The Dark Night of Silence

It’s just a formality, really. Very easy to do. Easier than walking.

These are the quiet solicitations of the Inquisitor, a character in Martin Scorsese’s new drama Silence. The Inquisitor, played by Issey Ogata, is in charge of persecuting Christians in 17th century Japan. Japan’s Edict of Expulsion of 1614 attempted to eradicate Christianity from its islands. The Inquisitor tortures and kills Christians, but also cajoles with cold ruthlessness. Presenting believers with a plaque with either Jesus or Mary on it, he places it on the ground and tells them: step on it to renounce your faith. It’s a very simple motion, he says. Just one step. Nothing to it.

Who apostatizes and who doesn’t, and why, is at the heart of Silence, an often brilliant if overly long film. The movie has been a passion project of Scorsese’s that has taken years to develop. Based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, Silence is an incredibly powerful, often mesmerizing meditation about religious persecution. It’s also a film with great relevance in light of recent attacks on religious freedom in the West, coming down firmly on the side of freedom. This is probably why Silence has been so far shut out of Hollywood’s awards season. Spoiler alert: I will be giving away key plot points and the theological meaning of the climax of the film, so turn away if you plan on seeing it.

It’s 1643 and two young Portuguese Jesuit priests travel to Japan to find Father Cristavao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has disappeared in Japan after reportedly renouncing his faith. Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) are given permission to go to Japan and search for him.

It quickly becomes evident that Silence is not your father’s Martin Scorsese movie. Absent are the kinetic camera, heavy profanity, and rock and roll score that were the mark of films such as Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. The score by Kathryn and Kim Allen Kluge is so minimalist as to be barely there. The director’s virtuoso shots have been replaced by still, steady camera work that allow the action to unfold, and an almost total absence of a musical score. This correlates to Fr. Rodrigues’ bouts of despair over what he interprets as the “silence” of God. The film was shot at rugged and dangerous locations in Taiwan, with cinematographer Rodrigo Preto capturing the stark and barren yet beautiful landscape. While the Christians are forced into silence, and the priests ponder the silence of God, nature unforgivingly rages around them.

The first half of Silence is an immersive depiction of pre-modern missionary work. Fathers Rodrigues and and Garupe endure a dangerous sea voyage and arrive in Japan to find a small group of “Kakure Kirishitan,” or “hidden Christians.” The followers’ terror turns to jubilation when the priests arrive. These early scenes are Scorsese the master filmmaker at his best. Close-ups of hands distributing rosary beads highlight the tangible, sacramental nature of Catholicism. Garfield, who has the majority of screen time and is really the star of the film, is convincing as the pious yet humble Father Rodrigues. The supporting cast is also strong, particularly Yoshi Oida as believer Ichizo. Silence reaches a climax past the halfway mark when Ichizo and two others are tied on crosses on the beach and left to drown as the high tide comes in. There is no driving score to push emotions, just tight, unbearably long takes of Ichizo’s gasping as his torso is pounded by waves. He ends his life singing a hymn.

On the other end of the spectrum is Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a Christian who, threatened with torture or death, apostatizes over and other again. There is a comic element to Kichijiro, but also a lesson about grace. He repeatedly appears to Father Rodrigues for absolution, until Rodrigues himself starts to lose patience. Yet he faithfully absolves Kichijiro over and over. Finally, Father Rodriques finds Father Ferreira, who has truly apostatized, embracing Buddhism and adopting a dead man’s wife and children. Father Ferreira argues that Christianity “is of no use in Japan,” as the natives believe that the son of God means the sun of God. It all leads, finally, to a grimly riveting encounter between the young priest and none other than the long-lost Father Cristovao (Liam Neeson).

Had Scorsese cut back 20-30 minutes, he may have been able to place Silence alongside his other masterpieces like Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. Yet the film drags in its second half, with several drawn-out scenes repeating the Inquisitor’s demand that believers step on Catholic icons. Then the Inquisitor presents Father Rodrigues with a horrible scene, four Christians wrapped and being hung upside-down over a latrine, their necks cut to slowly bleed to death. This is your doing, the Inquisitor tells Fr. Rodrigues. You can make this stop. All you have to do is step on the face of Jesus. It is here that Rodrigues hears the voice of Christ, telling him it is acceptable to save the others by seeming to betray his faith. “I carry your pain,” Jesus says, “It’s OK.” Or is Rodrigues actually hallucinating? We’re never given a definitive answer, and that allowance for speculation or the reality of the mystical and often confounding world between man and the supernatural is a graceful touch.

In its final scenes, and particularly its final shot, Silence unforgettably makes the argument that even the worst kind of torture cannot erase the belief that is in the human heart, particularly if that belief is based on universal ideas about the metaphysical power of love and forgiveness.

