Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver.
THE SILENCE is Martin Scorsese’s Heart of Darkness. Unlike Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe, who journeys toward “The Horror” in search of the renegade Kurtz, Scorsese presents two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who infiltrate the anti-Catholic savagery of 17th-century Japan in quest of the apostate Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Scorsese purportedly has been trying to bring to the screen this story, based on Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, for 25 years.
"If God hears our prayers, does he also hear our screams?" That question not only dominates a movie filled with the screams of tortured Christians, but it insinuates itself into the entire history of Christianity. Like a modern-day Job (about which more later), Martin Scorsese dares to ask this. But is there an answer . . . or just silence?
The subject in SILENCE of the Jesuit struggle in the 17th century to convert the Japanese to Christianity is not a topic we know much about. Not only was such an incursion resisted, it was savagely denounced. In another context, Bruce Beresford tackled a similar subject in his magnificent BLACK ROBE, wherein the Jesuits’s attempts to bring Christianity to the Indian tribes of Quebec resulted in the disastrous decimation of indigenous cultures through warfare and disease. In both films the introduction of Christianity is nothing less than the overthrow of one world-view and the replacement with another. SILENCE attempts to examine the conflicts and the negotiations in several key debates. The first transpires in a battle of wills between the Portuguese priest, Father Rodriguez, captured and threatened with torture, now fighting for his faith and his life with the wily Japanese Inquisitor. The priest’s attempts to counter the Inquisitor’s enigmatic taunts are rendered foolish. In the second Father Rodriquez finally confronts the apostate priest, Father Ferreira, who is now living with his captors as a Buddhist priest. In what is bound to create controversy among many viewers, Ferreiara defends his apostasy and demonstrates how selfishly indulgent, narrow, and presumptuous are Rodriguez’s arguments. A congruence of the two philosophies is impossible, argues Ferrera. For example, Christianity declares that Jesus came back from the dead after three days. The Japanese view is that God is the sun, which rises every day! Any Japanese person who converts to Christianity is only converting to his own version of the faith, inevitably inflected by his cultural grounding. Christianity may take root in the nourishing soil of the West but it only poisons the soil of the East.
Too many of us are trapped between the Heaven and Hell of our dilemma. I agree with one critic that the most relatable character in the film is neither the priests nor their inquisitors, but the one called “Kichijiro,” who continually appears throughout, begging confession and absolution for his betrayals of the priests. Back and forth, back and forth he goes, acting when it suits him out of faith one moment and renouncing that faith the next. He waffles back and forth between belief and self-preservation; renouncing his religion when it suits him, The effect is almost comic. Kichijiro is enacting the tragedy of being human. And I’m convinced that Scorsese loves him. So do we.
Meanwhile, I wonder if some viewers will come away from the film’s graphic depictions of Japanese tortures convinced that Scorsese is delivering a hate-sermon against the Japanese culture. And if other viewers will conclude that a God seemingly indifferent to human misery is not a God worthy of our faith and devotion.
And yet, and yet . . . For a film whose repeated and graphic scenes of Christian torture and martyrdom will test even the strongest stomachs of viewers, it’s fascinating how so many of the so-called “lost priests” of the Jesuit mission find that the denial of their faith is the only way to spare the horrific tortures of threatening members of their endangered flock. Now there is a true paradox. Indeed, our last view of the burial of the ageing Father Rodriguez, now an apostate living peacefully among his Japanese captors, is of the tiny crucifix secretly concealed in his robes . What are we to make of that?
As I said, Martin Scorsese is his own Job, questioning, like the beleaguered Job in the Bible (and like the captive Jesuits in the film) how God can allow Evil in the world and witness in silence mankind sufferings. The very inscrutability of this becomes its own answer. Are God’s ears deaf to our voice; or are we deaf to God’s voice? Has the silence been broken at all, either way?
In one of his finest works, G.K. Chesterton’s “Introduction to the Book of Job” tackles the problem. He speaks out in words that I believe Scorsese takes to heart: Job’s questions are answered only with more questions. “He is told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” As Chesterton notes further, “This deepening of the mystery is, paradoxically, what actually comforts Job – not only has no explanation been provided, but the world is shown to be even more perplexing than Job had even first thought, and yet he recognizes in this deepening of the mystery of creation some kind of assurance of divine providence.”