Silence is a faith-based film for those (like me) who can’t stand faith-based films. It is not an easy movie to watch. It is a film which was made not to entertain an audience but rather, as all good art should, to provoke an emotional response. Perhaps even to, (and dare I say it of a faith-based film?) cause the audience to think. To reflect deeply on our own beliefs, and to question the nature of both faith and faithfulness. For me, Silence is what faith-based films should be. Based on a book by Shūsaku Endō, and directed by Martine Scorsese, Silence is not your typical hollywood fare. Another reviewer, Matt Zoller Seitz, wrote that, “This is not the sort of film you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like.’ It’s a film that you experience and then live with.” 1
Having said that, I did like it. A lot.
I was speaking with a friend of mine who is a seminarian, and he remarked that several of his fellow seminarians had seen it, and they left the theater feeling as if they had been on a spiritual retreat. It’s that sort of an experience. It sticks with you.
The film is not concerned with offering Christian platitudes or reassuring it’s audience that they are good Christian people. People whom God loves more than the unsaved, and whose prayers are always promptly and faithfully answered. Perhaps we’re not good Christian people. Perhaps we merely appear to be good Christians because we happen to live in a particularly good time and in a happily fortuitous place.
Kichijiro, a Japanese Christian in the film who has apostatized many times in order to save his life (having even watched his entire family suffer martyrdom in front of him), remarks that he would have been a good Christian had he been born in an earlier time; a time when Christianity wasn’t persecuted. Similarly, perhaps we only appear to be faithful because our faith hasn’t truly been tested. Perhaps it is easy to go to Church on Sunday, but much harder to actually die a martyr’s death. Perhaps we confuse God’s blessing with our own material prosperity. Perhaps if we listened carefully to Christ’s words2 about the rich man entering the kingdom of heaven we would begin to wonder if all our wealth is truly a result of God’s blessing at all…
The Japanese Christians in this film labor under no such delusions. They suffer for their faith in abject poverty. They meet for Church in huts under darkness of night, without benefit of priests or sacraments, desperately wondering why God allows them to suffer so. The question of human suffering and God’s thunderous silence in the face of it, anchors the film firmly in it’s characters struggle to remain faithful.
This theme, God’s silence in the face of human suffering, is one which is well documented even within the Scriptures. God allows Job to suffer in order to test his faithfulness, and when Job seeks the face of the Almighty he finds himself alone. “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”3 In the Psalms we read, “O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God!”4 and even God’s own Son cries from His cross in the words of the psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”5
This theme of silence is prolific throughout the movie. When Fr. Rodriguez gazes into a pool of water, is it his own face or that of Christ’s which gazes placidly back at him? The voiceover narration in the movie is sparse, but there are a few instances when God’s silence is broken and we hear His voice in Fr. Rodriguez’s head – or is it only what Fr. Rodriguez imagines God to be saying? Is he only hearing what he wants to hear; receiving the only Word of God that he is willing to receive?
Is it God, who has been silent for the entire film, who finally speaks or merely his own rationalizations which clamor to make themselves heard?
This is a movie which allows us our own interpretation of the story being told. It is not a film which tries to promote a particular point of view or to clumsily persuade the audience of the moral viability of the characters decisions. Rather, it leads us to a vantage point where we can watch the events unfold, and then leaves us in silence to make of them what we will of them. To reflect on what our own actions would be in similar circumstances. To wonder what the voice in our own head would say.
The story follows two priests, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, who set out from Portugal to try and find their mentor, Liam Neeson, who has gone missing in Japan and is rumored to have apostatized. They are scandalized by the rumors and are certain that Fr. Ferriera has remained faithful and devout in spite of persecution.
They are led to Japan by a drunk and apostate Christian; a man who has betrayed all he holds dear not once, but many times over. We bear witness to his acts of betrayal and apostasy, failings which are invariably followed by desperate entreaties for confession and forgiveness. Within his ravaged faith, abject despair, and cringing hope we glimpse Peter, Judas, and ultimately ourselves.
In Japan the young priests confront for the first time the frailty of the faith and their own weaknesses and fears. Evil is shown to be both monstrous and reasonable, polite and insidious, as inevitable as the tide which throws itself tirelessly at the Christians tied to crosses in the sea. Is it an unforgivable sin to step on an image of Christ? It is only an image, it is not Christ himself. The act is a mere formality…
Wasn’t Christ Himself imago Dei? The very image of the unseen God? Fulfilling perfectly in His incarnation that which all of humanity is called to? In the persecution carried out by the Japanese inquisitors it is not only the Christian images which are made a sacrilege, but humans, divine image bearers, are slaughtered with almost as little regard as the images which are tread under foot (fumi‑e).
Part of the difficulty in viewing this film is that when we are finally brought to the climax we are left not with a neatly resolved narrative, but rather with the same questions that we have been wrestling with for the entire time.
Confident of our unfailing faithfulness, we want to proclaim with Peter, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.”6 But Silence unflinchingly presents us with the Christian faith as lived by men in whom the divine image has been distorted. Men who can no longer clearly hear God themselves. Men who can no longer properly follow God. Men who are unable to rightly present to others the proper image of God. Silence allows us to see ourselves in these fallen men, to realize that I too am one of the poor, undeserving, faithless sinners for whom Christ died. I too have made brash vows, filled not with faith but with false bravado. And all too predictably, I too have betrayed Him.
Steven Greydanus writes in his review of the film, “It poses a challenge for viewers of any faith or of none, or of any culture or ethnicity, even if the challenge is not the same for everyone. A friend who is an atheist has said that Silence made him want to believe in God. For my part, Silence presses my Christian ethos to the breaking point.”7
In the end, Silence reminds me that any hope I place in myself will be disappointed. I will fall. I will betray all that I hold dear. I am weak.
But… then there is this:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”8
The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.9
Ultimately, this is not a film for everyone. It is long, uncomfortable, and demanding. But for those who dare, it is also richly rewarding. An absolute masterpiece and just possibly Scorsese’s finest.
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Copyright 2017 Adam N. Crawford
The original article can be found at A Faith-Full Life
“Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:23b-24 ↩
Job 23:8-9 ↩
Psalm 83:1 ↩
Psalm 22:1, Matthew 27:46 ↩
Matthew 26:35b ↩
2 Corinthians 12:9 ↩
2 Timothy 2:11-13 ↩