The Universal Language of ‘SILENCE’

What can Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece teach us about the portrayal of faith in American cinema?

I am very proud of my sadness because it means I am more alive… I no longer fall in love with rocks.

–From Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow

There’s a scene near the end of Martin Scorcese’s Silence where the movie’s protagonist, Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues, is speaking to Jesus. Rodrigues (portrayed masterfully by Andrew Garfield in what is certainly the role of his career) is praying earnestly, the words of a man crushed by what he’s seen and experienced, humbly dropped before the feet of his Savior. “Lord… I fought against your silence.” Jesus responds to him, with no hesitation and in absolute clarity. “I was not silent. I suffered beside you.”

It’s a startling moment because for the duration of the film, Rodrigues — on a mission to learn the fate of his teacher Father Ferreira and preserve the Church’s voice in Japan — has been begging to encounter this Jesus. He has endured mental anguish, witnessed horrific persecution, and suffered from crippling loneliness, borne in the uniquely impossible task presented by his mission. Villages were upturned by Japanese officials to destroy any remnant of Christianity. Yet God was silent. People were tortured and murdered in exceptionally terrible ways right before Rodrigues’ eyes. Yet God was silent. The priest was betrayed and captured, thrown into a prison to await a greater torture. Yet God was silent. So when the words of Jesus finally sound, it comes as a shock. Rodrigues plumbed the depths of doubt, lost in a dense haze of sorrow and shame, and God never uttered a word. Why speak now? Why speak at all? How could a loving God ever be silent? And perhaps most troubling, how does one even know it’s Him that is speaking?

These are the central questions of what might be the finest cinematic treatment of faith ever made. In adapting Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 masterpiece, Scorcese and screenwriter Jay Cocks have preserved both the text’s deep sense of longing and its haunting finale. And while the film’s closing moments remove a bit of the novel’s ambiguity, there are still no easy conclusions for the audience to draw after such an emotionally grueling experience.

The story follows two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues and his partner Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who embark on a journey to Japan to learn the fate of their teacher Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Their mission comes at a time when Japan’s attitude toward Christianity has completely reversed course, moving from the excited cultural acceptance of decades past to a ruthless strategy of absolute eradication. The Japanese government has closed off its borders, now viewing Christianity as simply another tool of a foreign country wishing to gain inappropriate power in Japanese affairs. The faithful are forced to apostatize under penalty of death, pushed to trample on an image of their Lord on what the Japanese call fumi-e, and in the state’s bloodthirsty pursuit of hidden Christians, even this apostasy does not guarantee mercy. The government wants to burn up every remnant of the Church, and the rumors surrounding Ferreira’s fate suggest he is a victim of this violent quest, though none can be certain if this means he gave up his life or his faith. Rodrigues and Garupe embark with confidence to learn the truth, but the optimism they carry is less a certainty of mission success and more a surety of purpose. Death is likely, but so is glory.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and composers Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge give the priests’ journey a beautiful starkness – profoundly moving, perfectly restrained. The Malick-ian stillness created here constantly returns you to what isn’t happening, the intense buzzing of an unmoving jungle only broken by the occasional drifting fog. There is hardly a note of score until the film’s midway point, and even then, most of what you hear is the music of a humming Japanese city. The country presented here is quiet and ethereal, bathed in mist and endless vegetation. It’s another world entirely, and the sense of loneliness hits almost as soon as Rodrigues and Garupe set feet to sand. Cast against such a stark backdrop, Scorcese is free to stir up big questions and give us the space to ponder them.

Silence famously spent decades in development, moving up and down Scorcese’s docket, with a revolving door of actors attached that once included Daniel Day-Lewis, Ken Watanabe, Benicio del Toro, and Gael Garcia Bernal. I can recall swooning over that cast when it was rumored at some point nearly ten years ago, but there are no regrets to be had with the cast or the film that we finally received. Garfield brings a depth to his performance of which, frankly, I didn’t know he was capable. The role calls for a massive swing in dynamics, with Rodrigues at times communicating so much in his own silence by tiny shifts of his brow or quivers of his chin, at other times descending into physical outbursts driven by deep brokenness and a madness lurking beneath the surface.

