While difficult to watch, Martin Scorsese’s new film taught me some things about the nature of faith, and even about my own.
Shin'ya Tsukamoto as Mokichi and Andrew Garfield as Father Sebastião Rodrigues in Silence, 2016. Paramount Pictures | MoviestillsDB.com
Reaction to Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which chronicles two priests at work in brutally repressive 17th century Japan, has been all over the map. Some people called it slow and dry, others depressing and needlessly disheartening, and still others found it to be a moving, even inspiring, statement of faith.
Me, I found it … difficult. Even now, a week after I first saw the film, I’m still thinking about it, still sifting.
Which means Silence, technically, must be pretty good. I don’t spend much time thinking about the bad films I review. They drain out of my brain almost the moment I’m done writing about them. But good films are different. They stick in your craw, roll around in your mind. They cling to you like burrs, demanding attention and thought.
Silence is that kind of movie for me. It taught or reinforced some things about the nature of faith and, in its own way, maybe exposed my own. I can’t say that I enjoyed it: Some movies, quite frankly, aren’t meant to be enjoyed. But I’m glad I watched it, and here are three reasons why:
1. The inspiring power of faith
In Silence, Jesuit Priests Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe travel to Japan to both search for their mentor (Father Ferreira) and minister to the Christians there, worshipping under withering persecution. They already know that Japan is not a safe, comfortable place to follow Jesus, but what they see when they first arrive astounds them.
Andrew Garfield as Sebastião Rodrigues and Yôsuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro, Silence, 2016. Paramount Pictures | MoviestillsDB.com
Their guide, Kichijiro, leads them first to a village that seems almost entirely populated by Christians, and the priests are greeted almost as if they’re gods themselves, so great is their hunger for sacrament and teaching. One Christian offers Rodrigues food, which the Jesuit begins to wolf down with scarcely a breath. But in mid-swallow, the priest remembers his manners.
“You do not eat?” He asks her.
“It is you that feed us,” she says.
Andrew Garfield as Sebastião Rodrigues, Silence. 2016. Paramount Pictures | MoviestillsDB.com
It’s a beautiful moment among many, seeing these horrifically persecuted Christians hungering so desperately for the bread of life. And I feel, in a way, strangely envious of that level of passion.
Faith is pretty easy for us these days. Few of us are asked to die for ours. And I forget sometimes how critical, and how life-changing, it should be.
2. How we translate our faith matters
Rodrigues is eventually captured and thrown in prison, where the country’s head inquisitor, Inoue Masashige, pushes the priest to apostatize. Inoue’s trump card: Ferreira himself, Rodrigues’ beloved teacher who apparently recanted his faith years earlier. He comes to Rodrigues and tells him that these so-called Japanese Christians aren’t really following Jesus at all—not, certainly, as they (or we) would understand Him. Ferreira says that the Japanese mind isn’t capable of seeing past the natural world, and that the Son of God for them is, literally, the sun: Instead of rising after three days, their god rises every morning.
Andrew Garfield as Sebastião Rodrigues, Silence, 2016. Paramount Pictures | MoviestillsDB.com
I’m not sure if Ferreira is being fair to the Japanese Christians worshipping and dying for their new faith. It is, perhaps, an excuse he makes, either to himself or those who watch him, for his own apostasy. But Shūsaku Endō, who wrote the book Silence on which Scorsese based his movie, grappled mightily in this clash of cultures.
In Silence, Japan is repeatedly called a “swamp” in which nothing can grow, certainly not Christianity. Both Ferreira and Inoue say that it is. And yet when Rodrigues says that Japan was fertile ground for Christianity before Inoue “poisoned” the soil, that rings true as well. (And it should be noted that “hidden Christians” remained in Japan for centuries.)
Liam Neeson plays Father Ferreira in Silence, 2016. Paramount Pictures | MoviestillsDB.com
So which is it? Silence is appropriately silent on that point: Both the book and film are far more effective at raising questions than offering answers. But as a Japanese Catholic himself, Endo felt the clash of his Eastern culture and Western Catholicism powerfully. “I received baptism when I was a child,” he once told Kumo magazine. “In other words, my Catholicism was a kind of ready-made suit … I had to decide either to make this ready-made suit fit my body or get rid of it and find another suit that fitted.”
That’s the central trick in bringing our one true faith to very different cultures, isn’t it? To get that spiritual suit to “fit” without turning it into something else entirely? We’re confronted with the same challenge even in our own country and era, where we’re asked to convey the eternal relevance of, and need for, God in this increasingly secular, high-tech society of ours. The truth stays the same, but how we convey that message may change. And throughout history, beginning with Paul talking about that “unknown god” on Mars Hill, we’ve seen Christians masterfully co-opt the cultures around them to convey the universal truth that saves us all.
Adam Driver as Francisco Garrpe and Andrew Garfield as Sebastião Rodrigues, Silence, 2016. Paramount Pictures | MoviestillsDB.com
“The Catholic faith never changes,” says Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze. “But the language and mode of manifesting this one faith can change according to peoples, times, and places.” It’s a hard line to walk, with heresy lurking on one side and irrelevance on the other. But Christianity has thrived for 2,000 years because, in part, it’s managed to find the balance.
The haunting question: What would I do?
By the end of the movie, Inoue gives Rodrigues an impossible choice: Publically apostatize and save the lives of several Christians that Inoue is torturing, or hold true to the faith and watch them all slowly, horrifically die.
When movies typically offer these sorts of sacrificial choices, we know the “right” answer. Heroes sacrifice everything for others, right? That’s what makes them heroes. But here, the right move isn’t so obvious. Should we sacrifice our faith—potentially our very souls—for the sake of these suffering believers?
Silence gives us a challenging, troubling message—one that I’m not sure how I feel about even now. Our faith is filled with martyrs who publicly held true to their faith during incredibly trying circumstances. But under such circumstances, what would I do in Rodrigues’ place, foot poised above the image of our Savior?
Yôsuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro, Silence, 2016. Paramount Pictures | MoviestillsDB.com
As I watched these Japanese Christians undergo torture and death, I wondered whether I could be so strong. As I watched Rodrigues struggle with the right path even as God, throughout most of the film, remains silent, I wondered whether my own struggle would be as honorable or whether I might slip into very worldly cowardice.
I fear, in some ways, that I might be like the guide Kichijiro, a groveling, often self-serving man who denies Christ whenever the path grows difficult. He tramples on the image, spits on the cross and, at one critical juncture, even betrays a priest for not 30, but 300 pieces of silver. And yet time and again, Kichijiro returns to confess his sins, throwing himself at the mercy of God and the very priest he betrayed. He wonders why he couldn’t have been born a century earlier, when Christianity was accepted in Japan.
And I wonder, too, what I would do if I was born in a time and place when my faith was dangerous. When carrying a cross or saying a prayer could mean death or worse. Would I be like one of the brave Japanese believers we see in Silence, singing hymns as I die? Or would I be Kichijiro?
I don’t know. I just don’t.
Read more about life on the corner of “Hollywood & Reality” from movie expert and reviewer Paul Asay every Friday. If you have an idea for a future topic, feel free to drop Paul a suggestion in the comments.
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