Warning: this post contains plot details and spoilers from the film Silence by Martin Scorsese.
Martin Scorsese is not one afraid to ask challenging questions about the nature of man and faith, questions that some find simply the mention of a step too far, even heretical. Faith is something that has been a subject of exploration in his life and films. Having once sought to become a priest he famously adapted and filmed Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ, exploring the idea that Jesus may have struggled with his contrasting human and divine nature.
In his latest movie Silence he has taken more challenging areas to explore by taking Shusako Endo’s novel about 2 Jesuit priests who travel to 17th Century Japan in search of their former mentor who, according to rumours, had renounced his faith. At that time Christians in Japan were suffering under a brutal regime seeking to wipe out the faith. They were forced to renounce their faith, an act known as apostasy, by stepping on an image of Christ known as a fumie. Those that refused to apostatise were tortured, often to a slow and excruciating death.
The title alludes to Gods seeming silence or absence whilst people suffer for their belief in Him, and as the priests watch the persecution unforced around them their faith is severely tested. Whilst believers’ faith gives them strength, the priests struggle to maintain their own faith as the silence breeds doubts.
The film illustrates some of the challenges the persecuted church went through then, and still does today. One of those challenges is the decision whether to profess and practice a faith in public and risk the consequences or to hide their faith away, even publicly renounce or denounce it, and consciously act against the God they privately believe in.
From the comfort of a cinema and our own homes it is easy to sit and say that a believer cannot be a true believer if they publicly renounce their faith: our actions reflect our beliefs and to consciously act contrary to what we claim to believe suggests that we don’t truly believe. In places of persecution such protestations are not so easily declared.
To renounce their faith to save themselves was considered deeply sinful; and though they might be freed to survive in this world they would be exchanging an eternity in Heaven for an eternity in Hell through their betrayal of God. For some it is a individualistic and singularly personal choice: save their skin or their soul, to live or be martyred – although martyrdom can be seen as a reward for and badge of honour for maintaining a faith through to the end, it is a fool who believes suffering torture for a faith is something to be welcomed.
Silence illustrates the choice of self over others is illustrated through Kichijiro, a character who apostatises to save his own skin whilst the rest of his family do not. He is freed but watches on as each member of his family is bound in straw and set alight. His guilt clearly eats away at him but at each opportunity to act differently he reactively or proactively chooses to save himself, once taking on the likeness of Judas by accepting payment for leading the persecutors to a priest. After each occasion Kichijiro repeatedly asks for forgiveness, the priest fights his human rage to extend God’s love.
Whilst some in Silence face the choice whether to live or die, others face a more complicated and cruel choice: to save their own soul by continuing to publicly profess and act out their faith as would be expected, or to loose their soul by committing the sin of renouncing their faith in order to save the lives and souls of other believers. At times both of the main characters, fight the temptation to use the power granted to them by their circumstance or persecutors and watch as believers are tortured and killed.
The film asks when is apostasy truly committed: is it simply what people say or are seen to do, or us it what is unseen and in their heart? Is the private relationship between a person and God more important than the public expression of it? It also asks can we sin in order to save, can we do an evil act to obtain a good result? It is a question politicians and the military have faced over centuries, do we go to war and kill in order to save lives and achieve peace?
Just as a false confession may be obtained through torture so can a false declaration of apostasy. What we see and hear on the outside is not what the person is, or what God hears and sees. But can a person publicly renounce their faith and continue to truly believe? Even if they can, if they cannot practice what they believe will their faith even be able to survive such a double-life? The film suggests it can, that apostasy can be a superficial act that is lived out externally but fought against internally and not negate a believer’s faith.
In their actions to wipe out a faith they do not believe in we see the persecutors gain satisfaction from breaking a person’s will and causing them to denounce God. They fear a belief different from their own, they fear giving freedom and control to believe in something else, they fear being wrong. We see them interested in what they can see and hear, in the outward practice of a person’s beliefs, but it is more than an interest in the superficial and poses another question: if no one can talk about or act out a faith how can it survive and spread? If words, pictures and sounds are removed how will people know about something, an idea, a concept, a faith? If no one hears about Jesus how can they be saved? Can not just an individual be kept from God but a whole nation?
Whilst in safe places we might say that our actions reflect our faith it is not so simple in places of persecution. Worshipping God under the radar might be like trying to grow crops in poor soil amongst a thicket or weeds but surely a struggling faith is better than no faith at all? Can a faith can be practiced unseen from those who find it uncomfortable and survive to bear fruit when circumstances change?
Silence may be set in the past but it is a film for the present day. It is not a film that provides answers but encourages us to think of those presently trying to wipe out the Christian faith and to question our perception of what faith is. It is also a film that challenges us to think before we judge or come to conclusions. Through the most unlikely of characters, Kichijiro, the serial renouncer of the faith and the Judas of the story, we are given hope: not only does his self-confessed weak faith survive but he sees the continued faith in those that have apparently been seen to have abandoned theirs.
You may find the following articles of interest:
- Paul Elie’s interview with Martin Scorsese in the New York Times, looking at the background to the film and the issues it raises
- Interview with Andrew Garfield who plays the priest Sebastian Rodrigues, detailing some of his preparation for the role
- Review of the film in Empire
- Review of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence in The Guardian