Martin Scorsese’s latest film Silence is now on general release in Ireland. It’s based on the true story of two Portuguese Jesuits who go to 17th Japan to discover the fate of their fellow priest, Fr Ferreira, who it is rumoured, has done the unthinkable and renounced his faith. Brendan Mc Manus SJ, author of Redemption Road, a book about healing along the Camino for those bereaved through suicide. He was so moved when he watched the film recently that he felt compelled to put his reactions to this complex, challenging film, down on paper. He says The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, a key element of Jesuit training which helped him along his 500 mile camino, also permeates the film.
Questioning assumptions about God
This film is like a silent retreat: it is long, torturous, boring in parts, has occasional glimpses of something breath-taking, is deeply challenging but ultimately rewarding for those who stay the course. However, not everyone will like this ‘based on a true story’ account, Shūsaku Endō’s historical novel, of two Jesuit missionaries, Rodrigues and Garrpe, in 17th century Japan. Those expecting something similar to The Mission here (Liam Neeson also appears as a Jesuit here but as an apostate), will be sorely disappointed; there is no enigmatic score, romaticised natives, or heroic priest figures. Rather this delves into the oriental darkness of a persecuted church, brutally crushed and driven underground, where peasants live in constant fear of informants and consequent tortures. Following Christ poses the very real threat of some kind of crucifixion and ugly death. Not a very attractive context for a faith narrative that seems totally alien to western society, you might think. Rather the contrast brings into relief forgotten dimensions, Christianity is stripped down and presented in its most pure and stark form.
The plot is quite simple, two younger Jesuits fired up with zeal volunteer to undertake the hazardous journey into Japan to ascertain the fate of a fellow priest named Ferreira who, it is rumoured had committed the unthinkable sin of apostasy. In constant danger, they have to trust an unreliable translator named Kichijiro, who had previously apostasised to save himself at the expense of his family. He delivers the undercover Jesuits to a coastal community where they discover the remnants of a battered underground church who are delighted to see them. Word spreads among the villagers but also among the authorities and the two priests have to split up for safety. Kichijiro, who acts as a comic foil, apostatises again and again and, Judas-like, betrays Rodriques to the shogunate for money. The imprisoned Jesuit is subject to systematic pressure to apostatise, especially the knowledge that in his hands lies the fate of other captive Christians. The hapless Kichijiro, who sneaks into the jail, is instrumental of reminding him of the Christian paradox, that it is the weak who are strong, that in forgiving you are forgiven. All these themes coalesce in a tense climax that pits two radically different cultures and belief systems against each other.
The cinematography is very rich. Many of the film’s striking images are reminiscent of biblical scenes recreated in Japanese culture: the suffering Christ, the desperate needs of ordinary people, the fragility of faith and its symbols (a straw crucifix; paper thin hosts), the inhumane cruelty of those in authority, and the apparently meaningless self-sacrifice of believers. The agricultural society, the natural context (beaches, forests and mists abound) and primitive technology provides the setting that thrusts human dialogue and interaction to the fore. However, the film revolves around what is essentially a series of paradoxes, that Christ is seen in the poor who suffer, not the comfortable leaders; that faith is not a crutch but a life raft for surviving overwhelming circumstance; and most challenging that the devastating silence of God within suffering is not meant to imply absence. This latter theme permeates the whole film, haunting the main character, Portuguese Jesuit Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield). Fittingly, it results in a climatic highpoint that is totally absent of sound.
This is a film that understands symbol and ritual; where else would a simple gesture of stepping on an icon assume such significance? The simple Christian objects, crucifix, rosary and icon, seen in this hostile environment of prohibition, assume a power and significance that overwhelms their actual value or appearance. A small crudely carved wooden crucifix performs a key role in the film both in representing the Christian faith but also in identifying the fate of the bearer with that of Christ. This imbuing of objects with real meaning is quite shocking, especially for ‘post Christian’ western audiences, accustomed to the ridiculing of such images. When you add the acts of veneration (bowing, clasping, praying) to these items it conveys in a powerful way the deprivations of the underground Christians, the coherence between their gestures and public actions, and ultimately the depth of their faith. All of this is caught up in one simple gesture of apostasy that the Japanese had cleverly formulated to uncover Christians: suspects have to publically step or spit on a fumie, a crudely carved image or icon of Christ or Mary. This causes enormous moral distress for the Christian obviously, and this is used to great effect in the film, both in courageous refusals and exposing apostates.
The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, a key element of Jesuit training, also permeates the film. The Exercises are referred to by name and quoted directly at one stage. Apparently the two principal actors did a silent retreat in preparation for the role, in order to understand the spirituality and decision making of the Jesuits they were playing. It certainly seems borne out in the acting. Faith is presented not a series of dead doctrines but a living relationship with the person of Christ, as is evident in the dialogues and images that we are privy to. At one stage Rodrigues has a vision of the face of Christ reflected in a pool and his great joy and surprise is tempered by his imminent arrest and the dearth of any subsequent visions when he is in dire need. This central aspect of finding God in suffering (known as the Third Week of the Exercises) is where the dramatic emphasis falls, and by prayer and actions the Passion or suffering of Christ in Gethesame is directly referenced. The Christ story is referenced to such an extent by a director obviously initmate with the theme, that we know instinctively where the film is going and how it lives up to our expectations is what creates the denouement (no spoiler here!). However, it is quite shocking, unexpected and challenges the viewer deeply.
However, this is an easy film to criticize. It is at least an hour too long, it is laborious and torturous in its rhythm, and apart from some light comic relief is extremely heavy. It is probably fair to say that the director, Scorsese, is indulging a private passion that only he could get away with. With such classics under his belt as Taxidriver, Goodfellas, Shutter Island and Cape Fear, he can afford to step outside the conventional. For a director who specializes in understanding human emotion and drama, conveying spiritual or religious motivation is the ultimate challenge. What could be more obtuse? Explaining the mission and goals of apostolic religious men in an extremely hostile culture is indeed a huge challenge, and will clash with many contemporary sensibilities.
As I said, many people will not like or understand this historical religious film, apparently wallowing in suffering and failure. It questions deeply ingrained assumptions about the nature of God, humanity’s role in the world, and the challenge of explaining God’s silence at crucial moments. It can seem like a long protracted lunacy. That is, unless you bring your own story of personal pain to bear. Grief, addiction, guilt, darkness, depression and suffering will open up some of the riches contained here. Forget about bringing Hollywood stereotypes, conventional hero worship, striving for success or simplistic solutions. Otherwise this film with leave you speechless.
Brendan McManus SJ