Thinking Aloud About Scorsese’s ‘Silence’

How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?

— Psalm 137:4

Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.

— Hugh Latimer, to his friend Nicholas Ridley, before they both were to be burned alive

* * * * *

A few Christmases ago, Christians were elated at the prospective release of Unbroken, the 2014 adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s award-winning book. The film, directed by Angelina Jolie, dramatized the life of Louis Zamperini: from juvenile delinquent to world-class Olympian; from fallen airman, lost at sea for 47 days, to prisoner of war, subjected to severe Japanese torture for more than two years; from an emblem of human courage to a 97-year-old man who died with his family by his side, his captors long forgiven.

Upon seeing the film, however, the elation disappeared for many. Unbroken fails for many reasons—leaden dialogue, poor casting, tonal inconsistency—but chief among them is that Jolie and her writing team simply misunderstood the arc of Zamperini’s life. They mistook the climax for the conclusion, casting Zamperini as a trophy for the triumph of the human will. He earns that moniker, of course, but by placing it on the highest shelf, Jolie made a fatal error.

Hillenbrand’s book avoids this problem by devoting several pages to Zamperini’s post-War conversion and forgiveness of his captors. Jolie’s film, on the other hand, stuffs this vital information into a fact-filled slideshow, a perfunctory prelude before the credits.

In short, Jolie missed what Zamperini grasped: that the scars all over his body tell a story, but not the complete one. In fact, those scars are the prelude, paving the way for an invisible climax, one whose effects couldn’t be seen across his back but in his heart—hidden to the world, but laid bare before his God.

Which brings me to Martin Scorsese’s Silence.

God’s Frowning Providence

Unbroken recounts the life of a man whose suffering ultimately paves the road to God. Silence, however, recounts the life of a man whose suffering—in addition to the suffering of others—ultimately obscures the road to God, drowning out his voice amid cries of the faithful, masking his face behind a frowning providence. 

Or does it? Right away, I want to retract this definite appraisal because Scorsese’s film resists encapsulation. It responds to questions with questions, certainty with doubt and doubt with certainty.

Based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novelSilence follows the rescue mission of Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrupe (Adam Driver), two 17th-century Portuguese priests. They’re eager to find out if the rumor about Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) is true. Did he apostatize? Is he really “living as a Japanese”?

From the outset, the claim seems dubious. After all, Silence begins with Ferreira’s faithful prayers uttered against the backdrop of severed Japanese heads, fellow Christians slain for their faith. Ferreira prays, “The story of their courage gives us hope. . . . We will not abandon our hidden Christians who live in fear. We only grow stronger in his love.”

Rodrigues and Garrupe believe the charge of apostasy is nothing but slander to halt the growing Christian witness in Buddhist-mandated Japan. But they must be sure, and to be sure they must go to Japan and find him. As Rodrigues says, “We have no choice but to save his soul.”

Necessary Summary

For the next two-and-a-half hours, the Fathers journey into the heart of Japan. Scorsese’s cinematography is sparse and unadorned, without his usual stylistic flourish. For a director known for such bombastic protagonists—Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, Goodfellas’ Henry Hill—Silence is a remarkably interior film, revealing much of its emotional freight through narration, mostly from Rodrigues. Through these narrations Rodrigues’s beliefs and doubts come to the fore.

Before they depart for Japan, Rodrigues and Garrupe meet Kichijiro, a drunk fisherman. He says he’s not a Christian—in fact, he recoils at the suggestion—but will sneak them into Japan so he can return to his family. Upon their arrival to the Japanese village Tomogi, Rodrigues and Garrupe encounter a group of underground believers. These Christians have been gathering to pray and worship in secret out of fear of Japanese persecution, spearheaded by the infamous Inquisitor. “The Lord has sent you to us,” they say, gleeful at the opportunity to finally take Mass. Rodrigues agrees: “Finally, they had priests to forgive their sins. . . . Their suffering would not end in nothingness, but salvation.”

But the evident squalor provokes in Father Rodrigues a series of questions. Once a stalwart defender of Ferreira’s faith and utterly convinced of his own priestly raison d’être, he begins to wonder: Why do these villagers have to suffer so much? Why did God choose them? These questions surround the film, filling its gaps like water in a punctured ship.

I should accelerate my summary. (Warning: Much spoiling ahead.) As Fathers Rodrigues and Garrupe minister to the villagers—only at night, only under thatched cover—they hold fast to their primary directive: finding Father Ferreira. They hear nothing of him until Rodrigues travels to a nearby island, Gotō, where he again administers the long-awaited Mass. “The faithful received fresh hope,” Rodrigues narrates, “and I was renewed.”

