The movie Silence is directed by Martin Scorcese and based on the Japanese novel written by Shūsaku Endō; it deals with the state persecution of the ‘Kakure Kirishitan’ (hidden Christians) in 17th century Japan after the Shimabara rebellion. The story is told from the perspective of Father Rodrigues–a Portuguese Jesuit priest who travels to Japan in search of Father Ferreira. Ferreira is said to have renounced his faith under extreme torture from the inquisitor; he steps on a fumi-e—a stone slab containing Christian images—and symbolically 'tramples' on Jesus. Unable to believe the news of Ferreira’s apostasy, the young priest Rodrigues decides to find out for himself if Ferreira has indeed turned his back on Christ.
I must say Silence is probably the best film of 2016 along with Hacksaw Ridge; it is also one of Scorcese’s masterpieces. It is a difficult film to watch, yet it is also beautiful and sublime. The moments of persecution and trial of Christians left me deeply moved. Christians are beheaded, burnt alive, left bleeding in pits, and crucified. There is a scene where a Japanese Christian is crucified and left to drown. He is singing in his last moment a serene hymn, which sounds bittersweet, while everyone else, including the persecutors, looks on in silence. By watching and absorbing these scenes, you can feel how everyone involved with the movie are giving their all. Andrew Garfield who plays Rodrigues is especially powerful in his performance and deserves an Oscar. Speaking of Oscars, it is a complete travesty that Silence did not get any nominations this year other than for best cinematography.
Those who have seen the movie may have noticed the film’s complex themes interwoven throughout the plot. In this blog entry, I will attempt to touch on some of these themes and take time to briefly reflect upon them. In doing so, I hope that the reader may appreciate the movie, and admire the author, Mr. Endō, even more for his incredible insights into human culture and various theological issues, many of which are still relevant today. For those who might not have seen the movie, please be informed as there are spoilers that follow.
It is not long before Rodrigues discovers that the land of Japan is a uniquely different country. Here, the people are simplistic, without deceit, and extremely humble—even childlike. The Christians welcome Rodrigues with an affectionate sadness and treat him with overwhelming admiration and warmth. Even the Inquisitor, Inoue Masashige, invites Rodrigues to his home for meals and discussion. The Japanese rulers abhor the ‘arrogance’ of the European missionaries, yet they are strangely moved by the Christians’ willingness to suffer. At the same time, they are unable to understand why these European missionaries would allow their flock to suffer such extreme agonies for the simplest of faith-denial acts such as stepping on mere images.
I can say that this is true for many Asian cultures when faced with foreign, particularly western, interaction in any form. It is true that many western ideas have been beneficial with regards to fighting superstition and social discrimination, but at the same time western concepts such as individuality and hyper-capitalism are often seen as threats to the cultural solidarity of Asian peoples. So it is not surprising that the Japanese persecutors in this story think of western Christianity as a danger to their land.
When Rodrigues finally comes face to face with Ferreira, he is told that Japan is a vast ‘swamp’ and ‘our religion does not take root here.’ Ferreira tells Rodrigues that the Japanese simply cannot conceive of a God that exists beyond the realm of nature. Rodrigues shakes his head at Ferreira and says that he saw countless Christians dying for God. ‘But they’re dying for you, Rodrigues,’ Ferreira says to Rodrigues, much to the young priest’s shock.
The author, Mr. Endō, had long believed that for Christianity to thrive in Japan it must abandon certain western concepts such as the patriarchal father image of God. The Japanese do not take kindly to a father image, which exudes stubborn authority and allows no weakness. Endō said that the Japanese are more drawn to the maternal nature of God as revealed in the tender, nurturing nature of Jesus. The maternal aspect of Christ is indeed the most heartwarming and comforting place in the Gospels, and it is true that we Christians have not emphasized on this as much as we should have in our day-to-day lives. Julian of Norwich writes in her ‘Revelations of Divine Love,’
Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him, and this is where His Maternity starts, And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us.
Towards the end of the film, the Inquisitor says to Rodrigues that Christianity in Japan has become a ‘strange thing.’
God’s voice in suffering
In his trials and tribulations, Rodrigues often asks God for comfort and deliverance. He also questions God as to why must the Christians’ suffering be so terrible. ‘Where are you?’ he shouts at God repeatedly in a prison cell while awaiting execution.
The author had said that Japanese culture identifies with the 'one who suffers with us.' Is it true that God suffers with us in silence while we undergo painful and agonizing trials? I am reminded of an account of the Holocaust told by Elie Wiesel in his book ‘Night.’ Wiesel recounts an episode where he and others witness the hanging of a small boy in a concentration camp.
“Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing...
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
"For God's sake, where is God?"
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
"Where He is? This is where--hanging here from this gallows..."
Rodrigues is disheartened by God’s silence amidst the screams of his children. There comes a time when Rodrigues must commit apostasy in order to save members of his flock from the agony of bleeding to their deaths. He gazes at the fumi-e upon which he must trample, and it is exactly in this moment when Christ breaks his silence. The Lord says to Rodrigues in a gentle voice,
"You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross."
‘Father, I want to make confession.’
When Rodrigues travels to Japan, he meets a drunken Japanese named Kichijiro who later acts as his guide. Rodrigues suspects Kichijiro is a Christian, and it turns out that he is right. Kichijiro is revealed to be one of the Christians who has apostatized and stepped on the fumi-e to save himself, but his family is wiped out in brutal fashion because of their refusal to do the same. Does Kichijiro’s inability to save his own family haunt him? Kichijiro tells Rodrigues that he sees the fire of his family’s death burning less brightly due to the priest’s presence. On top of that, Kichijiro seems to follow Rodrigues everywhere so that he can make his confessions to the priest. Many times, Rodrigues gets annoyed of Kichijiro because of his stubborn insistent need to confess each and every time after stepping on the fumi-e or betraying fellow Christians. How can Christ love such a wretch? Rodrigues often contemplates.
After Rodrigues commits apostasy, Kichijiro still sticks with him as his servant. One day, Kichijiro again asks Rodrigues to hear his confession, but this time Rodrigues is not annoyed; this is because he is aware of the Japanese inability to see God beyond creation. Rodrigues may have realized that Kichijiro is asking for forgiveness much as the same way we Christians ask for forgiveness because of our multiple sins. Rodrigues’ journey comes full circle here. In the Gospel of John, Christ says,
Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. (John 15:4, NASB)
The apostle Paul says,
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32, NIV)
Can it be that Kichijiro showed Rodrigues, in his utter weakness, what it means to have Christ living inside of you? Kichijiro begs Rodrigues for forgiveness because, for Kichijiro, Rodrigues is Jesus; the young Portuguese Jesuit priest is to this broken Japanese man the very embodiment of Christ living among his disciples. To Kichijiro, God has already spoken through Father Rodrigues and he has spoken with unconditional forgiveness. Therefore, Rodrigues somehow understands and he finally embraces Kichijiro and thanks him.