Silence: The Best NOT-Feel-Good Movie of the Year

Our story begins in darkness and a dramatic cacophony of jungle noises—the whir of insects, water dripping on foliage, all of which abruptly cuts to silence, as the film title appears on the black screen: Silence.

Is Martin Scorsese’s newest film based on the 1966 novel of the same name melodramatic? Of course. A bit bombastic? At times. Very long? Definitely.

After all, what film about religion and martyrs, when taken seriously, isn’t high on the melodrama? Stories of faith are inherently dramatic. Because faith, when taken seriously, is matter of life and death.

Silence is dead serious about faith. I cannot recommend it highly enough for the unconventional reason that it won’t leave anybody happy: people of faith, people suspicious of faith, or people questioning faith. But the story shows (not tells) truth that is essential for every person to think about.

The story follows two Catholic, Portuguese priests, Fr. Rodrigues—our protagonist—and his compadre Fr. Garrpe, who set out to Japan to find their former mentor Fr. Ferreira. This once intrepid missionary-priest has reportedly apostatized (renounced his faith) in the face of widespread persecution of the Catholic missionaries and Japanese converts in the seventeenth century.

Thus begins the saga. Lingering images of the rocky Japanese landscape characterize the Fathers’ arrival in Japan, reflections of their expansive faith and hope. However, as Rodrigues and Garrpe realize the extent of the persecution and begin their grueling ministry to the underground church, the scenes become increasingly claustrophobic. Against images of dirty hands clasping homemade crucifixes, nighttime masses held in hovels, and the violent montages of several martyrdoms, Rodrigues’s inner dialogues and meditation narrate his increasingly complex and urgent questioning of faith.

“These people have so little—why has God chosen them for such suffering?”

“How do you offer absolution to a repeat renouncer of the faith?”

“Is faith with a limited understanding of theology actually faith or just superstition?”

“How can priests minister to a people in a language they don’t know and in a culture they fundamentally do not understand?”

“Did the Japanese peasants die for God or for their European priests?”

“Where is God?”

“Why is he silent?”

These are, of course, not new themes in film. For me, the most recent point of comparison is the 1980s classic The Mission, another story of European, Jesuits ministering in a non-Judeo-Christian culture.

But where The Mission ends with a triumphant martyrdom, Silence challenges the expectations of a saint story. Throughout, the film insidiously suggests that the viewers see Rodrigues as a Christ-type—the perfect martyr.  Rodrigues’s personal image of Christ (an El Greco painting), is not unlike his own long, gaunt, hollow-eyed face. Rodgrigues is tempted, tried, and abandoned. His captors even lead him on a donkey—Palm Sunday-style with his hands tied and head down as the crowd looks on and jeers.

The film culminates in an ultimate test that challenges the viewer’s and Rodrigues’s conception of martyrdom. Rodrigues is faced with a choice: remain faithful to Christ and watch his Japanese proselytes die or recant and save their lives. It’s an impossible choice, especially for a Jesuit, whose identity is defined by love of Christ and care for others.  But, as Fr. Ferreira challenges Rodrigues, is that “identity” piety or pride? Will Rodrigues not recant because of love for Christ or out of his own sense of strength and self-worth? The Japanese inquisitor succinctly sums the situation up: “The price of your glory is their suffering.”

Here, the film takes on a decidedly different tone than “happier” tales of saint and martyrs. Rodrigues is perhaps most akin to T. S. Eliot’s Thomas Becket from Murder in the Cathedral, who, when faced with the potential of his own martyrdom, is tempted to “do the right thing [die in obedience to Christ] for the wrong reason [his personal glory].” In Silence, this question extends to the Church’s missional forays into Japan.

I won’t tell you what Rodrigues decides or how the film attempts to answer such mammoth questions.  Some reviewers have predicted the film will not be a box office sensation for these very reasons—the story’s sobriety, the philosophically-laden the dialogue, the ambiguous but beautiful ending, and the brilliant feat that this film will make no one feel good.

But, for all those reasons, you must see it anyway.

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