Despite living in a time in which religiously-focused movies are both more frequent and more profitable than ever, we as a movie-watching public have never been more starved for serious and thoughtful examinations of faith and belief. Noah, by Darren Aronofsky, was one of the rare films that took the presence of God seriously and looked at what would happen to a mortal man charged with interpreting His commands. Aside from this fantastical retelling of a biblical story, however, most of what we get in terms of movies dealing with religion are either prideful affirmations and celebrations of faith (God’s Not Dead) or pompous retellings of religious lore (Exodus: Gods and Kings).
Silence, the newest film from famed lapsed-Catholic Martin Scorsese, seeks to be a different kind of faith-based movie. While based in truth, it is not a well-known religious parable, nor is it a movie that expressly affirms the existence of God. It is not a fairy tale meant to embolden the faithful, nor a rebuke of doctrine or dogma. It is a rare beast indeed – a religious story steeped in realism, acknowledging the fact of faith without calling faith a fact.
Taking place in 17th century Japan, the movie follows Jesuit priests Rodrigues and Garrpe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, respectively) as they minister to the Hidden Christians there and search for their lost mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). It is a time of extreme danger for Christians in Japan, as a failed rebellion against the shogunate from persecuted Christians and overtaxed peasants has lead to an even greater, more violent crackdown against Catholicism. Nevertheless, Rodrigues and Garrpe readily travel to Japan in order to learn the truth about their mentor, who is said to have apostatized under torture.
To the Jesuits, it is inconceivable that Ferreira could have renounced god under any form of torture, as the idea of being martyred for one’s faith is a high honor, the greatest show of belief. Obstinacy in ones belief and the manner in which one comports themselves in the name of that belief is the greatest external show of faith. During the first half of the film, the priests find themselves in the midst of Japanese Catholics who feel the same way, and they embolden one another. When the inquisitor (Issei Ogata) comes to this village, the choice for the peasants is presented thusly: trample on a fumi-e (an image of Christ or Mary used specifically for this purpose) or face death.
To the unbeliever, this choice seems to be no choice at all. What harm does it cause God or Christ to see someone step upon his image? To the faithful, though, the renunciation of faith or the committing of a faithless act such as this is akin to abandoning God. If death brings one to paradise, then why would you wish to give up that reward and insult your Savior only to prolong your time on earth? When asked directly what they ought to do when given such a choice, Rodrigues responds to the peasants, “then you trample.” To his mind, they ought to renounce now and repent later, even though he knows he could not do the same. Given the choice, he would rather die, but expects his flock to save themselves.
It is this choice and divide in expectation, and the greater moral and theological implications that it represents, that drives the major conflict of Silence. It would be easy to see the film as a simple representation of Christian persecution under the shogunate rule in Japan, but Scorsese – who co-wrote the film with Jay Cocks – spends far too much time illustrating the logic of the Japanese ruling class and the naivete of the Jesuit priests for this to be the case. The inquisitor is cruel towards the Catholics in his land, of course, but it is the persistence of the Jesuits in bringing their God’s word to land that never asked for them that necessitates the cruelty. Why do they continue to try to spread the word to those who can only suffer for it?
This question grows more and more as the film progresses and Rodrigues is taken captive alongside a group of Japanese Catholics. At the outset of his journey, Rodrigues took strength from being able to bring peace to peasants through the word of God. Nourishing their faith fed his own. Now, however, as he watches them use that faith to stand up to ever-escalating punishments by the inquisitor, he begins to doubt what his purpose was at all.
He asks all of the questions one might expect one to ask in such a situation. Why would God bring him to this land to spread the “truth” if this was to be the result? Why would God permit those who follow him and love him so deeply to suffer? What should he, as a servant of God, do when he is told that the peasants’ suffering will end if only he commits apostasy? After having told them to renounce God to save their own lives, should he not make the same sacrifice in order to save them?
Faith-based cinema of the last few years may lead you to expect that Silence will come to an answer and pass judgment on Rodrigues for the choice he makes. It is to its credit that the film never decides to be so bold as to prescribe an answer. Rather than definitively declare what the right choice is, the movie allows for the impossibility of an answer, to let the ambivalence of Rodrigues exist not as a problem to be surmounted, but a prominent feature of faith. When one prays in silence, the answer to their prayer is often silence itself. God does not speak in words to the faithful. He does not send lightning bolts or birds with branches.
The flaw of faith is inherent in the human condition. It is taken as fact that actions speak louder than words, and yet faith goes beyond both words and actions. It is the light in your heart, the quiet voice in your mind. Trials of faith, however, require both words and actions, and so we instill in those tangible acts more meaning than faith itself. Thus, though we may love God with all our heart and only trample to save our life, that trampling may be the only chance we have to show the world our love. External presentation, then, becomes more important than preservation. The dishonesty of the act actually makes it worse, as it evinces selfish hypocrisy.
Such is the conflict of Silence. It goes without saying that the film is aesthetically beautiful, with the Japanese countryside rendered in gorgeous compositions and colors. The performances – especially by Garfield and Ogata – are wonderful to behold. But without the questions it poses, without the unflinching truth of their unanswerable nature, Silence would be little more than an excellent work of craft with little more to recommend it. Some may find cowardice in the film’s refusal, indeed its utter disinterest in supply an answer for its central questions. I choose to see it as courage.
Silence poses a moral and spiritual quandary, breathtakingly illustrated, and then sits in silence. How you fill that silence isn’t just what you take from the film, but what it gives to you.