I’ve heard people pondering what might have been had the roles been reversed for Garfield and Driver, who is certainly exceptional in his relatively brief screen time, but I’m not convinced that would have been an improvement. Late in the film when Ferreira and Rodrigues are debating in the presence of The Interpreter (Tadanobu Asano, with my favorite performance here), Garfield’s youthfulness presents a fitting contrast to Neeson’s weathered visage that Driver, for all his talents, could not have provided. There are also similarities to note between Garfield’s appearance, young and immaculately coiffed, and the appearance most commonly presented today of Jesus. In this way, Garfield allows Scorcese to draw yet another comparison (and ultimately, a major contrast) between Rodrigues’ and Jesus’ respective journeys. Neeson’s performance is also notable, but even after his ventures into ephemeral action movies, he’s shown this ability to fill a performance with subtlety and gravitas before, most notably as Oskar Schindler.

Still, as excellent as these performances were, many of the movie’s best scenes belong to its Japanese actors. Asano is exceptional as The Interpreter, digging away at Rodrigues’ faith with each conversation, able to present penetrating challenges to his worldview with the sly charm and biting wit of an insider. Rodrigues’ journey is accompanied by the Golem-like presence of Kichijiro, a beaten and disheveled drunk who brings our priests to Japan and finds his way back to them throughout their journey. Though it’s Rodrigues we’re meant to focus on, viewers may find much of themselves in Kichijiro, a man of weak faith caught in a seemingly endless cycle of betrayal and confession. Yōsuke Kubozuka does great work here, making a pathetic figure horrific and endearing and most importantly real, the weight of his past hanging deep under his eyes. Shinya Tsukamoto gives the quiet Mokichi a dignified grace in the most extreme of sorrows, no small feat given the physical demands of playing a martyred peasant.

The most captivating performance in the movie surely belongs to Issey Ogata as Governor Inoue Masashige, the Japanese official charged with executing the state’s anti-Christian strategy. Ogata’s governor is unlike any character I’ve ever seen in a movie, combining the shrill snarl of Hannibal Lecter and the sinister playfulness of Hans Landa. He questions Rodrigues with glee, the character’s elderly shell barely concealing the energy of a contorting demon within. At one point he seems to slowly deflate before gathering himself for a parting jab to Rodrigues’ faith. It’s the most overtly unsettling part of Silence, but it’s right at home with where the movie leaves its audience.

What Endo creates in his novel, and what Scorcese brings to life through all the pieces here, is a broken mirror reflection of the gospel. Rodrigues begins his journey with pride and certainty; he’s a man of destiny, sure of his legacy, either as savior of Christianity in Japan or as glorious martyr of legend – preferably both. There’s a subtle element of pride lurking beneath, and each horrific experience reveals cracks in Rodrigues’ façade. The genius in how this all plays out is fully revealed when you place his journey next to Jesus’. Rodrigues has his own Judas, the sad and slithery Kichijiro, once a friend and later a betrayer. He is tempted – as Jesus was by Satan in the wilderness – by The Interpreter, who holds an “insider” knowledge of the faith. Like the Bible’s man of sorrows, Rodrigues is marched to his final moments to a chorus of jeers and shouts from the very people he came to serve.

All the while, Rodrigues never truly wavers. He’s beaten, but not totally broken, hobbling to be sure, but always with an eye to his finish line. The similarities continue until the film’s climax, where Rodrigues is completely, finally broken. Without spoiling too much, these moments unfurl with haunting, silent stillness, stretching out the horror and the gravity of what it means for someone to reach the end of himself. Whatever pride Rodrigues has left is obliterated, the faint sound of a rooster crowing in the distance (a nod to the New Testament’s most prominent denier of Christ). What seemed a triumphant ascent is revealed to be a long, slow fall – a journey always leading not to personal glory but to an unavoidable crash.

This all might sound unbearably cruel, but “finding the end of yourself” is a phrase familiar to Christians. Growing in the faith begins with a surrender to God and continues as a pruning process, adherents constantly experiencing the pain and promise of becoming more and more like the savior they follow. Though much of the depiction of Christianity is certainly a product of its epoch, the desperation and the humility shown should not be relegated to sepia-splashed pictures of missions past.

