Silence, based on the novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, is the latest of the meditations on religion and the nature of belief that Martin Scorsese likes to put out every decade or two. Two Jesuit priests, Andrew Garfield’s Sebastiao Rodrigues and Adam Driver’s Francisco Garupe, travel to isolationist Japan in search of their mentor, whom they fear has ‘gone native’, and committed the cardinal sin of apostasy. They find a conspicuously mixed welcome. While the simple country folk are overjoyed to have new padres to conduct their clandestine rites, the ruling class are carrying out a brutal suppression of Christianity, with alien priests fetching a particularly lucrative bounty. The film confronts the ethics of missionary work, especially in the face of state opposition, and the morality of personal integrity versus public suffering and, naturally, offers no easy answers.
Missionary work and proselytisation are viewed very differently by the faithful and by unbelievers. From the perspective of a true believer, bringing God’s truth to the heathens is the greatest gift one could give. It is a matter not only of life and death, but transcends mortality entirely, and those who do not heed their words are, at best, hopelessly blinkered and, at worst, actively immoral in their wilful defiance. Infidels have their own charitable and uncharitable interpretations. Preaching may be nothing more than a generous, if unwanted, presentation of another perspective on the world that is perfectly benign as long as acceptance remains voluntary. It may also be a staggeringly arrogant imposition, an act of supreme condescension that claims to describe the one true way on the basis of the flimsiest evidence.
Rodrigues and Garupe are not cynical characters, though they do display a kind of arrogance in their naïveté. Their journey east is motivated by the view that reports of Liam Neeson’s Fr. Ferreira turning from the path cannot be true. This opinion is as personal as it is theological; the man who taught them could not possibly abandon his faith, nor could such behaviour be believed of a priest. This strange combination of attributes forms the foundation of, in particular, Rodrigues’ entire character arc throughout the film. It is his innocence that is challenged by contact with the thoroughly murky morality of the real world, and his conceit that prevents him from accepting that this has happened. In intention, then, the two protagonists would seem to fall under the more positive perception of the missionary impulse. In practice, because of the kind of situation in which they find themselves, their position becomes more ethically dubious.
Japan is the perfect setting to accentuate some of the film’s most important points. Another choice of location may have resulted in a notable power imbalance between the priests and the natives, and this would naturally have had an effect on how the morality of the film is regarded. Too great a disparity and this may have become a more simplistic story of imperialistic outsiders attempting to usurp and overturn a society that they regard as vastly inferior. Between Japan and the nations of Europe, there is more of an equivalence. The former is essentially an equal and opposite kind of civilisation on the far side of the world, with its own laws, culture, and a history stretching back for centuries. Crucially, Buddhism has been in Japan for a thousand years, and is as entrenched there as is Roman Catholicism in Portugal or Italy. Because of this, both ‘sides’ are on much more even footing. When Tadunobu Asano’s Interpreter elucidates the hubris of Rodrigues’ mission, he is in the curious position of being both correct and hypocritical. It is incredibly presumptuous to preach the superiority of an alien doctrine to the local religion, yet the state-sanctioned torture and murder of converts is underpinned by a corresponding certainty of total veracity. There may appear to be an important moral difference between these two actions, but this is subtly revealed to be illusory. The Japanese inquisition against Christians is undeniably cruel. However, Rodrigues inadvertently reveals that European religious persecution, where power is in the hands of the Church, is just as savage. Demanding to be brought before the Inquisitor to face the full wrath of his punishment, he is informed that his relatively benevolent host, Issei Ogata’s smiling and sanctimonious Inoue, is the Inquisitor. Rodrigues’ assumption belies his experience of religious judges much more openly vindictive, betraying another similarity between the two places; infidels are always dealt with harshly.
Rodrigues’ apparent desire to suffer torture and perhaps even death before his gives up his god highlights the potential problems with belief in a suffering saviour. If the very act of salvation was submission to brutality and execution, such actions become sanctified. In the case of a personal sacrifice of this kind this may be admirable enough, if rather self-destructive. However, when your actions have an adverse effect upon others, the justification becomes far murkier. Rodrigues’ obstinacy affects his fellow Christians. After his capture, along with a group of Japanese, he is informed by his jailers that he alone can bring an end to all their suffering by personally apostatising, and while is not the one imposing such hideous terms or inflicting violence himself, his stubborn refusal becomes increasingly indefensible. He becomes trapped in the same moral conundrum as anyone faced with religious persecution; which is more important, outward demonstration of belief or inward conviction? In his case, the horns of the dilemma are sharpened by the addition of an addition consideration, the choice between present physical pain and future metaphysical suffering. This is a question easily resolved from the position of unbelief. Step on the icon and insincerely profess your unbelief, because actual torture in the present is a more pressing concern than any merely potential posthumous ramifications. To a believer, the answer is by no means as clear.
Japan’s foreignness to Christianity is another obstacle to resolution. It is suggested that Japan not only has an antipathy to the religion, but that the cultural differences are so great that the two are utterly incompatible. Ferreira states outright that Japanese Christianity is itself a misunderstood facsimile, and that the ‘truth’ that Rodrigues believes he is imparting and defending has already become something quite other. Ferreira has lost his faith, and so may be an unreliable witness, but the profusion of different branches of Christianity (and various, incompatible views of Christ himself) around the globe would seem to show the truth in his words. Perhaps the most fascinating character in the film, Yosuke Kubozuka’s Kichijiro, is a microcosm of this entire idea. Throughout the story, he continually returns to Rodrigues to give his confession and receive absolution, only to immediately betray or abandon the priest. He continues the cycle of sin and repentance, all the while complaining of his moral weakness. On the one hand he has completely failed to grasp the point of confession, and on the other he has a pragmatic grasp of an underlying logic, that he need not refrain from wrongdoing so long as he follows the proper procedure in order to wipe the slate clean. His version of Christianity is inconsistent with Rodrigues’ Catholicism, but it not itself illogical. The tragedy of Rodrigues is that his convictions, right or wrong, may be based on a mistaken assumption of exactly what he is trying to protect.
As stated at the outset, Silence poses a multitude of questions with few answers offered. Any conclusions that may be drawn will be heavily influenced by the viewer’s own belief, and enjoyment of the film will depend on tolerance for both questionable Portuguese accents and a very ponderous pace. What can be stated with relative certainty is that Scorsese captures the unfamiliar world of feudal Japan (played here by Taiwan) on film, and presents a variety of morally ambiguous characters without condoning or condemning. The ‘silence’ of the title may refer to an unwillingness to speak words of heresy, or of the apparent absence of the Almighty as his devotees are made to bear terrible burdens. But it could also refer to the filmmaker himself. He presents this story without obvious bias, and any lessons that the film has to teach are more taken than given. The rest is silence.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese (based on the novel by Shusaku Endo)
Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Tadanobu Asano