Film Review: Silence
“Arguments cannot be answered by personal abuse; there is no logic in slander, and falsehood, in the long run, defeats itself.” -Robert G. Ingersoll
This review must begin with an admission and disclosure. I am a Christian. I was raised in a Southern Baptist home. I am in the process of converting to Catholicism from my native Protestantism. My family is fairly evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics. I share these personal details because I believe that it is important to understand my religious background and biases. Silence is a personal film. It is an incredibly personal film. I struggle with this film as I struggle with my faith. Faith is not an easy thing. Faith is a constant test and action that drives us and grounds us. No matter how far we go, we stay firmly in place. G.K. Chesterton wrote a novella in 1905 called The Ball and the Cross. The title derives from the objects that crown St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. At the top of the spire is a ball, and planted in the ball and reaching into the sky is a cross. The symbolism of that object and its design (the cross on the ball rather than the ball on the cross) is examined at length in Chesterton’s opening chapter. The Church and the faith reaches to the heavens, but is firmly planted in the earth. The Church is at once part of this world and yet not of it. To paraphrase Chesterton, if there is one thing that I know without a doubt in this world, it is that even if the cathedrals were to topple, the priesthood were to end, prayers were to cease, the bibles were burned, the icons destroyed, the statuaries smashed, baptisteries emptied, altars desecrated, and songs forgotten, the Church endures. This is a difficult film for me to write about and review. I beg the reader’s indulgence with what follows if it reads more as confession and think piece than review.
Silence is the story of Christians during a time and place of great persecution. It is a story of the struggles of faith; struggles between personal salvation and the suffering of others. As personal and thoughtful and painful as Silence is, most of its praise and criticism and questions (for it provokes many questions) regards the story on screen itself and the crisis of priests and laity in Japan in the 17th century. These questions are important, but they have missed a grander point. Scorsese eviscerated the way the modern world treats and discusses faith and its importance to believers. Silence brings to the forefront the battles and struggles Christians and Christianity have in a hostile place. Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) are sent to Japan to discover the fate of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). What they find on their travels are acts of kindness, cruelty, bravery, compassion, torture, cowardice, perseverance, and defeat. In short, they find the totality of human nature.
The Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) is determined to root out Christianity in Japan by torturing and executing Christians and priests. If the Christians will apostatize and step on an image of Christ or spit on a crucifix and insult the Blessed Virgin, the Inquisitor would generally let them go. Those that refuse are executed using various methods including beheading, immolation, and drowning. The Inquisitor’s prized targets are the priests like Ferreira and Rodrigues. They are tortured physically, spiritually, and psychologically. Ferreira was forced to watch as the Inquisitor had other captured Jesuits stripped naked and slowly tortured to death with scalding water. The cruelest torture utilized in the film is a hanging pit. The Japanese bound the arms and legs of the victim, made a small incision behind the ear, and then hang them upside down with their heads in the pit. The point of all this? To prove that Christianity cannot exist in Japan. That Japan and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible.
Japan is described as a swamp where Christianity cannot take root and cannot grow. The truth of the matter is that it is impossible to test the veracity of that statement. If Christianity cannot grow in Japan, is it because it holds no meaning or truth for the Japanese or is it because the civil authorities slaughtered faithful Christians and priests wherever they could be found? If the Church cannot take root in Japan, then why go through such efforts to stamp it out? Though it is not elaborated upon in the film, the Inquisitor states that Christianity has been measured by the learned men and authorities in Japan and it has been found both lacking and dangerous. Christianity must be destroyed because it is deemed dangerous, without detailing what those dangers may be, and is simultaneously insufficient as a philosophy or religion for the Japanese. The Inquisitor is not interested in debating the priests on the merits of their faith. He has already passed judgement, so the only thing left is for Christians to abandon the faith or be destroyed.
The most controversial and important moment in the film is Rodrigues’ moment of apostasy. He has been confronted by Ferreira’s story of submission and debated his old master on their faith and Japan. Rodrigues’ torture is to hear the screams of agony of five Christian peasants being held in the pit. Each of them has apostatized multiple times but the Inquisitor does not care. The only way to end their suffering is for Fr. Rodrigues to apostatize himself. Throughout the film, Fr. Rodrigues has struggled in prayer to hear the voice of Christ. In this final moment of torture, Rodrigues hears a voice that tells him, “go ahead. It’s alright.” Rodrigues steps on the image of Jesus and collapses around it, as a rooster crows in the distance. The symbolism for Christians in that moment is clear, alluding to Peter and his denial of Christ, which Jesus himself had prophesied. It would seem that Fr. Rodrigues has given in and been defeated. This is the crux of the film and the debate surrounding it within religious circles. Did Fr. Rodrigues do the right thing or did he lose himself and his faith?
The power of Silence is following Fr. Rodrigues and his struggles with his faith throughout the film. Andrew Garfield is marvelous in this role and it is a true shame that he did not receive an Oscar nomination for this role. I have never cared more deeply and been so invested in seeing a character win than in this film, and watching him collapse and seemingly be defeated was devastating. Scorsese has his own answer for whether Fr. Rodrigues lost his faith. In the final shot of the film, at the Buddhist burial for the man that was Rodrigues, the camera zooms into the coffin and clutched in the man’s hand is a tiny woven cross. I agree with Scorsese’s conclusion that Fr. Rodrigues was never defeated. He never gave up and he never gave in. He surrendered. There is a difference. In order to save his faithful Christians, the Inquisitor required Rodrigues’ apostasy. To end their suffering, he had to surrender. If he did not, their suffering would go on and their executions all but assured. The Inquisitor required regular signed statements and demonstrations that Rodrigues had apostatized during the rest of his life. Why? To ensure that Rodrigues had been defeated? Or is it because he knew the priest surrendered under threat of torture and death to save others?
Setting aside the debate over Fr. Rodrigues’ choice and the meaning of Silence, the one thing I believe many have missed is that the film is a brutal critique of the way faith is treated in the modern world. There are many in the West that would prefer religion and Christianity went away. Not to say they are willing to go as far as the Inquisitor and use torture and executions to achieve their ends but the ends are still the same, and the arguments have barely changed. Fr. Rodrigues stopped practicing his faith. The end of the film implies he kept it privately. Is this not exactly how religion is discussed and treated at large, at least in the United States? “If you like your religion, keep it to yourself. Do not share it. It is incompatible with us and with this place. Most people don’t understand what they’re saying or doing anyway, so your religious belief isn’t genuine.” The modern Western world prefers its largest religion and its followers to be quiet and kept out of the way. Christianity has been sometimes described as dangerous and at other times insufficient. Why is Silence so poignant and powerful? It turned a mirror on us all and we barely noticed.
I could spill more ink on the importance and thoughtfulness of this movie. I could go into how I wept during the crucifixion scene at the sea. I could tell you of the bravery of the poor and humble peasants in the face of persecution. I could tell you about Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto) and his story that no one is beyond forgiveness that seeks it. I could go into how masterfully the film is shot and how breathtaking the camera work is. I could tell you how moving the quietness of the film is and how perfect it sets the tone. I cannot tell you whether the film is good or bad because this is an experiential film. It is so personal that it is hard to describe and that writing this review has been the most challenging thing I have ever written on art and entertainment. The only thing I believe that must now be mentioned in closing is the film’s dedication. “To the Japanese Christians and their pastors.” The Church endures.
4 starts out of 5.