Legendary director Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, is both a triumph of filmmaking and a controversial look at the Christian faith. It has seen praise and condemnation by many believers alike. In this article, I’d like to share my thoughts on this wonderful film.
When I heard news of a new faith-based film that was to be directed by renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese, I was at once curious and cautious. A faith-based film by the man who directed classics as Goodfellas, Casino, and the The Last Temptation of Christ? Silence has been received negatively by some, even going as far to call it a “dangerous” film and one a faithful Christian should avoid. Even I left the theatre feeling confused and slightly underwhelmed. I knew it was well-made, but what was it trying to tell me? Before I get into my analysis, I need to summarize the story. Warning, massive spoilers follow.
The majority of Silence takes place in 17th century Japan as it follows two Jesuit priests (Father Rodrigues—played by Andrew Garfield—and Father Garrpé—played by Adam Driver) and their mission to investigate news of their mentor’s (Father Ferreira—played by Liam Neeson) supposed apostasy of his faith and to minister to the scattered Japanese Christian peasants. After a firm warning of the dangers they would face, they illegally immigrated to Japan through their guide, the drunkard Kichijiro. He’s a person who has quite the knack for apostatizing his faith. Although he’s known by others as a Christian, he immediately exclaims “I am not a Christian!” when asked.
After landing on the Japanese shore the priests are greeted by a group of lowly Japanese fisherman who happen to be Christian. Desperate for some assurance of faith and someone to confess their sins to, the priests find themselves wrapped up in the task to spread their faith to other villages. Success follows until the Japanese Shogunate investigate. They find Christians are present by the way of demanding they step on a metal block called a fumi-e that bears the image of Jesus Christ. When they refuse, they’re met with a grueling execution by way of starvation and exhaustion. They refuse, not only to stand firm in their faith but to also keep the priests alive to continue to minister to the broken.
Because of this, the priests separate in order to reduce the risk of them both ending up dead. From here the film keeps its focus on Father Rodrigues as he’s captured by the Japanese Shogunate, represented by Inquisitor Inoe. Due to Christianity’s ties to hostile foreign powers, Inoe believes Christianity poses a great risk to his country and culture and that it doesn’t belong in Japan. In contrast to other anti-Christian persecutors, Inoe knows martyrdom only strengths the Christian faith, so he attempts to defeat it another way. Because of his position as a leader of the faith, Rodrigues alone is forced to apostatize by way of witnessing the torture and death of Japanese Christian peasants (many who have apostatized themselves). The longer he refuses the more people die.
Eventually, Rodrigues catches eye of Father Garrpé, who’s also been captured by the Shogunate. At this point, a couple of peasants are about to be wrapped in straw and thrown into the ocean. Obviously devastated and driven mad by the death he’s seen around him, Father Garrpé screams and dives into the ocean to try to save them. Due to extreme exhaustion, however, he too eventually drowns.
Seeing his friend die before him, Rodrigues breaks, and the doubt that’s been nagging at him since their separation has overwhelmed him. This is only made worse when he meets the mentor they were originally searching for, Father Ferreira. We find that he has not only apostatized, but has also adopted the Buddhist customs of those around him, and is even writing a book that’s intended to refute Christianity. Driven mad by God’s silence as they endure this terrible pain and doubt, Rodrigues ends up trampling on the fumi-e. However, before he apostatizes, God breaks the silence and says,
“Come ahead now. It’s all right. Step on Me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain. Step.”
The final act of the film documents the remainder of Rodrigues life as a Buddhist, publically denying his faith annually, whilst he continues to secretly minister to the broken. The film closes with Rodrigues dying of old age with the words, “From the outside, he is lost to God, but on the inside, only God knows.” The film lingers on Rodrigues in his grave, holding a small crucifix.
It’s abundantly clear why Silence has been shunned by many Christians. We’ve been told by some that the film is a depressing and hopeless portrayal of a man losing his faith. In some aspects I can agree, it is tragic, but not for a second do I believe the film should be shunned or that it’s dangerous to the Christian faith. Allow me to explain.
The film’s beginning accurately mirrors Christian culture today with Rodrigues enthusiastically applying for the mission to evangelize Japan. He’s young and ready to be a hero for God. Isn’t that how we perceive evangelism today? Don’t we all have this idea that we’re heroes for Christ and that no matter what comes our way we will stand for the truth? The God’s Not Dead films are the most popular in the Christian industry right now for this very reason. They paint a picture of persecution (a term used very lightly here) and the Christian hero who never backs down.