The goal of Rodrigues’ life, through and beyond his calling to the priesthood, is ultimately to become like Christ. After his harrowing journey, can there be any doubt that this is where he ends up? Jesus was beaten, tempted, compassionate, frustrated, merciful, rejected, humble, and finally, sacrificial. Christians aspire to live as the perfect Christ, but pride is its own internal fumi-e. Suffering is a terrible thing, but pain brings clarity. It exposes. There is no glory for God where there isn’t also brokenness.

It is because the dying Jesus first uttered the words “My God, why have you forsaken me?” that Rodrigues hears “I suffered beside you.” These flow from the same cross. For all the doubts it stirs, Silence lands with certainty on this: your pain was Jesus’ first and always, and your victory will be, too. The film’s final moments, which I won’t spoil here, echo the call of Romans 14. “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him.” In a church populated with the rejected and the oppressed, there is room for the martyr and the prodigal alike because the journeys of both can inspire and challenge and equip fellow believers. Christians aspire to the unvarnished strength of their Lord, but they know that the weakness of Peter lurks within. Jesus came for Mokichi, but he came for Kichijiro too.

When the Oscar nominees were announced earlier this week, Silence was noticeably absent – save a Best Cinematography nod to Rodrigo Prieto’s work – giving the faith film the unique dishonor of being greeted with shrugs from Hollywood and evangelicals. That statement might be a little unfair to Hollywood, given the film’s warm reception and critical success, and much of its failure during award season can be attributed to botched marketing and distribution. (It’s nearly three hours long, for example, and just about every theater I’ve seen gives it only late showings. Not quite a recipe for success.)

The film’s lack of reception among the faithful, however, begs a bit of theorizing, which I’d like to dip into here. A historical drama about missionaries in hostile territory, replete with Scripture, and starring Spider-Man, Kylo Ren, and Aslan feels like the hardest of slam dunks for a Christian audience, and yet no churches of which I’m aware were reserving theaters or offering discussion groups over the subject matter. Considering how desperate evangelicals seem to get into the movie game – they’re turning popular Christian songs into feature films now – this lack of support for Silence seems baffling. Sure, Jesuits don’t necessarily register in the minds of evangelicals. And minimalist adaptations of forty-year-old foreign language novels don’t often fill theaters. But these factors don’t adequately explain why many evangelicals overlooked the movie. The real reasons are deeper and more troubling.

One of Silence’s best traits is that, for as alien as its Japan appears to its priests, the picture it presents of Christianity to modern audiences feels far stranger. The most deeply moving moments of the film center on the most humble scenes. A family quietly elating over the baptism of their child. The destitute brethren of a small village gathered for a chance to hold just one bead picked from an old rosary. A flock of mourners floating silently on the melody of a dying man’s hymn. Scripture being read in whispers to packed parishioners in a tiny, makeshift church. The Christians of Silence are poor. They suffer greatly. They are desperate for God. If you were to draw comparisons between the “pews” of these Japanese villages to the seats of your local congregation, it’s this deep desire that probably presents the greatest contrast.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I work for a church as a worship pastor. It would be easy to belittle the behemoth that is the American Church in the shadow of these humble images, but for now, I’m more interested in exploring what makes Silence such a successful piece of Christian art and less in hashing out the desire-for-God deficit a perhaps unfair comparison creates.]

I was speaking with our editor-in-chief weeks ago, attempting to list objectively good Christian films. Neither of us were able to name one that was created by an evangelical filmmaker or supported by an evangelical-run studio. And this isn’t for low productivity. American Christian studios churn out films with stunning prolificacy, but none of these films have been able to reach beyond the echo chambers that screen them. Has anyone who doesn’t regularly attend a church ever had an interest in seeing War Room? How about Heaven Is for Real? Were there unchurched people banging on the doors of local sanctuaries, clamoring for God’s Not Dead 2? As I sat and waited for Silence, I was greeted by a trailer for The Case for Christ, and the hammy production and the farcical melodrama elicited laughs among the audience.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve reached an inescapable conclusion: the prosperity gospel has infected Christian art.

