‘The Price for your glory is their suffering’
Scorsese’s new epic masterpiece is theologically rich, aesthetically captivating, and emotionally raw. Based upon Endo’s 1966 historical fiction by the same name, Silence is a film about Portuguese priests facing persecution in 17th century Japan. This deep spiritual movie could not be more at odds with Scorsese’s previous work, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), which portrayed the seedy, facile world of stock market fraud. Though antithetical, both films none-the-less point their audiences in similar directions, towards valuing the considered, devotional, moral life.
The primary theological question this film explores is all the issues surrounding Christian persecution. In the third century, the Roman Empire, under Emperor Decius, began persecuting anyone who was not sacrificing to the Roman gods, (i.e. Christians). This was policed by having officials issue certificates to those who did their duty, while severe punitive measures were wrought upon those who failed to comply. Some Christians acquired these certificates through duplicitous means, some Christians offered sacrifices regardless, and some refused, and as such were tortured or martyred. In other words, some Christians remained steadfast despite the consequences, and some compromised to avoid suffering. The Church subsequently had to decide what do with these turn-tail Christians. Were they now tainted? Could they be honestly forgiven?
In Silence, the same conundrum presents itself, both to the Japanese Christians, but also most arduously to the protagonist himself, Padre Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield). He portrays the emotionally tortured priest, his steadfast example on the one hand offering solace to the Christians, but also enabling much suffering and death as the indigenous Japanese follow his example and refuse to turn their back on Christ. Is he wrong to lead others into such suffering? Do these others even fully understand what they are suffering for? And to those who are weak, should he be forgiving them their trespasses, condoning such weakness?
This film’s namesake, Silence, arises from the silence of God: the priests’ subjective experience of God’s silence despite their great need, their great suffering. Where is God in their suffering? This is coupled with the protagonist’s ultimate acceptance of this God of silence by eschewing external religious expression, and in so doing counter intuitively becoming a true Christian, overcoming his vanity. The notion, hinted at, that the path of Jesus lies beyond establishment Christianity, and even beyond Christianity as conventionally perceived, obviously chimes deeply with my own understanding of the faith. This film is brutal, emotionally challenging, and tackles difficult questions; for three hours I was holding my breath. My only concern as this film reaches a wider audience is that it will be misunderstood as a film about Christian hardship, a dualistic conception of goodies and baddies, even though in reality the film is directly challenging such a reductionist understanding of faith. Keep in mind also, this film is coming from the same director who gave us the other religiously themed masterpiece: ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (1988).