Note: This brief overview of Martin Scorsese’s Silence was originally written for another outlet, but was passed over for various reasons.
After more than two decades of development, award-winning director Martin Scorsese’s film adaption of Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel Silence is being released nationwide. While public discussion of the film (and, by extension, the book) often unveils the most gripping plot points, this much can be said safely: Set in 17th Century Japan, Silence follows the journey of two Jesuit missionaries—Frs. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver)—in search of their former mentor Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who reportedly apostatized during a particularly brutal period of Catholic persecution on the island. Like the novel, Scorsese’s film wrestles with some of the deepest challenges to the Faith, not the least of which being God’s perceived silence in the face of almost unimaginable human suffering. Though some Christian critics believe that the movie is little more than an apologia for apostasy, that is more a testament to the superficiality of their thinking than an indictment of Scorsese’s singular cinematic achievement.
Many faithful Catholics are understandably concerned how Scorsese—the lapsed-Catholic filmmaker who once brought the grotesque The Last Temptation of Christ to the screen—would handle Endo’s novel (itself a longstanding source of controversy). Although an argument can be made that Scorsese injects a bit too much of his own interpretation of the book’s troubling and ambiguous climax into his adaptation, by the closing credits it is clear that Silence is no clumsy piece of didactic cinema; the powerfully unsettling questions sewn into the novel still remain.
Perhaps for that reason alone, Silence is not a movie for the immature, nor is it a work that can be comprehended by modern sensibilities. The Tridentine Catholicism that not only animates the plot but supplies the movie’s richest symbolisms is thoroughly alien to an era shot through with religious indifferentism and cultural relativism. Protestants, no less than secularists, are apt to misunderstand the film’s fusion of sign and substance, particularly the torment that surrounds the mere possibility of trampling upon an image of Christ. Moreover, by quietly pointing to the kenotic Christ, that is, the Savior who suffers not just for us but with us, Silence taps into a rich tradition of authentically Catholic spirituality, one that is infused not just with the history of Japanese Catholicism, but Eastern Slavic piety as well.
If this description sounds vague, that is by design. While most reviews of Silence can’t help but spoil the movie’s plot, including the ending chapter, if there is a chance to see this film with fresh eyes, then take it. Be warned, however, that Scorsese is unwavering in his portrayal of human cruelty. Martyrdom is not an abstract concept in Silence; it is torment graphically depicted physically and spiritually. Similarly, the questions Silence asks are not susceptible to rote, manualist answers. No catechism crafted by human hands can stand in the place of faith, just as faith itself cannot be reduced to a handful of propositions.
How faith germinates, fractures, and recovers is as much a part of Silence as its stark depiction of living under the constant threat of persecution. As one of the movie’s central Japanese characters, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), laments, it is easy to be a “good Christian” when fear of a violent death is off the table. For most Catholics living outside of China and the Middle East today, the thought of suffering and dying for the Faith is, for the time being, as foreign as the Gospel was to Japan when St. Francis Xavier and his fellow missionaries first arrived in the 1540s. Although Fr. Ferreira derides Japan as “a swamp” where Catholicism cannot lay roots and grow, it is a charge that rings hollow in the face of Silence’s repeated demonstrations of heroic faith by the simplest of souls.
As beautiful as it is bleak, Silence should not be approached lightly. By choosing to keep faith with the book, Scorsese’s film can be twisted to fit within any number of heterodox paradigms. Faithful Catholics sensitive to both Church teaching and history needn’t be concerned about the superficiality of non-Catholic interpretations of Silence. Instead, they should take the movie as an opportunity to reflect on their own faith by never losing sight of the reality that all we are asked to endure here on earth, in the time that remains before the Second Coming, is for the glory of God and the promise of eternal paradise with Christ, the One who endured all for the life of the world.