I ARRIVED AT THE ADVANCED screening of Martin Scorsese’s new film, Silence, in the worst possible frame of mind. I was running late, and I was starving. My only option for getting food in time was a fancy burger joint near the multiplex. After ordering a mega-burger and fries, I fidgeted at the table, waiting for my number to be called.
Inhaling the smell of frying beef, I was painfully aware that Silence chronicles both the extreme poverty of Japanese peasants in the seventeenth century and the torture and execution of missionary priests and converts. Then a man staggered into the restaurant. He appeared both high and homeless.
He began sidling up to people’s tables, as if to sit down beside them. I’ve seen this kind of thing before, and I knew what he was up to. He wanted to make the diners uncomfortable and cause them to feel a sense of obligation toward him. And yet, when he mumblingly asked if he could sit by me, I said no so quickly and in such a loud voice that I startled myself. He moved on to another table, and soon one of the cooks shooed him out.
Scarfing my food with an eye on the time, I inwardly squirmed with guilt. The minute I finished the burger I ran after the man and gave him the bag containing half my French fries. Then I tore up the escalator to the theater without looking back.
I got to my seat just as the theater darkened. It’s well known that Scorsese has wanted to make this film for nearly thirty years. It is a faithful, loving adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel, which tells the story of two Jesuit missionary priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), who travel to Japan despite stories of mass persecution of the Christian population and the foreign priests who serve them.
Rodrigues and Garupe are driven not only by missionary zeal but also by the report that one of their predecessors and mentors, Father Ferreira, has renounced his faith under torture and taken a wife. Their search takes them on a path similar to that traced in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: they enter a bleak and forbidding land seeking a mysterious figure who has reportedly gone native, in the hope that he can provide answers to their own deepest questions.
In the Portuguese colony of Macao they meet a drunken Japanese fisherman named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), who becomes their guide en route to Japan itself. Though he denies being a Christian, he takes them to a village of Japanese converts, who welcome the priests with joy and relief. It quickly becomes evident that the repression of Christianity has become brutal, ingenious, and ruthlessly efficient. The very presence of the priests, who are welcomed as God’s servants and intermediaries, places the villagers in danger.
Thus the stage is set. While the film remains reverently faithful to Endō’s novel, it is very much Scorsese territory. The director, an ex-seminarian, has long been preoccupied by the figure of Judas, as in his earlier adaptation The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and in such figures as Charlie (Harvey Keitel) in Mean Streets and other films.
Judas has been all too easily reviled throughout western history, yet he is an inherently dramatic figure, caught between self-preservation and a certain form of tortured idealism, between loyalty and betrayal. In his foreword to the new edition of Silence, Scorsese writes: “Endō looks at the problem of Judas more directly than any other artist I know.” In both the novel and film Kichijiro fulfils the role of a ragtag Judas, a pathetic, cowardly sort who betrays Father Rodrigues and his own Christian faith but who continues to lurk on the perimeter of the story, alternately hiding in shame and returning with anguished pleas for the sacrament of confession.
Rodrigues is initially repulsed by Kichijiro, seeing only his weakness and venality. His own training has conditioned him to see the Christian as a hero overcoming adversity through the strength of his conviction, but Kichijiro reveals to him a new dimension of faith. Rodrigues reflects: “But Christ did not die for the good and the beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and the beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt….”
The virtue of both the novel and film is that they refuse to reduce an intractable, tragic conflict into a tale of either heroic martyrdom or cultural imperialism. The inquisitor Inoue (brilliantly played by Issei Ogata) is clever as well as cruel, but his argument that Japan is a “swamp” in which Christianity cannot take root—later echoed by Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson)—is contradicted by the evident faith of the peasant farmers and fishermen. In the rigidly stratified Japanese society of the time, Christianity offers these poor folk a gospel of love that gives them a sense of their innate dignity. To be sure, they fixate on the notion of Paradise as a better place than this world, one that they may be a little too eager to get to, but it is not hard to see why.
Scorsese includes a series of subtle but telling scenes in which the faith of the peasants contrasts with the frailty of the priests, sometimes to grimly comic effect. Offered food, the starving priests begin to eat before they realize that the peasants are attempting to say grace. Later, when Rodrigues is captured and brought to a group of other captive Christians they brighten with joy that the priest is joining them in witnessing to the faith, but in that moment he gives way to panic and despair.