For the unacquainted, the prosperity gospel is a rather nefarious heresy within the Church that claims the purpose of faith is merely to make your dreams come true, that the greatest future God could have imagined for you in His infinite design is limited to finite imaginations and temporal desires. It’s the destructive idea that the purpose of the Christian life is an ever-deepening turn inward, and not a continuous pouring forth. It’s a doctrine that has replaced the villains of sin and evil with the straw men of discomfort, used cars, and a five-figure salary. It’s pervasive within the American Church, so consumed with manifesting the best life now that it has abandoned longing for the eternal one to come.

Why does this matter? It matters because the Church’s lack of theological imagination has strangled its artistic imagination. If Christians aren’t capable of wrestling intellectually with the messy reality of growing up among the weeds, as Jesus described it, then they’re not going to explore that creatively, either. How else can we explain a faith built on enduring creeds and imagery and songs consumed with the work of producing ephemeral dreck? The picture one gets of Christianity from movies like God’s Not Dead is of a small faith, poked at by the briefest of outside forces and always reaching a tidy conclusion. There are no lingering doubts or penetrating frustrations. There is no mystery. These are low-budget superhero tales, where the stakes are never high enough to put any characters in jeopardy. It’s Christianity as alternative fact.

The problem with movies like this, and the reason they have such a small reach, is that they only serve to confirm the palatable parts of Christianity. They are less about finding our place in God’s story and more about finding God’s place in our story. Even the titles of these movies remove any doubt about their endings. Fireproof. Miracles from Heaven. Courageous.

Silence stands out because it obliterates the pernicious lie of control, the heresy that we could ever force God’s hand or mold the world to our own desires. Rodrigues’ journey is a pruning, each step he takes an experience that lops away pride and authority. Only God can restore Him. His doubts are real; his pain is sincere. Perhaps most importantly, the answers he fights to get only deepen his desire to continue pursuing God. The faith here is one whose finish line rests on the other side, so there’s no suggestion of Rodrigues settling. The movie’s conclusion takes the book’s final pages a step further to tell us that he fights to keep hearing God until his last day.

This gets at what might be Silence’s biggest obstacle among evangelicals predisposed to immediate gratification. The movie is unsettling. Its questions haunt you. At one point in the movie, Inoue describes Christianity as an “ugly woman” to be shunned by Japan, whom she is pursuing. There’s something perfect about this illustration lost on the Governor that Rodrigues would have understood well but that some evangelicals would find repulsive. Christianity is beautiful, but it’s ugly too. It is the creed the world rejects, the faith of the scorned and the oppressed, and it is so because Jesus was all of those things. Any movie that suggests these are abandoned traits of the faith is selling a false gospel. For whatever theological inconsistencies it presents – and surely there are some – Silence has no interest in glamorizing the suffering that makes faith both necessary and difficult.

I suppose an argument could be made that Silence is really just presenting another side of demanding acceptance for weakness, simply reading God into a different sin. Some Catholic critics have read in the book and Scorsese’s adaptation a desire to explain away any full assurance of faith. While I understand the critique, I don’t believe it holds. The movie is not meant to explain away Rodrigues’ decision to apostatize. There is no glory in the path he chooses. It’s by no means an easy out. To reject Jesus as he did, as I understand it, does not represent an unpardonable sin, and Scorcese’s final shot – of Rodrigues’ dead body, engulfed in the flames of a state-ordered Buddhist burial, concealing the remnant’s of a martyr’s cross – certainly follows this logic. For Christians, even a rejection of Jesus presents an opportunity to be broken and remade.

Silence dwells. It demands to be pondered and wrestled with, a fitting analogy for faith itself. Its questions beat in all of our hearts. Where is God? Why is there pain? When will this end? Suffering, doubt, and hope are the first words of a universal language. Christians, especially, should be challenged by the movie to engage in deep artistic creativity, to participate in the world around them as it truly is and speak in compassion to what it could be. Shusaku Endo did this in writing Silence, rising centuries later from the same communities these martyrs left behind, and Scorcese warmed by the novel’s fire for decades. Suffering is the bridge we all share. “By all means, pray” an apostate Ferreira snarls to a broken Rodrigues late in the film. “But pray with your eyes open.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *