To anyone approaching this film without background information, it might seem like an oddity that Martin Scorcese (Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, Taxi Driver, The Aviator, among many, many others) has made a film about Jesuit priests under persecution in Japan. If so, it’s even more of an oddity that the film is not only respectful of faith, but embraces ideas that cut to the true heart of Christianity.
But with some background information, it makes more sense. Scorcese, while having directed some films that are full of immoral content, has a deep respect for faith on a personal basis. He had a deeply religious upbringing and while he describes himself as a lapsed Catholic, he has expressed that stories of faith have great meaning for him. And perhaps none more so than the story of Silence, which Scorcese has worked to bring to the big screen for twenty-five years.
It’s the story of two Jesuit priests, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe, who go from the safety of Portugal to the dangerous Japan, in search of their mentor, Father Farreira. Rumor has it that he has apostatized, given up Catholicism, and begun living as a Japanese, with a Japanese name and a Japanese wife. Rodrigues and Garupe refuse to believe this rumor, and so they go, hoping desperately to find him and, if need be, rescue him.
It’s a very simple set-up, but the story itself is anything but. It’s difficult, complicated, and challenging. The first act features some of the most powerful depictions of Christians in persecution that I’ve ever seen on screen. The Christians that first greet them in Japan give the priests food while they go hungry. They hide them in secret, but huddle around them at night, desperate for the word of God, as well as other things that the priests can provide (“these people have had no one to forgive their sins,” says Rodrigues). They are truly hungry for God in a land where even flirting with the idea of the Christian God will result in their torture and grisly death. The way that these Christians stand up to that, having seen it with their own eyes, is beyond inspiring. Suffering is the legacy of Christianity, a fact that, unfortunately, most Christians in Western cultures tend to overlook. But the Japanese Christians embrace it.
It’s inspiring to Rodrigues, as well. He marvels are their courage and devotion. But it’s also challenging to his faith. “Why were these people chosen to suffer so?” he asks aloud in a prayer to God. And can it be God’s will for them to refuse to recant, resulting in their immense suffering, and the suffering of those around him? He becomes conflicted about how to advise them in this situation. That really becomes the heart and focus of the film more so than the search for Father Farreira, and he and Garupe find themselves at odds regarding it. But what’s remarkable here is that even as the revered priest finds his faith challenged and beaten down, the Christians around him continue to remain strong in the face of severe torture.
But even more so that those Christians, perhaps the most remarkable part of this story comes through the character of Kichijiro. Kichijiro is someone that Garupe once calls “a miserable wretch.” He is a coward and a drunk who must serve as their guide into Japan, and from that point on, manages to make the lives of the priests much more difficult. More than once he betrays them in different ways, sometimes in ways that are directly analogous to Judas, and other times by recanting his faith to avoid persecution. And yet, he always comes back to Rodrigues to beg for forgiveness, and to pray for strength to be stronger next time.
“How could Jesus love a man like this?” Rodrigues asks. He knows he should, and he does do his priestly duty for him, but he battles with bitterness and hate towards him. But even as I was watching this film, and seeing how miserable and pathetic he is (“he’s not worthy to be called evil,” Rodrigues says), I cannot help but see myself in him. This is what I look like, when I go back again and again, asking forgiveness for the same sin. And through it all, miraculously, God still forgives. And that’s why it’s particularly powerful that, at a time when Rodrigues needs brought back, the inspiration for him to turn his attention back to the direction it should be, comes not from another priest, but from Kichijiro himself. God can work even through miserable, traitorous wretches like him and me.
It should be noted here that Silence does not end in unmitigated victory the way one might expect from a film about Christian persecution. The very challenge of this film – that Rodrigues’s prayers are met with silence – is not an easy one to undertake, and the protagonists do not always react to the persecution in ways that we want them to. That’s partially, I think, because one of the themes of this film is that while Christ is strong, men are weak, even those men that we would look to as our spiritual leaders. But even so, there’s a lot about redemption and forgiveness here. I don’t agree with all of the conclusions it comes to. I’m as just as far from Catholicism as the vast majority of Protestants, and I’m not on board with some that the film seems to say about the ethics of a Christian recanting under persecution for the sake of those around him. But in all honesty, those points of disagreement pale in comparison with the overwhelming courage that these Christians show. This film is heartbreaking, challenging, inspiring, and thought-provoking in all of the right ways.