The problem with the missionary, the one who comes to bring the gospel to another culture, is not simply one of cultural adaptation, as important as that may be. Rather, the missionary is always in danger of thinking that she is simply there to deliver something that she possesses to those who lack that thing.
But for Christianity, such a view is problematic. True, the missionary is the bearer of revelation, but that message is being delivered to human beings who, by virtue of the Incarnation, have their own inherent if inchoate yearning toward the religious sense. As the theologian Henri de Lubac wrote:
When I teach my brother it is not really I who teach him, but we are both taught by God. Truth is not a good that I possess, that I manipulate and distribute as I please. It is such that in giving it I must still receive it; in discovering it I still have to search for it; in adapting it, I must continue to adapt myself to it.
This is one of the lessons that Rodrigues learns only through many missteps and a great deal of suffering. Once, when teaching Silence to a group of MFA creative writing students, I blurted out: “The role of the missionary is inherently tragic.” If that is a controversial statement, that is only because we’ve lost an understanding of the meaning of tragedy. We can deplore the cultural imperialism of missionaries throughout history, but the more telling critique moves beyond politics into the mysteries of the human heart.
Thus Silence is not merely about the heroic integrity of a man of conscience—A Man for All Seasons set in seventeenth-century Japan. Instead, it adds an entirely new and provocative layer: the enigmatic and agonizing interrelationship of the community of believers. Silence challenges the notion that Christian faith can be interpreted in an individualistic manner. What makes the choices the missionaries face so impossible is that the Japanese authorities threaten to kill the Japanese converts if the missionaries refuse to renounce their faith—or apostatize, to use the technical term.
In short, it’s one thing to die for others. It is quite another thing when others have to die for you.
There is no doubt that Silence is fundamentally about putting the faith of Father Rodrigues on trial, but what the story suggests is not the meaninglessness of faith—the notion that silence betokens a nonexistent or uncaring God—but a faith that is fully willing to accept that God works in and through human weakness, corruption, and need—not in spite of them. That it speaks through the fellowship of those who share that weakness.
In the end, Rodrigues learns to see the falsity of the view that has crept into his triumphalist Christianity, that “Men are born in two categories: the strong and the weak, the saints and the commonplace, the heroes and those who respect them.” Rodrigues learns, almost too late, that his pride has caused him to put himself in the place of Christ, assuming a salvific role that does not belong to him.
Only when Rodrigues is reduced to the same condition as Kichijiro, that of a wandering vagabond without power or status, can he begin to hear what the silence is saying to him. Only when his faith is crucified can he truly begin to believe.
This is where the ending of the story has been frequently misinterpreted. Some of the pious have objected to the act of apostasy that takes place, as if both Endō and Scorsese are sanctioning the idea of betraying one’s faith. But that’s a literalist view that lacks imagination. Even with the Japanese authorities controlling every aspect of his daily life—including forcing him to take on a dead man’s wife and child—Rodrigues continues to be a witness. Not only to Kichijiro, who enters his household, but also to his Japanese wife. His missionary territory may have been reduced from the nation as a whole to a single household, but it is precisely in that humiliation that he is able to fulfil the fundamental role assigned to him: becoming a servant-witness whose life changes those around him.
So perhaps I arrived to see this film in precisely the right frame of mind: fresh from betraying one of my fellow human beings. If I could find that homeless man again I would ask him to hear my confession.
Now that some weeks have passed since that advanced screening, I suppose I should not be surprised that the film has done so poorly at the box office and been snubbed by the Oscars. Silence is less violent than many of the movies that we take in stride. But the moral and spiritual strain of its journey is more than most of us are willing to bear. Yes, it is a passion project, but Silence does not abandon craft in a fit of self-indulgence. Martin Scorsese inhabits the story fully, not just in the script and scenery, but most especially in his camerawork, from the God’s-eye overhead shots at key moments to the way the point of view can suddenly move in or out, depending on the emotional content of a scene.
This is not an easy film to watch, but if you surrender to it, whatever your religious beliefs, it will change the way you experience the difficult path leading from solitude to solidarity.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.