Among those in Gotō who received fresh hope is Kichijiro, the priests’ drunk guide. As it turns out, he is a Christian but remains wracked with guilt for renouncing the faith some years ago. Under the threat of death, Kichijiro apostatized by stepping on a fumi-e, an image of Jesus. His family watched, refusing to do the same. They were summarily executed, burned alive as Kichijiro forced himself to stay and watch. Retelling the story to Rodrigues, he confesses his sins and weeps at Father Rodrigues’s feet, prostrate in the dust. 

By now, the persecution following the priests hits a fevered pitch, such that the Inquisitor and his band of samurai show up at the village. The jig is up, they say, because they know Christians are nearby. But because the Inquisitor is merciful, he gives them three days to produce the offending believers. Should they fail to, he’ll be forced to take four prisoners. When Scorsese finally personifies this Inquisitor, we see him appearing through the fog with a perverse smile on his face; he talks like a wind-up doll, at an octave that pierces the ear.

The faithful, now distressed and fearful, discuss their options and four ultimately offer themselves so the priests can stay; Kichijiro is among them, though he’s volunteered more than he volunteers himself. Knowing what’s to come—the fumi-e—they ask Rodrigues and Garrupe for pastoral advice. Oddly, they hear two different answers. Pray for courage, Garrupe says; trample, trample, it’s alright to trample, Rodrigues says.

The four prisoners do as commanded and trample, but their persecutors are insatiable, requiring them to spit on a makeshift cross and call the beloved Virgin a whore. Three of them simply cannot do it, even knowing what they’ll face; the fourth, Kichijiro, spits and swears and swiftly runs away.

The three who remain are tied to shore-side crosses, where the rising tide slowly drowns them. One believer hangs there for four days and dies singing a hymn about paradise. Fathers Rodrigues and Garrupe watch from afar, and we hear yet again Rodrigues’s address to God: “You heard their prayers. But did you hear their screams? How can I explain your silence?”

From here, the priests separate. The film follows Rodrigues, who in short order is captured by the Inquisitor. A supposedly repentant Kichijiro betrays him, and as Rodrigues is being carried away he says, “Padre, forgive me.” For those listening closely, something like a rooster crows in the background.

The remainder of the film details Rodrigues’s various trials and various responses to those trials. At times, he’s constant, even brave, like when he defends Christianity’s universal truthfulness before the Inquisitor. Other times, his faith flags. Familiar characters return. Father Garrupe in particular returns only to die, refusing to apostatize even if means the temporary salvation of others. In this way, he’s something of a foil to Rodrigues. Kichijiro returns, too, a few times—always drawing close and running away, always asking for forgiveness and apostatizing, asking for forgiveness and apostatizing.

Rodrigues is detained but kept in relative comfort, so “his body will betray his mind.” He’s able to minister to others, but their fate is wound up in his response. Slowly, the rules of the game become clear: if he apostatizes, if he follows Ferreira’s footsteps and tramples the fumi-e, then his fellow believers will be saved from suffering. But if he refuses, they will continue to suffer. This wicked cycle appears to offer no another outcome.

Finally, Rodrigues meets Ferreira and discovers the rumors are false only insofar as they understated the reality. Not only has Ferreira apostasized, he’s given himself to writing a work that “unmasks” the deceit of Christianity. He spends his days in the temple, writing about astronomy and medicine. After more than 15 years, he says he’s finally of use to this country. Japan is a black swamp, he says, for Christianity cannot grow here. 

Rodrigues is incredulous. If none of this is true, he asks, then why have I seen people die? “They’re not dying for Jesus,” Ferreira says. “They’re dying for you.”

That night, as he watches five Japanese endure suffering only he can stop, Rodrigues apostatizes. He trembles as he tramples the fumi-e, an act the Japanese say is merely a “formality,” a “symbol,” a transaction that earns another his freedom. Ferreira stands behind him, beckoning him to follow in Jesus’s footsteps and perform “the most painful act of love that has ever been performed.”

As if that weren’t enough, Rodrigues hears Jesus himself speak to him, in the most unnerving moment in a film full of them. I’ll quote Jesus’s words in full: “Go ahead now. It’s alright. 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. Your life is with me now. Step.”

Scorsese’s unbridled boldness here bristles, but the point is clear: this is an act of love. Obedience may occasionally mask itself in outward apostasy.

