Is Silence also an answer?

Martin Scorsese’s epic ‘Silence’ is a slow, deep and harrowing way to spend three hours of your life: but it is also an intriguing and ultimately moving work of art. Fast and Furious this ain’t. If you’re looking for a silver-screen thrill-ride, you’ve come to the wrong theatre. What you will get, though, in return for your willingness to see this film through to its ambiguous end, is one of the most powerful explorations of faith ever committed to camera.

The movie’s storyline is now widely known. We follow the mission of two Portugese Jesuit Priests — Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver to you — who have come to 17th Century Japan to find out of their hero and former mentor — Liam Neeson to you — has, as the rumours suggest, abandoned his faith. The apocalypse the two Priests stumble into is the systematic persecution and destruction, by the Japanese ruling classes, of the peasant Christian communities a previous generation of missionaries has seen established. The horrific punishments meted out to the Kakure Kirishitan (hidden Christians) are shown in graphic, though never gratuitous detail and give rise the the film’s central question. What does faith mean when even God is silent in the face of such appalling suffering?

We hear the voice of Scorsese himself when the feeble-willed and dilletante guide Kichijiro asks “What place is there for a weak man in a world such as this?” It’s all very well for great heroes to stand strong in the face of God’s silence, but what about the rest of us? Is there a faith we, too, can live? Given chance after chance, Kichijiro continually lets down those who trust him. He betrays his fellow believers at the cost of their lives; yet time and again he asks for and is offered forgiveness. Is this not, in the end, the very essence of the Gospel the missionaries have come to proclaim — that those who don’t stand strong, those who betray their God and their brothers and sisters, are also included by grace? That they especially are included?

Through the eyes of Garfield’s Rodriques we are asked to consider whether it is only the martyrs who hold firm who are loved and honoured by their God or the traitors, too, who collapse and capitulate.

The question becomes focussed and personal when Rodrigues himself must choose. Will he stand strong and proud as a Priest in the face of the unbearable suffering of his flock or will he, for their sakes, betray the deepest vows of his heart? Can even betrayal be an act of love? Can I demonstrate my passion for God by denying him?

This is a powerful and disturbing question, and Scorsese refuses to let us off the hook with a neat answer. In this he is courageously faithful to the book on which the film is based. Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel is considered a classic of 20th century Japanese literature, and is unforgiving in its ambiguity. I read it a year ago and came away moved and disturbed in equal measure. My fear for the movie adaptation was that it might fall into the Hollywood trap of erasing ambivalence and falsely resolving the novel’s tension. That Scorsese doesn’t do so is testament to his mettle as a director and his maturity as a seeker of truth.

To me, Silence is a film for our times. 2016 is marked on most of our calendars as a year in which those too eager for easy answers are paddling us all into decidedly dangerous waters. Among them are many people of faith. Some of us, though, here a call to look closer; to think deeper. History is asking us penetrating questions right now, and reaching for off-the-shelf solutions will help no-one. We need deep answers. If Heaven seems silent it may just be up to us to dive for them.