his impending betrayal is enough to break Rodrigues’s heart.

During the film’s telling, climactic moment — when Rodrigues finally tramples on the fumie — you can hear a rooster crow somewhere in the distance. That, of course, is the same thing that happened in the Gospels, when Peter denied Christ before the crucifixion.

Liam Neeson in Silence
Liam Neeson in Silence.

Silence challenges the religious and non-religious alike

Since seeing Silence, I’ve been eager to know how others will react to the film. I am a Christian, and Endō’s Silence has been widely read and studied in my community for decades. Even though I’m familiar with the story, I found the film unsettling: The tendency for any religious person is to seek definitive answers for the greatest, most troubling existential questions, and I was confronted with the suffering that can happen on the path to faith, and the doubt that has to be part of that.

But it’s been remarkable to discover that Silence is a challenging film for many critics and early viewers, including those who aren’t interested in religion at all, or who don’t identify with a particular faith. The genius of Endō’s story and Scorsese’s adaptation is that it won’t characterize anyone as a saint, nor will it either fully condone or reject the colonialist impulses, the religious oppression, the apostasy, or the faltering faith of its characters. There is space within the story for every broken attempt to fix the world. Endō’s answer still lies in Christ, but his perception of Christ is radically different from what most people are familiar with — and even those who don’t identify with Christianity will find the film unnerving and haunting.

The hidden Christians talk to the priests in Silence
The hidden Christians talk to the priests in Silence.

Silence is the kind of film that cuts at everyone’s self-perceptions, including my own. I haven’t been able to shake it, because I need to remember — now, frankly, more than ever — that I am not able nor responsible to save the world, let alone myself. How the world changes is a giant, cosmic mystery. To grow too far from that and become hardened in my own belief is a danger: I grow complacent and deaf, too willing to push others away.

In Silence, nobody is Christ but Christ himself. Everyone else is a Peter or a Judas, a faltering rejecter, for whom there may be hope anyway. What Scorsese has accomplished in adapting Endō’s novel is a close reminder that the path to redemption lies through suffering, and that it may not be I who must save the world so much as I am the one who needs saving.

Silence opens in limited theaters on December 23 and wide on January 6.

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