Important Epilogue

Silence ends with an epilogue that chronicles the remaining years of Rodrigues’s life. Curiously, the narrator shifts to a Dutch trader who’s heard about Japan’s “lost priests.” They spend their days checking imported goods for Christian contraband: crosses, images, religious texts.

After Father Ferreira dies, Rodrigues continues the work, seemingly at peace. We’re told he now has a wife and family, and is continually under the Inquisitor’s watch, to ensure his enduring apostasy. He even demands regular vows of renunciation, which Rodrigues supplies “quickly and vigorously.”

Years pass, Rodrigues’s hair greys, and yet again, like clockwork, Kichijiro returns for confession, calling him “padre.” At first, Rodrigues refuses, but ultimately he hears and grants him penance.

At last, in 1682—nearly four decades after his arrival—Rodrigues dies. We’re told he “never acknowledged the Christian God by word or symbol. . . . [that] the business of his faith was long ended.”

Upon his burial—Buddhist all the way down—only his wife was allowed to see him. And as she says farewell, she slips into his hand a crudely made crucifix, one given him years ago by one of the martyrs on the beach. The Dutch narrator seems unaware of this sleight of hand, and Silence closes with this bit of narration, followed by a dedication:

He ended as they wanted: lost to God. But as to that, indeed, only God can answer.

For Japanese Christians and their pastors.

Ad madorem dei gloriem (for the greater glory of God)

Conflicted Analysis

After two viewings, I remain conflicted. How is one to feel after watching a film that seems to celebrate apostasy? As I heard the voice of Scorsese’s “Jesus,” I couldn’t help but think of Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. I couldn’t help but think of 1 Peter 1:6–9. I couldn’t help but think of Hebrews 11, which speaks of saints of whom the world is not worthy: those stoned, flogged, and sawn in two. Oh, how I agree with the author of Hebrews; “time would fail me” to recount all who met a different demise than Father Rodrigues—the Peters and Pauls and Stephens.

Peter, who said, without even a blush of metaphor: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”

Paul, who said, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

Stephen, who answered an inquistor’s question—“Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1)—with a sermon, and then a question of his own: “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? . . . You who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” (Acts 7:52, 53).

Tarnished, But Not Ruined

One can question whether or not Rodrigues’s fate seemed as clear at Peter’s, Paul’s, Stephen’s, or even Jesus’s. He seems to have been facing the punishment of lifelong survival—with a front-row seat to the murder of other Christians. That doesn’t seem to be on the table in the New Testament. Nonetheless, to circumstantially excuse Rodrigues would be to baptize a kind of utilitarian ethic, exonerating sinful means for supposedly righteous ends.

In other words, one has to travel through some winding wormholes to argue the Lord Jesus would have apostatized in order to save the lives of suffering believers. It seems to me the witness of both Scripture and church history runs the other way: that suffering believers hold fast to the Lord Jesus because they know he has already secured their lives, granting them an inheritance that is imperishable in glory. This doesn’t, of course, alleviate the difficulties or effects of suffering, but it does reorient its purpose: not alleviation or escape per se, but refinement and preparation.

Silence is a beautiful film with disarmingly straightforward convictions, but its depiction of Rodrigues’s Christ-endorsed apostasy tarnishes it nonetheless. Just as Jolie’s humanist inclinations obscured the heart of Zamperini’s life and made Unbroken an uneven mess, so Scorsese’s Roman Catholic ones bring their own issues to the table.

Yet I’m sympathetic even to this crucial weakness, such that those who unilaterally condemn the film as an unalloyed celebration of hyper-privatized Christianity are guilty of overstating their case.

Considering Garrupe and Kichijiro

For example, consider Father Garrupe, the foil to Rodrigues. We first see a rift between the two priests on the question of whether a Christian is free to trample the fumi-e. Garrupe says no, they must pray for courage; Rodrigues disagrees, believing the symbolic gesture doesn’t entail blasphemy.

On this point their fates ultimately diverge. After all, Garrupe is offered the same Faustian bargain—recant to end the suffering of the faithful—but he can’t do it. He’d rather run into a raging sea. So he did, and so he died, trying to save some.

Rodrigues, on the other hand, accepted the bargain—though not without his fair share of inner turmoil, which we’re privy to through his prayers. Rather than endure the perhaps lifelong suffering of the faithful, rather than hearing their screams amid God’s silence, Rodrigues rends himself from his priestly order and therefore stopped the faithful’s suffering. He lived, succeeding in saving some.

