Silence December 3, 2017

Several weeks ago, I finally watched Martin Scorsese’s film Silence. Given the title and the theme, it’s probably appropriate that it’s taken me so long to write about it, though that’s fairly typical for me.

For people who don’t already know the film: it’s based on a book by the Japanese novelist Shusako Endo, which is in turn based on historical events of the early 17th century during the Japanese persecution of Christians. A Portuguese Jesuit missionary, Christovao Ferreira, has disappeared in Japan, and rumor has it that he has apostasized. Two young priests are sent to find out what happened to him. After ministering to the persecuted Japanese Christians, they are betrayed and arrested. Both the novel and the film focus on one of them, a fictional character named Rodriguez (played by Andrew Garfield) who himself eventually follows Ferreira’s footsteps and apostasizes.

The apostasy, in both book and film, is presented as a paradoxically Christian act. Rodriguez himself is never tortured–the Japanese authorities choose rather to torture Japanese Christians (who in some cases have already apostasized), telling Rodriguez that he can end their suffering by renouncing the faith himself. This is done by the ritual act of treading on a portrait of Christ, the “fumie.” In the climax of the story, witnessing the tortures of the Japanese Christians, pressured by his own former mentor Ferreira with the argument that apostasy is the Christlike, unselfish thing to do, Rodriguez hears the voice of Christ saying, “You may trample. . . .it was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world.” His renunciation of Christ is therefore, an ultimate act of discipleship–or at least this is the suggestion that Endo’s narrative makes, followed by Scorsese’s film.

I read the novel many years ago and need to reread it. From here on, I will refer primarily to the film. In Scorsese’s telling, at least, Rodriguez is fulfilling not only a Christian ideal (imitatio Christi) but a Buddhist one. Both Japanese interrogators and his apostate mentor Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson, himself a Buddhist in real life) suggest that by ceasing to cling to his faith, he would be letting go of self, transcending all attachments in an act of pure compassion. Scorsese explicitly endorsed this interpretation of Rodriguez’ apostasy in an interview with him I heard on NPR. It isn’t surprising, then, that many conservative Catholics have reacted badly to the film (as many Japanese Catholics reacted badly to Endo’s original novel). Furthermore, Ferreira also tells Rodriguez that Christianity is fundamentally unsuited to Japan, like a tree that can’t take root in a swamp. He argues that since the Japanese have no conception of a spiritual reality transcending the natural world, even the converts who suffer and die heroically for their faith are really dying for an unrecognizable distortion of Christianity and are acting primarily out of personal loyalty to Rodriguez and the other missionaries.

If I remember rightly, these ideas are present in the original novel. But as a viewer of the film, I find them unconvincing. Scorsese never shows us a good reason to believe that Ferreira is right. The actual glimpses we get of Japanese Christians seem to contradict his claim that they aren’t “really” converts to Christianity and are simply motivated by loyalty to the missionaries. (And why are they so loyal to the missionaries anyway?) The Japanese elites who mastermind the persecution are sophisticated and plausible, but they have utter contempt for their own commoners and, of course, are willing to use horrifying brutality in order to preserve their social order. Ferreira’s narrative, and that of his Japanese masters, appears to be self-serving nonsense given the evidence we see in the film. In fact, in the world of the film, the Japanese peasants receive Christianity with joy as a message that brings them hope and meaning, and they cling to it stubbornly in the face of agonizing torment.

The film actually ignores a great deal that could be said on behalf of the Japanese authorities and against seventeenth-century Catholicism. Except for one moment when the Japanese “Inquisitor” thinks Rodriguez is inviting Japan to “marry” the Portuguese (as he points out, he’s actually talking about the Church), the imperialist undertones of the conflict aren’t really addressed. The Japanese had good reason to worry about the way the Portuguese colonizers used Catholicism to give themselves a foothold. In Sri Lanka and Southern India, the Portuguese persecuted Buddhism, destroying the holiest relic of Sri Lankan Buddhism (Buddha’s tooth) in a public ceremony (the Buddhists now claim that this was a replica and that the real tooth is still intact). Even the use of the term “Inquisitor” for the Japanese persecutor is ironic, given its normal association with Catholicism. Had Rodriguez gone back to Europe and proclaimed that Christ had told him to apostasize, he would have encountered his own religion’s Inquisitors quite quickly. While the brutality of the Catholic Inquisition has often been exaggerated and in fact paled in comparison to the methods the Japanese used, the fact remains that the Catholics of this era were quite willing to use torture and execution to preserve their social order against threats. Similarly, early modern Europe was not exactly a place in which the lives and human dignity of peasants were highly regarded. Japan and Europe had a great deal in common, in fact. The film makes no attempt to draw out these parallels. That isn’t a criticism–it’s not as if the social injustices of early modern Europe or the violence employed on behalf of the Catholic Church are unknown in our culture, or as if Hollywood is generally interested in presenting an unduly favorable picture of Catholicism. But since some Catholics have apparently dismissed the film as anti-Catholic, it’s worth noting that in many respects it is, if anything, the reverse. Indeed, it is if anything an anti-Buddhist film, shattering the “peaceful Buddhist” positive stereotype many in the West indulge in and showing the brutality of which a Buddhist culture was capable.

That is not to deny the very real sympathy Scorsese clearly feels with Buddhism. The Buddhist understanding of “no-self” and compassion comes through very clearly. But ironically, it is Rodriguez, not Ferreira, who most fully embodies it. Neeson’s Ferreira is weary and sad, “empty” in the negative Western sense as well as (or instead of) the positive Buddhist one. In the flashbacks the film provides, it seems that his apostasy, unlike that of Rodriguez, was prompted by his own torture, after he had already witnessed that of others (Rodriguez, in contrast, is never harmed physically). His explanations seem like ex post facto rationalizations. But they give Rodriguez the framework on which he will act when the spectacle of the Japanese converts’ torment becomes unbearable. Rodriguez does what Ferreira suggests, and he arguably fulfills the “selfless” ideal Ferreira has held out to him, but he does it for deeply Christian reasons. And in the end, Christianity gets the last word, with a final shot of Rodriguez corpse, wrapped in flames as part of a Buddhist funeral, clutching a crucifix.

Silence is an ambiguous and tragic film, not a work of propaganda for one side or the other. It defies easy explanations, even those of its own director. It captures the paradoxes and ambiguities of religious faith as powerfully as any film I have ever seen. And, precisely because of that, it is one of the most profoundly Christian films ever produced, worthy of a place just a step below the sublime Of Gods and Men.

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