Based on the 1966 Shusaku Endo novel of the same name, Silence is the story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in the 1600’s to find their mentor and spread Christianity. In remaining faithful to its source material, director Martin Scorsese’s film offers no easy answers but begs many great questions.
The young priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) have heard a rumor that their beloved Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has undergone torture and as a result, has committed apostasy. It’s also believed that he may still be living in Nagasaki. Unwilling to accept the report as fact, the priests make it their mission to travel to Japan in search of Ferreira.
Upon arrival to China, a man named Kichijiro helps ferry them to Japan and to a village where a small group of underground Japanese believers are hiding. Because of the immense persecution and rampant torture, the fearful villagers must worship in secret, but they are overcome with joy upon meeting the two priests. Having become believers because of the work of Jesuit priests in the past, they have longed for the return of one who can listen to their confessions and administer the sacraments.
The priests are most impressed with the quiet, beautiful faith of the villagers, but all that is interrupted when the authorities get wind of the hidden Christians. Rodrigues and Garrpe are given the chance to flee, yet they remain close enough to witness the interrogations. Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), a feeble yet cruel man, oversees these interactions with the Christian peasants, and his rules are simple. If a person steps on the fumie (a small, carved image of Christ) they are assumed non-Christians and can therefore go free. If they don’t trample the image of Christ, they’re subjected to torture until they either recant their faith or die. The priests weep as they witness the cruelty from afar, yet their own personal safety is short-lived.
Soon after this event, Rodrigues, as well as several other believers, are betrayed by a Judas-like character and handed over to the authorities. Rodrigues is brought before the Inquisitor. Instead of torturing Rodrigues, the Christian villagers are made to suffer unless the priest is willing to recant his faith by trampling the fumie. Denying his faith and his God would be the only way to end the suffering of the faithful few he has dedicated his life to serve.
The imprisoned Rodrigues is, for the most part, treated quite well. There is a certain civility among his captors. On several occasions, he is brought before the Inquisitor and fascinating conversations ensue between the two men. How can he possibly recant when he has lived his whole life to serve the God he loves? But at the same time, with suffering and death all around, why won’t God speak? Why won’t he intervene? The Inquisitor is adamant that Christianity is not able to take root in a place like Japan. Rodrigues argues that gospel truth can flourish in Japan just like it does in Portugal and elsewhere. What the priest sees as a loving gift to impart on the country, the Inquisitor sees as an arrogant, imperialist attempt to exert power and destroy Japanese culture and customs.
The personal challenge
I won’t spoil any of what happens next, but I will say that this is a meaningful film for thoughtful believers. Some have criticized the slow pace of the film, and indeed it is slow. There are also scenes that are difficult to watch. But for the patient viewer who doesn’t mind being challenged to wrestle with long-held beliefs, the rewards are great.
I was a high school senior when the Columbine massacre happened. I remember hearing stories of students who, when asked by the gunmen if they were Christians, boldly proclaimed their faith. I hoped I would have done the same thing. But the truth is, unless I’m faced with the prospect of death or intense suffering, I have no idea how I would react. Does faith always have to be public to be true faith? What if someone in that situation denied Christ to spare his life, or perhaps the life of another? Would his soul be lost forever? These are just a few of the questions with which we must wrestle as we watch the story unfold.
I’ve also pondered this idea: When I share the gospel with another person, how much of it is truly centered solely on Christ, and how much of it is me bringing in my ideas of Western Evangelical Christianity? This thought has troubled me recently because I don’t want to bring an ounce of myself into the situation. I want to go into all the world and make disciples, not of myself, but of Christ.
Silence is an incredibly well made film, from the directing and acting down to the set design and costumes. It’s a bold film that dares us to put voice to what we may have wondered and possibly doubted about the goodness of God. The characters cry out much like the biblical Job did in the midst of suffering. And yet, we’re reminded from scripture that when we are faithless, he is faithful.
We know that Christ understands our human suffering because he suffered as well. He also felt the sting of God’s “silence” on the cross. And yet, ”for the joy that lay before him, he endured a cross, despising its shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne” (Heb. 12:2). So in the midst of trials, we need not lose heart when we don’t suffer well, because the victory is not won through us; it was won long ago by a silent sufferer who stands victorious and intercedes on our behalf.