SILENCE: movie review

Silence (2017)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver Liam Neeson.

Synopsis: Sebastian Rodrigues is a Jesuit priest who is part of a two-man team dispatched from Portugal to Japan to learn the whereabouts of Father Ferreira, an older priest who was once a mentor to Rodrigues and his companion, Father Garupe, but now is rumored to have apostasized. While in Japan, Rodrigues and his companion carry out their priestly work, administering sacraments to the local Japanese peasants and seeking inroads to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Difficulties ensue when they find the fabric of the Japanese culture and worldview wholly hostile to and even incompatible with the essence of their Gospel. Rodrigues in particular faces endless physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual rigors, fueling his own spiritual crises.

Characters: Silence is a character driven story. Each character exists in opposition to the others, the opposition ranging from stark to nuanced, and in the end, all the characters would still say they have the best interests of others at heart. There are virtually no environmental elements that impact the plot; the story is carried entirely by the characters and their ideologies.

The film follows in details the faith journey and crisis of Father Rodrigues. As always happens, he is shaped and exists in response to the characters around him.

On the one side is Garupe who resolutely maintains, in word and deed, that the Faith must not be compromised, no not ever. He vehemently urges the local converts to have courage in the face of persecution, even when the stakes are torture and death. Ultimately, he carries this value to the consistent conclusion of choosing his own death alongside the faithful rather than renouncing his faith, even in formality, to save either himself or the local converts.

On the other side of Rodrigues is Father Ferreira, the aged, once revered and quite locally famous priest turned apostate. He argues from a weary, resigned, yet alarmingly sensible standpoint that conceding evangelistic defeat and publicly renouncing his faith is both logical(Japan is an ideological swamp in which the seed of the Christian Gospel cannot grow) and loving(since the Gospel cannot take root and grow, the local converts holding out for relief and deliverance will only be frustrated and/or slaughtered.) He further argues that because the base ideologies of the Europeans and the Japanese are so different, those who professed belief in Christ are not really believing in Christ, but in a mistaken understanding of Christ, filtered through their own cultural lens. Perhaps his most painful statement directed at Rodrigues, speaking of the locals who died for their faith, “They didn’t die for Christ. They died for you[, Rodrigues!]”

Walking alongside Rodrigues throughout the story is the local convert Kichijiro who is the functional hybrid of both stances. He repeatedly publicly renounces Christianity, then every time returns with tears and passion to beg Rodrigues to hear his confession. He rationalizes every denial, saying it wasn’t real, saying he was coerced, saying he is heartbroken over what he has done. He says that like Rodrigues, he believes the Gospel. He says like Garupe that he knows public denial is wretched. Yet like Ferreira, he consistently does what he needs to keep living, like Ferrera. He is a tortured roller coaster of emotion and relationship who manifests questions about change, sincerity and the genuineness of salvation. One can watch Kichijiro’s repeated relapses and wonder what kind of faith he really had to begin with…but then such arrogant judgements are easy to make from a vantage point of never having been persecuted for one’s faith.

From yet another angle Rodrigues is shaped by interactions with his captor and tempter Inoue, the Japanese inquisitor. Inoue very blatantly informs Rodrigues that the Gospel cannot and will never take root in his country and that Rodrigues is an arrogant, even selfish fool for preaching and urging the people to remain faithful.

Finally, there is Rodrigues himself. For the majority of the film, he carries himself as resolute and hopeful in public, even while sitting on severe doubts and questions. Is God real? Does He hear me in my sufferings? Does he hear these people in their sufferings? When I pray, do I pray to silence? Can I serve Him in the secrecy of my heart even while publicly denying Him?

Worldview and Discussion: One of the most important challenges to Rodrigues is not about the resolve of his faith, but rather about his pride. He comes to Japan, so sure that he has the truth and so sure that the locals will be better off for believing as he does. He fails to take into account the depth of local historical conviction, as well as the sheer magnitude of the language barrier.

The question Rodrigues must then resolve is – does he more value his public resolve even in the face of his own crippling doubt, or does he more value the well-being of the locals? If he keeps up his public resolve, the locals will continue to endure persecution, possibly for what is a mistaken understanding of the Gospel anyway. If he publicly renounces his faith, he can save the locals from their earthly sufferings and potentially integrate smoothly into the culture.

