When director Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island, Hugo, The Wolf on Wall Street) announced he was producing a movie adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel, Silence, there was much excitement among critics. Scorsese originally read the book in 1989, and has been talking and dreaming of making it into a movie ever since. He finally realized his dream when Silence was released in December 2016. The events of the movie closely follow the novel, written in 1966 by a Japanese Catholic author known for grappling with deep topics of faith.
The early half of the 17th century was a time of intense persecution of Christians in Japan. When discovered by authorities, Christians were forced to trample on a carved image of Christ, called a fumie, to prove that they had apostatized. If they refused, officials waited by with countless methods of torture, most of which led to martyrdom.
Garrpe and Rodriguez are Jesuit priests spurred to go to Japan in search of their former mentor, Father Ferreira, who has supposedly apostatized from his faith under torture from the Japanese. Distrusting these reports of their beloved priest, the two Portuguese missionaries risk their lives to travel across the world to bolster the persecuted Japanese church and to learn the truth about Ferreira. Rodriguez and Garrpe are thrown headlong into an environment of fear, secrecy, and suspicion. Led by a drunken, cowardly guide, Kichijiro (who claims he is not a Christian), the priests make their way to a Christian village, where they are ardently welcomed by the suffering community of believers. Rodriguez is initially encouraged by the faith of the Christians, and exhilarated by their reliance on him. He is even able to minister to Kichijiro, who was originally a Christian but apostatized under fear of torture years earlier and was forced to watch his entire family die for their faith.
However, officials soon get word of the Christians in hiding. Three men from the village are executed for their faith in an agonizing crucifixion scene. Kichijiro escapes a similar punishment by profaning Christ and the Virgin Mary. Soon after the villagers are martyred, Rodriguez and Garrpe flee separate ways in an attempt to preserve their lives and ministry. All the while, Rodriguez is haunted with consuming questions about the silence of God. Why does God silently allow so many faithful believers to be heinously tortured to death for their love of Him?
Rodriguez is soon after betrayed by Kichijiro for three-hundred pieces of silver in a manner intentionally reminiscent of Judas Iscariot. In prison, Rodriguez continues his inner questioning of God’s mercy and judgement. He cries out to God as he watches the suffering of the Japanese Christians intensify, but does not hear a response.
After some months in prison, the moment Rodriguez has longed for ever since entering Japan arrives: his captors lead him to Father Ferreira, and they are able to talk face-to-face. Rodriguez is shocked by his old teacher. Not only has Ferreira apostatized and taken a Japanese wife and name, but he is writing a book denouncing Christianity as a false religion. Ferreira confronts Rodriguez’s view of Japan. “Japan is a swamp,” he states cynically. “Christianity cannot grow here.” According to Ferreira, the Japanese martyrs did not die for the Christian God, but for a god of their own making, a strange blend of Catholicism and Buddhism. “The Japanese till this day have never had the concept of God; and they never will.”
With this discouragement resounding in his ears, Rodriguez is led back to prison. That evening, five Christians are tortured outside his cell, despite having already apostatized. Rodriguez is told that they will be set free if he merely trample on the fumie. His pride, Ferreira tells him, is the only thing standing between those Christians and deliverance. “A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ,” Ferreira says pleadingly. “If Christ were here, he would certainly have apostatized for them.” Rodriguez, haunted by the screams of the martyrs, looks down on the fumie when he hears what is meant to be the voice of Christ speaking to him. “Trample! It was to be trampled by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” And so, eyes blinded with tears, Rodriguez steps on the fumie and denies his Lord.
I went into watching the movie having just read the book for a World Literature class, so I was pleased that Martin Scorsese followed the book’s plot and message as perfectly as possible. While this made for a longer movie (2 hours and 40 minutes), I think Scorsese handled the material very well, and kept the movie from dragging on. The film successfully incorporated symbolism from the book, most notably in its use of silence. The absence of a musical score, unusual to our modern ears, highlighted the absence of an answer to Rodriguez’s questions. Additionally, while the movie is rated ‘R’ for violence, it is not an action movie, and except for one or two scenes avoids excessive gore. This careful handling of the text emphasizes the gravity of the questions posed by the story.
The story itself deals with a variety of issues, but doesn’t necessarily provide answers. For the most part, I think it is a masterful work of literature which asks questions many Christians wonder about. How far does God’s grace to sinners extend? Why is God silent when His people are persecuted? Do the ends of a situation justify sinful actions? How closely is Christianity linked with Imperialism? It’s unusual to see such important questions deeply dealt with in films, and it was exciting to watch a movie which grapples with tough themes.
Despite its strengths, however, the conclusions Silence comes to are flawed. Even if Protestant viewers are able to suspend disbelief and accept the Roman Catholic worldview of the author and characters, conservative Christians cannot agree with how the movie is resolved. Rodriguez’s apostasy is presented as a paradox. If he kept his faith, he would indirectly cause the death of innocent people. If he sinned and denied Christ, he would be the instrument of salvation for the dying Christians. It was a lose-lose situation. Who can judge Rodriguez for giving up his personal faith for the lives of others?
As it turns out, Jesus can.
“Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Matt. 10:33
Jesus spoke these words knowing full-well the persecution his followers would face. He personally called Christians to suffer for His sake, as He suffered for them. Rodriguez believed that suffering by forsaking his faith – and thus his position, authority as a priest, honor, and self-respect – was a truer form of sacrifice because it was true humiliation (such as Jesus suffered), rather than the glorification of a martyr’s death. While it is true that absolute sacrifice entails debasement, this cannot negate the fact that Jesus does not call us to follow Him by denying Him. We follow by obeying Him.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15
When it comes to sin, the ends don’t justify the means. God is sovereign, and we can trust Him when presented with apparently unsolvable moral conundrums. While it would be unimaginably difficult to be faced with Rodriguez’s situation, Christians still need to affirm the necessity of obeying Christ.
“Nowhere does the Christian change his character. There is one gospel, and the same Jesus, who will one day deny every one who denies, and acknowledge every one who acknowledges God—who will save, too, the life which has been lost for His sake; but, on the other hand, destroy that which for gain has been saved to His dishonour…A state of faith admits no plea of necessity; they are under no necessity to sin, whose one necessity is, that they do not sin. For if one is pressed to the offering of sacrifice and the sheer denial of Christ by the necessity of torture or of punishment, yet discipline does not connive even at that necessity; because there is a higher necessity to dread denying and to undergo martyrdom, than to escape from suffering, and to render the homage required.”
-Tertullian, De Corona, Chapter 11
A Facebook friend recently shared this quote from one of the church fathers. It is eminently applicable to many of the issues dealt with in Silence. Christ can and does forgive repentant Christians who have denied Him in the past, but grace does not justify sin.
Overall, moviegoers will leave the theater with more questions about Christianity than they came with. Believers whose faith is strong, however, may find the questions to be a helpful springboard into dealing with the silence of God from a more gospel-centric worldview. I recommend it for mature viewers who are willing to wrestle with complex themes and work hard to find Biblical answers.
Cautions: Rated R for disturbing violent content. Although the gore isn’t as extreme as many R-rated movies, the story is extremely intense and the human suffering depicted feels realistic. Partial male nudity in a non-sexual context.