Reader Discussion

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on January 06, 2017 at 11:34:22 am

Midway through their day’s journey, the old monk and the young acolyte came upon a rushing stream swollen by the rains, and a young woman fretting about how she would cross. The monk and acolyte had planned to simply ford the stream. Seeing the young woman’s distress, the monk offered to carry her across. She accepted; he did so; and the monk and acolyte proceeded onward.

By the time they had reached their destination, their robes had dried—yet the acolyte had not spoken a word since the stream. At last the monk inquired about his silence, and the acolyte exploded, “How could you? Are we not forbidden to have any contact with women?”

After a pause, the old monk responded: “My friend, you mean the woman I carried over the water? Why, I left her at the riverside. Have you been carrying her all this time?”

This story provokes the question, for what purpose does the monk’s religious order forbid contact with women—and which adherent has best fulfilled that purpose?

I haven’t seen Silence and so can’t meaningfully comment on it. Yet I’d like to address a theological question at the heart of this: What did Christ exhort people to do? Consider Matthew 25:31-36:

31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 36[For] Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’’”

This strikes me as consistent with Old Testament exhortations, such as Micha 6:6-8:

6With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

In short, I understand that we are called to help others in need, and to act with justice, mercy, and humility. Note that these admonitions do not call upon us to venerate the symbols of our tribe—even if we are members of a Christian tribe.

True, there are also Biblical passages about making certain ritual sacrifices, which are arguably displays of piety. And there are passages exhorting us to glorify God’s name, and to do things or endure things “in My name.” I read these passages to encourage people to not merely do and endure, but to let people know that the actions or perseverance is motivated by faith. This is a kind of “branding.”

But when the desire to brand your conduct conflicts with the ability to do good, or to act with justice, mercy, and humility, I think the branding need to take second place. Thus I don’t really get these challenges to faith that take the form of choose between doing good or venerating some symbol. (This was also a plot element in C.S. Lewis’s 1945 novel That Hideous Strength.) By the same token, I don’t embrace the argument that we should limit people’s ability to burn a flag in order to show respect for a nation founded on principles of free speech: Where the symbol and the substance conflict, the symbol must give way.

Thus, as an initial matter, I see challenge in choosing between the symbolic harm of stepping on an icon and the real harm of people bleeding to death. The latter seems worse than the former.

That said, I struggle with the symbol/substance trade-off. I don’t mean to reject strategic thinking and communication skills. Often it makes sense to engage in symbolic speech as a means to communicate the substance underlying the symbol.

Silence apparently presents a situation in which a torturer is blackmailing Rodrigues, demanding that Rodrigues make symbolic compromises to induce the torturer to discontinue real harms. As I just said, I’d generally favor surrendering symbols in the pursuit of substance—and (the hallucination of?) Jesus seems to agree. But the nature of blackmail is that the victim may not have much faith in his ability to strike a bargain with the blackmailer who remains free to accept any favors the victim offers and then demand more. If Rodrigues concludes that he lacks any real power to influence the torturer’s conduct, because the torturer will simply impose new demands tomorrow, then Rodrigues would gain nothing from his symbolic compromises. In that case, he’d be justified in not compromising.

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on January 06, 2017 at 11:47:59 am

I'm suddenly reminded of Berger in the movie Hair. When he is ordered to cut his hair as a symbol of capitulation to conformity, he refuses. But when he encounters a practical reason to cut his hair (to impersonate a soldier), he does so without a second thought. I've often thought that this reflected an admirable relationship to symbols.

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on January 06, 2017 at 11:50:01 am

Pretty good dissection of the matter.

Like you, I would do what is necessary to save the innocent.

Yet, I wonder, as I think you may, was there not something more involved, something more intended by the Inquisitor's proffer of "choice"?

Interestingly, immediately prior to reading this review, I had occasion to read a review in the local scandal sheet on this very movie. I was left with the impression that the choice provided was something more than the trashing of an icon; rather, it was structured / framed so as to be an overt AND effective renunciation of faith that would be used to compel / "nudge" others to also renounce their faith.

And as you say, if it is known, or at least readily apparent that the Inquisitor is going to continue such demands and that your acquiescence will serve only to further the objectives of the Inquisitor, then perhaps it is best to stand firm. What basis do you, as an actor / victim in this scenario have to believe that the Inquisitor is not going to kill the others anyway.

Interesting choice! As for the flag burner, we are dealing with an entirely different set of circumstances, are we not. The flag burner is willingly seeking to trash the icon and it may be said that in the very act of "trashing" he is displaying his own peculiar *faith.*

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