TCC Films: Silence

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Before you see Martin Scorsese’s movie, “Silence,” read the book, Silence, by Japanese author, Shusako Endo, and don’t neglect either the translator’s notes or the publisher’s notes. You will learn two things: first, that the novel is based on historical events following 1549 when St. Francis Xavier came to bring Christianity to Japan. The early signs are encouraging, particularly in the region of Nagasaki, where the novel and the movie are set. But the architects of Japanese unity began to see Christianity as a destabilizing element. On a single day in February, 1597, twenty-six Christians, both Japanese and European, were crucified on the orders of the daimyo (feudal lord) Hideyoshi. That was the beginning of a long and cruel persecution of Christians in Japan. One of the things the persecutors learned is that the spectacle of faithful native and European Christians singing hymns of praise to God as they died only increased conversions. So a terrible innovation was born: the persecutors began killing the native believers while their foreign-born priests were made to watch. The priests were given the terrible choice of apostatizing, and thus saving the lives of their fellow believers, or standing firm in faith while their fellow believers died in prolonged and terrible ways. The priest protagonist in the novel and the film, Father Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), is based on the real life Jesuit priest, Father Giuseppe Chiara. The rumored-to-be apostate Jesuit, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), whom Rodrigues goes to Japan to find, is based on the real-life Ferreira, who had been Chiara’s mentor and, subsequently, the head of the mission in Nagasaki. (The historical Ferreira was the first of the priests in the new torture regime to apostatize in 1632.) Second, having read the novel, you will understand how faithfully Scorsese follows it in his film. Two significant departures occur in the final scenes, and they are, I think, the director’s personal reflection on the life of faith.

Scorsese’s movie is a meditation on human pride and divine grace. Consider the way Scorsese frames and shoots the relationship between Rodrigues and the Japanese Judas, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), who repeatedly betrays Rodrigues and his fellow Japanese Christians and yet comes, again and again, begging the priest to hear his confession and grant him absolution. Their first encounter is in Macao, where Rodrigues and his companion, Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), are looking for a Japanese-speaking guide. They are led to Kichijiro, lying drunk on the floor. They stand over him and wonder how that wretch could be their guide. They make that statement with the kind of thoughtless naiveté with which they also announce that they have money to pay a guide, while at the same time declaring that they are bringing nothing with them to Japan. They believe they go with nothing. They will learn a fathomless poverty of body and soul. They have contempt for the drunk on the floor. They will learn an abasement even deeper than their poverty.


Notice how throughout the movie the postures of Rodrigues and Kichijiro reflect the priest’s sense of separation from the betrayer. He is always above him, even when hearing his confession from his prison cell. His body is angled away from him, as he covers his face with his hand. (And, yes, this is also the priest’s attempt to recreate the anonymity of the confessional, but it works visually to suggest the gulf between priest and penitent to which Rodrigues clings.) It is only when Rodrigues has been stripped of every notion of his own strength or authority that the men meet again a final time. (This scene does not occur in the novel.) Kichijiro asks again for absolution. Rodrigues cannot hear his confession, but he turns towards and kneels into the man, their foreheads touching, two sinners joined, one in their lowliness.


And what of the Japanese Christians, whose deaths Scorsese records in all their terrible beauty, but with the none of the bloodlust that made Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” feel less like a meditation on Christ’s passion and more like a snuff film? They are, perhaps owing to their poverty and their peasant birth, men and women who have been able to embrace faith, having never put on pride.

Rodrigues, all unawares of his how his certainty will be tried, declares that he and Garupe have come to Japan to bring them salvation. He arrives to find Christ waiting for them in these lowly believers. Rodrigues is by turns distressed and repulsed by the villagers’ conditions. (In the novel he comments on the foul breath of the penitents who come to confess their sins.)  The local Christians, in contrast, desire only to pray and receive the sacraments. They have no illusions of (apologies to Graham Greene) either power or glory. Their desire is for Jesus, a desire so deep that they want only and always to be with Jesus, in safety and in danger, in peace and in persecution, in life and in death. Pay attention to the scene where Rodrigues and Garupe are first led to their hiding place by the local believers. The land is shrouded in mist, the only light shining from the villagers’ torches. That scene tells the story of all that is to come. That meager light, those rough torches, will burn brighter and brighter in the growing darkness, particularly in the scene where three men are crucified in the ocean. They are hung on crosses at the edge of the shore. Over the course of days, the tides will rise and fall, drowning them at high tide, leaving them, exhausted, to the sun and wind and night chill as the water recedes. It is a long death. Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) is the last to die. He dies with one name on his lips, “Jesus.”

Rodrigues, who, unlike his companion Garupe, is denied the grace of dying with his fellow Christians, is defeated by the sight and the sound of captured Christians hanging headfirst in the pit. Throughout the novel and the movie, the priest cries out to God, asking why he is silent in the face of such suffering. Told that his apostasy will end the torture of the men and women slowly dying outside his cell, told that the act of apostasy is a mere formality, Rodrigues apostatizes, stepping on a fumie (image of the Christ.) Endo writes,

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.

He joins his mentor, Ferreira, who had made the same terrible choice. He joins even the Judas Kichijiro as an apostate. Rodrigues, like Ferreira, goes to live life as a Japanese, given the wife and family and name of an executed man. His life as a priest, as a leader, as a shepherd is erased.

Rodrigues/Chiara remained captive in Japan. We do not know what he would have done if given his freedom. Historical records attest that the Chiara, who died forty years after his apostasy, declared himself always to be a Christian, though a silent one, a hidden one. It is in his lowliness that he hears the voice of Christ.

“Lord, I resented your silence.”

“I was not silent. I suffered beside you.”

Some Christian reviewers denounce “Silence” as what they say is a faithless movie, and one that hurts the Church with its sympathetic portrayal of apostasy. Read the novel and you will see that their apostasy yokes the two priests in suffering, as Endo writes, “like two ugly twins…They hated one another’s ugliness; they despised one another; but that’s what they were — two inseparable twins.”

“Silence” is not a sympathetic portrayal of apostasy, but it is an honest look at the danger of human pride and the limits of human strength and love. Kichijiro addresses this when he complains to Rodrigues that in a time and a place without persecution — a time and a place like the one in which I write — he could be faithful and die a happy Christian.

“Silence” is a portrait of apostasy in the face of the cruelest torture, both physically and mentally. In one way or another each day, I manage to trample on the image of Christ. I daily falter in my walk. I do not trample the image of Christ or falter in my walk or stain my baptismal gown in embarrassing places because I fear persecution, but because I fear discomfort. I fear being bothered or inconvenienced or overlooked or criticized. Given how easily, with what ease, I sin, “in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do,” I can only read this novel and watch this movie in silence. I rely on the mercy of God, and it is that mercy which Scorsese points toward in the final scene, a scene not included in the novel. We see Rodrigues in his Buddhist casket as it is placed on the pyre. As the flames grow, the camera goes inside the casket and we see the dead Rodrigues curled like an unborn child, his hands cupped around a tiny crucifix. It is the one carved by the martyr Mokichi before he died on the cross. That scene is followed by Scorsese’s dedication to the Japanese Christians and their pastors.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam.

-Melissa Musick

If you want great Catholic art, please support great Catholic artists, writers, and filmmakers. Go see Silence.