Consider also Kichijiro—that maddening concoction of doubt and belief, sin and salvation, Judas and Peter. I’ve seen some describe him as comic relief, and to be sure, his peripatetic repentance should elicit some smiles, if only because in it we’re reminded of ourselves. But by the end of Silence, we realize he’s always stayed within a whiff of heaven-sent grace.

In short, one could argue the beloved, yo-yoing Kichijiro confounds Silence’s so-called applause of privatized Christianity. His belief and behavior, even when it’s wrong, even when it falters, is essentially public. In this way, he functions as a foil to Rodrigues, though to say much more would be to commit the aforementioned error of overstating the case.

What of Ferreira?

If a theological critique lies somewhere in Silence, I suspect its target would be the former Father Ferreira, whose trampling of the fumi-e was merely his first step down the road of blasphemy. Because of their identical apostasy, I understand the impulse to collapse Rodrigues and Ferreira into a single category. But to do so would be a mistake.

I also understand the frustration of friends I’ve spoken to who cannot stomach Scorsese’s seemingly blasé approach to blasphemy. I struggled with it as well, and marshaled Scripture to articulate that struggle.

But as I attempt to avoid ditches on either side here, I simply want to stress the fact that there’s space along the spectrum of a privately practicing priest who regularly re-ups his apostasy and a formerly practicing priest who’s devoted his life to “unmasking the deceit” of Christianity. Personally, I want to be nowhere on that spectrum, but it’s the one Silence inherits.

Framing the Struggle

I’ve tried to think of other ways to frame my ambivalence, but I keep returning to a similar, entirely unoriginal place. Fundamentally, the theological issues Silence provokes will be traced to one’s Christian tradition. If you’re a Protestant, then the sacerdotalism to the disembodied, unscriptural voice of Jesus will be problematic—and these problems will reverberate to different areas of the film. If you’re Roman Catholic, other issues will surface and reverberate elsewhere. Every tradition will come to the screen with its attenuating list of presuppositions. Some of these presuppositions will be confirmed and even clarified by the film; others will be entirely upended.

This is why approaching Silence with the forensic, delightfully Protestant question—Is such-and-such character really a Christian?—will only end in frustration. Forgive the indulgence, but Silence remains largely silent on these questions. Even so, it’s wrongheaded to interpret this indecision as an ode to tacit, a-theological universalism. The final act doesn’t undo the previous 120 minutes.

Again, I’m sympathetic to the desire for reading the film outside of the classic Protestant-Catholic battle lines, especially as they’re heading toward their 500th birthday. But we must confess the lines are there whether we grant them quarter or not.

Dedicated to Whom?

Do you remember the film’s dedication? Before the credits roll, we’re met with: “For Japanese Christians and their pastors.” The first time, these words didn’t even make my notes. But after seeing Silence again, I was struck by their load-bearing importance.

In the Roman Catholic schema, priests are the faucets from which the church pours out God’s grace to Christians. This happens in myriad ways—beginning with baptism, carrying on via the Mass and confession, and culminating in last rites. Consequently, where there are no priests, there is no church. Where there are no priests, there is no grace to infuse for either the salvation of sinners or the edification of believers. This is an adumbrated Roman Catholic ecclesiology.

Father Ferreira shares the gospel with the Japanese people for the better part of 15 years. He sees fruit, which he in hindsight dismisses as nothing but mere syncretism that causes him to question Japan’s receptivity to the gospel.

Similarly, after Father Rodrigues apostatizes, he meets with the Inquisitor. He tells Rodrigues, in a paltry attempt at comfort, “You were not defeated by me. You were defeated by this swamp of Japan.”

In the Inquisitor’s mind, their persecution placed a thumb over the faucet of Christianity in Japan, thus stopping it at its source and killing the soil for future generations. But as the epilogue makes clear, it appears Rodrigues, even amid his regular apostasy, didn’t entirely cut himself off from the Church. With every prayer, with every private confession on behalf of Kichijiro, grace dripped, dripped, dripped onto the swampy Japanese ground.

But was there any fruit? It seems so—or the dedication to Japanese Christians and their pastors, 400 years later, would be a dedication to no one.

As a Protestant convinced of Baptist ecclesiology, I have a laundry list of disagreements with much of the previous paragraphs. But adjudicating them here would be pointless; it would be to mistake Scorsese’s film as first and foremost a theological treatise, as if the legendary director were nailing the reel to the famous Hollywood sign.

In my mind, it’s far better and wiser to recognize these differences as baked into Scorsese’s recipe. Some of the ingredients might taste funny, others might not go down well at all, but the meal itself is good, enough to encourage sober reflection about the strength and substance of our own faith.

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