Martin Scorsese's SILENCE

"The film was thoroughly engaging, challenging and thought provoking and I find myself still thinking about the themes explored..."

After the Labour Party Conference Service theme of "Faith under Fire" this year (thanks to our partners Open Doors and Release International) we were interested to read about Martin Scorsese’s latest film ‘Silence’. We sent John Enright to investigate.

 SILENCE Film Banner



[Spoilers] In the seventeenth century two idealistic young Jesuit missionaries, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), sail to Japan from the Portuguese colony of Macau to find their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), from whom there has been no communication for several years.  The film is based upon Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name and is well worth reading to gain a better insight into the themes explored by Scorsese.

Film Still‘Silence’ examines the nature of faith and how the flame may not be extinguished even when an individual endures the most extreme and harrowing of circumstances and has abandoned the ‘externalities’ of religion.  The Japanese authorities are determined to root out Christianity and in their persecution of believers resort to torture and execution.  By treading on the ‘fumi-e’ (a likeness of Jesus or the Virgin Mary) suspected Christians are able to demonstrate that they are not members of the outlawed religion.  Some Christians are unwilling to make this symbolic act of apostasy and as a consequence suffer violent and painful death.

The film is visually stunning and particularly eye-catching is the bird’s eye view of the Chinese junk as it journeys towards Japan.  Also, memorable, but for very different reasons, is the crucifixion of three Japanese Christians along the shoreline where they are exposed to the incoming tide.  

The central character in the film is Father Rodrigues and everything is related from his perspective.  Sadly, Father Garrpe dies while trying to save some Japanese Christians from being drowned by the authorities but his martyrdom inspires and then induces guilt in Rodrigues when he finds himself incapable of taking the same step.    

Rodrigues is eventually captured by the authorities and his experience at the hands of the Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata) mirrors in his own eyes that of Jesus’s Passion but is his willingness to suffer martyrdom really only a self-seeking desire for personal glory?  For the authorities the execution of missionaries has proven counter-productive so the Inquisitor sets out to undermine Rodrigues’s faith by a variety of means ranging from gentle persuasion to intense psychological and emotional pressure.  

Film StillHis meeting with Ferreira is particularly shocking for Rodrigues as he learns that his former mentor and role model has apostatized and converted to Buddhism. It is only when Rodrigues is faced with the consequences of his continued refusal to co-operate – the torture and threatened execution of five Japanese Christians – that he finally agrees to apostatize.  Ferreira explains that he had faced exactly the same cruel dilemma but suggests that Jesus Himself would have apostatized in this situation. As Rodrigues is about to step on the fumi-e he hears the quiet voice of Jesus reassuring him that his action is not sinful; the Silence is broken.

The price of apostasy for Rodrigues is that he becomes a ‘fallen priest’ who like Ferreira appears to have turned his back on the Church by adopting a Japanese identity, including wife and family, and making himself useful to the authorities in the suppression of Christianity.  There are clues, however, that Rodrigues’s faith has not been entirely extinguished but only God knows the true state of his soul.

A key figure in the film, and in my view the most intriguing, is Kichijiro (Yosuke Kobuzuka) who is characterized as weak-willed and treacherous.  Even though he is an apostate, he still asks Father Rodrigues to hear his confession on several different occasions, the last being after he has betrayed the missionary to the authorities.  Kichijiro acknowledges his weakness but makes the point that in more benign circumstances where believers were not being persecuted he might have been a ‘good’ Christian.  Perhaps there is a message here for Christians in the modern world who are fortunate enough to live in countries free of religious intolerance.

For Scorsese ‘Silence’ has been described as his passion project and I think he has brilliantly succeeded in delivering a film that lays bare the nature of faith not just in seventeenth century Japan but in all times and places.



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