This is the image of Christendom that’s rampant in the church, yet I can’t help but feel we’ve forgotten the most important aspect of the faith. Our faith was born on a bloody cross, the image of a bruised and broken messiah. Silence challenges this fanatical view of Christianity and points us back to the cause of the cross. But it isn’t enough to acknowledge that Jesus died on the cross, we also need to know why he died, and Scorsese answers that so beautifully.
Throughout the film, we see the Japanese fisherman Kichijiro constantly deny his faith in order to be spared from torture. We also see him beg for forgiveness each and every time, almost to the point of obsession. We see a man who is so obviously guilt-ridden, but every single time he cannot bring himself to stand firm. He follows the staunch Rodrigues everywhere he goes in order to confess his sins over and over again.
Halfway through the film, I was asking myself “Why is he even here?” He didn’t seem to be serving a purpose other than to provide comedic relief. I say this because there was laughter every time he tried to repent of his actions after the third time. Even I, sitting comfortably on the leather seat with a chocolate bar in hand, thought to myself, “How ridiculous is this guy?” I was inwardly telling him how he couldn’t possibly believe what he claims. How could he proclaim Christ one day, then deny him the next as soon as he’s met with the mere threat of persecution? How could anyone in this film possibly claim to be Christian whilst denying Christ at the same time? In the end, we see the greatest oxymoron of all by way of Father Ferreira whispering, “Our Lord,” whilst finding smuggled Christian symbols in the baggage of immigrants.
Jesus’s words before Rodrigues steps on the fumi-e are immensely profound. Throughout the film we see Rodrigues fight the silence and persecution, but then we hear “It’s ok, I was born into this world to share men’s pain” at the most controversial moment. We were never meant to fight pain in order to show ourselves as “faithful,” we were meant to acknowledge that we aren’t faithful. We can’t bear pain alone. Faithfulness is not in denying that, but in acknowledging it. Indeed, Christ didn’t only die for us, He also died because of us. If we were not riddled with sin from head to toe, what need would we possess for Christ’s spilled blood?
No Biblical story portrays this better than Peter’s denial. The enthusiastic disciple who told Jesus that, “….Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee.” We soon read that at the slightest threat of persecution Peter denies Christ three times. Kichijiro was the personification of Peter’s weakness. Even Rodrigues, after being broken by the torture of those around him, gives in to his weakness.
Aren’t we all a Peter, a Kichijiro, or a Rodrigues? Can we really say as Peter did in our present age, “Though I should die with thee, yet I will not deny thee”? What would we really do when faced with the threat of torture? We come nowhere near the terrifying persecution the Japanese once faced. Are we really willing to be held upside down above a pile of offscourings as blood slowly trickles out of a slit in our necks? I realize I was foolish to condemn the actions of both Kichijiro and Rodrigues. We are weak. We betray Christ every day we’re alive. If we can stand before Christ and say “Even through death, I will never leave you” then shouldn’t we also be able to say “Even through the hardest temptation, I will never betray you”?
That isn’t the cross. Christ shared our suffering and our pain, and He invites us to share in that every day. Have you ever thought of the profound and powerful implications of the phrase “break the bread” during communion? Christ Himself invited us to “break the bread,” to break his body. In other words, He invites us to trample upon Him every day. Communion is both a celebration of our weakness and Christ’s salvation through that weakness, ultimately defying it in His resurrection. It isn’t simply remembering the cross, but also acknowledging the reason He placed Himself on it. We broke His body and yet, while we were doing so, He died for us all.
This is the very thought Silence is asking us to remember. It isn’t telling us apostasy is right, it is telling us that we would do the same. That we are Kichijiro, we are Peter, and that no matter how much we may fight, we may give in to our weakness in the end, and that’s ok. We always fall into the arms of Christ. It’s ok to live in fear of persecution. We aren’t the heroes the media has made us out to be. In communion, in that celebration of our weakness, there is also hope.
It is a shame Silence has endured such controversy from Christian circles. We’re foolish to think the way we do. It is a film I’m incredibly thankful to have seen. Not even my short analysis has unpacked all this film has to say. It is nothing short of a masterwork and one of the most beautiful I have ever seen from an unlikely director. Thank you, Scorsese, for showing us what we have been missing all this time.