I am versed in the Gospel, and believe as the character Rodrigues did, that it is a universal truth. However as a viewer, conscious of racial and cultural tensions, as well as histories of colonialism, I had difficulty viewing Rodrigues, as did the character Inoue, as something other than a White European coming to alter the native culture.

Rodrigues is forced to learn to view himself in the same way, as a foreign invader, rather than a benevolent messenger, because that is how the dominant Japanese culture sees him. He is then forced to wrestle with his understanding of God. Just how universal is God? Just how real is He? Is God, specifically Christ, limited to the specific prayers and sacraments of the Jesuit faith, or can Christ Himself be creative? Flexible and fluid? Rodrigues’ tradition says to uphold the name of Christ at any cost, but the question before Rodrigues throughout the film is if God will honor a sincere heart, even a secret one. Can a person’s public renouncement of Christ be forgiven if that act is done to save others?

I further experienced the film through the lens of the Evangelical Protestant tradition in which I was raised. My sensibilities, shaped by this tradition, chafed under the emphasis placed on icons and symbols, and I wondered if the faith of the local convert characters might have been different, more pure, without tangible objects to distract from seeking the presence of God.

My Protestant sensibilities also balk at the importance placed on confessing to a priest. Confession is a vital discipline in my faith, especially confession to another disciple. Protestantism, though, affords priesthood to all believers, making the discipline of confession much more accessible.

I the Protestant do, though, appreciate how the film emphasized the important of local believing community. The Jesuits know, the local converts know, and the Japanese government knows that the Christian religion will die if its members are isolated from one another.

I further view the film through an experiential lens of recognizing that one primary quality of life is suffering, and a second is complexity. There are complex situations in which people suffer and only complex truths can truly support the individuals in these situations. I have come to believe that God, being infinite, is complex enough for life, and, while fully manifested in the person of Christ, is not detrimentally inhibited by any single manner of relating to him. From this lens, the film resonated deeply with me. Yes, God speaks in silence to the suffering. No, suffering. Yes, God forgives endlessly. Yes, God is primarily interested in the sincerity of the individual heart. All these in tension with, no we should not take lightly the actions by which we choose to demonstrate our faith.

In the way of a well-written story, the viewer is left guessing right up until the end what Rodrigues will do or is really thinking.

Other Elements

Acting: Character portrayals are moving, yet not overwhelming. The film is driven by subtly, nuance and introspection. Much of the film is spent watching the characters thinking, praying and dialoguing. For Garfield and Neeson, the film is a far removal from prior action films and gives them both great opportunities to utilize every feature of the face to convey grief, resignation and deep weariness.

Scenery: Filmed in Taiwan, depicting Japan, quite beautiful. The extreme landscapes riddled with mountains, valleys, cold rocks and big oceans seems to magnify the weight of the film.

Soundtrack: Normally, one of my favorite elements, in this film, the music was appropriately silent. Very few non-nature sounds were used, affording the viewer as uninhibited experience of the character’s journeys as possible.

Recommended viewers: Silence would be a great film for theology students wanting another romp at the once-saved-always-saved debate. Perhaps also theologians debating the value of ordained priests, sacraments, icons and other traditions.

My further recommended viewer would be any missionary aspiring to penetrate a foreign culture with their Gospel. We Christians can NEVER underestimate the impact of culture on culture. We should always tread lightly when trying to help, so as not to inadvertently destroy.

Silence would NOT be good for watching in youth groups. More specifically, there’s a particular scenario which would be an abuse of the film and potentially damaging to a young person’s spiritual formation. I can envision a highly conservative youth leader showing the film to students, watching the characters make decisions about how they publicly handle their faith in the face of persecution, then turning it on the students asking, “Now what would you have done?” That is an unfair way to introduce a youth to persecution and faith under duress. Also, the fact is, no one knows how they will handle the greatest test of their faith until they arrive at that moment. Scorsese’s characters did not; real life people are no different.

I do make a blanket recommendation to thoughtful movie viewers to see this film, probably twice, and spend a few days contemplating the content. It’s not for the faint of heart, nor meant to be viewed casually. But for those who can engage with the content, Silence speaks volumes.

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