This week, Pope Francis moved the cases of ten individuals one step forward towards canonization. Among them was Takayama “Justo” Ukon, a samurai driven out of Japan for his chosen faith. In light of this, it’s time to take a look at Martin Scorsese’s new film, Silence, which deals with the period of persecution that Ukon lived in.
“I want to go out in the countryside
Oh sit by the clear, cool, crystal water
Get my spirit, way back to the feeling
Deep in my soul, I want to feel
Oh so close to the One.”
– Van Morrison, “Hymns to the Silence”
There’s so much to say about Silence. It’s been a hot topic in Catholic circles in the three weeks since its release. The ever-awesome Bishop Barron has weighed in, along with a torrent of Catholic film-goers. While anticipated greatly by so many, it’s left a lot of people questioning what exactly it’s trying to say. A few reviewers said they are “needing time to process the film.” Let me save you that time, because there’s really not much to process. It’s not that you shouldn’t reflect on it. After all, a measurement of quality art is how much it makes you internalize what it’s saying. And that’s the problem with Silence. It doesn’t say much worth hearing.
Imagine, if you will, Braveheart, and legendary William Wallace, moments from death, being offered the respite that a quick execution will provide. Imagine Wallace asking for mercy instead of his ravenous call for “Freedom!” Imagine Sir Thomas More opting to lose himself, saving his own life for the sake of politically correctness in A Man for All Seasons. What would we have? We’d have a lot of folks we call heroes going belly up, that’s what. And what wouldn’t we have? We wouldn’t have the Scottish army rallying to Wallace’s cry and winning their freedom. We wouldn’t have SAINT Thomas More.
So now we come to Silence. For those not in the know, it’s a story focusing on the persecution of Catholics in 17th century Japan. More specifically, its a historical FICTION about two priests who risk their lives to go to Japan to find their mentor, who has allegedly renounced his faith.
When you hear that synopsis, generally speaking, you’d think you’d have a good understanding about what would happen. It is a familiar, albeit tragic story. The priests would do a bunch of good, but eventually they would get caught. Maybe one would escape, but this is Hollywood. This is Martin Scorsese. There has to be a sacrifice! There has to be heroism. And there is…kinda.
There’s a remarkable inconsistency to what the writers of this film want us to believe. The two priests, Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), while both holy men, are very different. Garupe complains more, worries more, and wants to play things safe. Rodrigues is the calm one, reminding Garupe why they came to Japan, to save souls. And they come into contact with Japanese Catholics who are absolutely in love with their faith, and eternally grateful for the unexpected appearance of the clergymen. And then, there’s Kichijiro, the reviled man who smuggled the priests into Japan and is revealed to have renounced his faith and watched as his family was killed for believing in it. And this is where the rubber hits the road…and gets a flat tire.
While Christians are imprisoned and killed by the government, the priests watch in horror from hiding at the insistence of the natives. As the net tightens around them, the priests are asked by their flock if they should renounce their faith to save their lives. Without hesitation, Rodrigues answers in the affirmative. Garupe, astonished at this response, answers in the contrary. This is the crux of the film. To be, or not to be, a martyr?
For Garupe, the answer is yes, and despite his previous complaining, he gives his life while trying to save a Christian from execution by drowning. But this is mostly glossed over. The story, after all, follows Father Rodrigues, who is eventually captured and imprisoned. Father Rodrigues speaks to God about these trials, wanting some sort of instruction from Him, but lamenting and complaining that he hears nothing, except silence, in return. In the end, Father Rodrigues denounces his faith, gives up his priesthood, marries, and repeatedly displays anti-Christian behavior when the government requires it of him. After all that, upon Father Rodrigues’ death, he is shown clutching a crude wooden cross hidden in his palm.
Speaking from a narrative position, the problem here isn’t necessarily that Rodrigues apostatized. Its that we’re expected to treat him as a hero, as if the duality of a public and private life divorced from each other is laudable. “Look,” the film says, “he kept his faith hidden all those years in spite of everything! He’s heroic!” But a hidden faith is no faith at all. Jesus is pretty specific about this. You don’t hide your light under a basket! A Christian life is lived for others, or its not lived at all. What good is salt if it loses its flavor? (It actually ceases to be salt…shout out to Fr. Mike Schmitz for that bit of data).
The problem with Silence is the same problem we face in modern times. The modernist’s creed is to separate the personal from the public. You can believe whatever you want, as long as you do it in private. You can do whatever you want, as long as deep inside you feel like a good person. And we convince ourselves that this is fine because we call God an abstraction. He’s not there to tell us what to do or to interfere. He’s silent.
But here’s the thing. This supposed silence actually is God’s voice. It’s not vapid emptiness. God’s spoken word is a constantly-renewing creation. To believe he does not speak to us is to ignore his constant voice. To fill our ears with the wretched static of noise is to close ourselves off from the nature of God’s universe, still aborning. Silence is not an empty void of despair, but the very language of God.
If Fr. Rodrigues had been really listening, he would have understood how blatantly God was working; his flock was looking to him for example! Kichijiro breaks INTO prison not once, but twice, to go to confession, even after betraying his friends. It’s Kichijiro, the big sinner in need of mercy, who reminds Rodrigues, years after he’s abandoned his duties as a priest, that he’ll never stop being one. Rodrigues doesn’t really listen to the silence. He listens to the noise! Japanese officials tell him his quest is useless, they drive him to despair. Fr. Garupe’s sacrifice is pushed away and Fr. Rodrigues gives up in the face of roaring discouragement, cruelty, and violence. This isn’t heroism, its tragedy. It’s not William Wallace. It’s not Sir Thomas More. Ignoring the mission is not victory.
It’s significant to note that one of the apostatizing priests in Silence was based on the real-life Father Ferreira, who actually repented and died a martyr. But that’s not shown in this film, or in the book it’s based on. What’s shown is a film shot through the lens of moral ambiguity, where the viewer gets to decide who the hero is, or if there is one at all. This is exactly why this film isn’t worth reflecting on. There’s no deep meaning, just a vapid expanse of noise. Would you sit and reflect for days/weeks upon the static you hear when your favorite radio station goes out of range? If you did, it would likely only be to reflect on what you’re missing. The same thing holds true for this movie.
Silence is noise; a distraction from what true heroism and true Christianity is. There’s no need to spend weeks reflecting on it, unless you’re doing so to note what’s missing. But even then, why not fill yourself up with the silence of God instead? His still, small, voice that’s always there to listen to. Get away from the screens and walk in God’s nature, reflect on it as his gift. Go visit with people he’s brought into your life. Look for God’s Silence. Just not in this film.