Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a complicated film. Based on a novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, it tells the story of 2 Jesuit priests in the 17th century who set out for Japan to find their mentor, Father Ferreira (played by Liam Nelson). Father Ferreira has gone missing and is rumored to have renounced his Christian faith.
The mission of the two priests, Father Rodgrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) is especially hazardous because Japan is in the midst of a brutal persecution of Christian missionaries and converts in an attempt to rid the island country of Christianity once and for all. The persecution tries to get Christians to renounce their faith, most especially by forcing them to violate symbols of the faith by, among other things, publicly spitting on a crucifix.
Scorsese pulls no punches in depicting the savagery of the persecution. There are burnings at the stake; beheadings and crucifixions galore that are designed to maximize suffering before death finally come as a relief. But it isn’t sadism for sadism’s sake. It has a point, and that point is to dissuade would be converts, and then to persuade the already converted, and especially the missionaries, to renounce their faith. The obvious analogy is to ISIS.
The priests, who are caught relatively early on, pray for guidance and courage as they face their persecutors. But as time goes by they fear there is no answer for their prayers. They hear silence. And so at a most basic level the film is a story of the struggle for belief and meaning in a cold and pitiless world gone mad. And, as Scorsese makes clear, it isn’t just any belief or Religion that will do. It is Christian religious belief.
Scorsese presents the struggle on several levels. The first is with respect to the priests as they try to cope with the predicament they find themselves in after they are captured. Is it permissible for them to act strategically and to pretend to renounce their faith to save others? Are the priests really acting like Christians if they hold out, but others must suffer in their place as a result?
At another level he presents the problem of defining just authority. The priests who smuggle themselves into Japan make claims to universalism. Their beliefs are religious, not political. But Japanese political authorities see the world very differently. They view Christianity as a mortal threat. In fact, they see the Christian claim to universalism as the heart of the threat.
Claims to universalism, the inherent dignity of the individual and free will are theologically indispensable to Christianity, as is the view that human nature is essentially fixed, not infinitely malleable. These ideas are now, and always have been, threatening to Kings, Queens, dictators, authoritarians and totalitarians as well as utopians of all varieties. For they look at the Church in purely secular terms, as a competitor for power and influence.
To wall off the dangers posed by the West and Christianity, Japanese political authorities decided to keep Japan isolated. For example, only the Dutch were permitted to send their ships to trade with Japan, and the sailors were not permitted to bring religious objects like medals, crucifixes and rosaries on land with them. Here the allegory to the Middle East is unmistakable. In Saudi Arabia for instance, churches are not permitted, nor is it permissible to possess religious items from faiths other than Islam, even for Western guest workers.
The analogy to the Middle East is not the only one on display. There is another, albeit a subtler one. The Grand Inquisitor, who manages the Japanese persecution, is not all that interested in simply killing off peasants who profess Christian belief. To prevent Christianity from taking root, he means to publicly break the priests to the yoke of the State. Once he does that, the priests are no longer a threat. They are worse than neutered; they are transformed into instruments of the regime. It is a profound betrayal on the order of Winston’s in George Orwell’s novel 1984.
In 1984, Winston was finally broken by Big Brother when he screamed for his torturers to “do it to Julia” (his lover) so he could be relieved of the agony of his worst nightmare. His betrayal signaled his brokenness. Once broken, the State could proceed to execute him. When they did so Orwell describes Winston as content and happy as the executioner’s bullet entered his brain.
But there are differences in the two cases. Winston betrayed a person, his lover. Once broken, Winston was no longer useful to the State and could be killed. In Silence, the priests are meant to be useful to the State, and so are turned into instruments of the State. The State means to use them to control what people believe as well as how they behave.
Which of course brings us to the case of Little Sisters of the Poor vs. Burwell (2016). In that case the Obama Administration, through the Affordable Care Act, tried to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide or finance coverage for contraceptives including abortafacients, despite their well-established religious objection to doing so. After the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the Little Sisters, the Obama Administration admitted that it could achieve its goals in ways that did not require the contraceptive mandate. Which means that the point of the exercise was to break the Little Sisters to the yoke of the State.
There are lessons and analogies in Silence everywhere you look. It is in every respect a thinking man’s movie. It presents excruciatingly difficult dilemmas for which there are no easy answers, and it doesn’t pretend there are easy answers. There is sufficient ambiguity right up to and including the end of the film, so that the questions and conflicts raised still linger after the final credits roll.
Silence cost $50 million to make and is projected to make just 2 to 3 million dollars its first weekend. That is unfortunate, but not altogether surprising. At 2 hours and 39 minutes, the movie is relatively long. It is decidedly adult. The actors are not the politically correct comic book super heroes that are all the rage these days, and the dialogue is often subtle and nuanced. It is well worth seeing.