Written by Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese
Directed by Martin Scorsese
There has been more than one Martin Scorsese. He’s become most famous for pictures like The Wofl fo Wall Street, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. These are movies about intense, volatile figures that eventually explode. There is also the Scorsese of muted and contemplative films like Kundun and The Age of Innocence. Much like the man himself, his filmography is slightly manic, overflowing with ideas, and able to appreciate art across the spectrum of tone and theme. Silence is one of the quieter films, but it addresses monumentally enormous concepts and touching on a message that resonates across the ages. Few films deal so maturely with matters of faith, genuinely questioning and looking at belief from all angles.
Set in the 17th century, we follow two young Jesuit priests Rodrigues and Garupe are given the word that a mentor of theirs, Father Ferreira, has apostatized himself while performing mission work in the intensely hostile Japanese nation. Neither man accepts this as fact, and they are permitted to sneak into Japan and see the state of the Church for themselves. They discover a secretive Christian population who have attempted to carry on in their beliefs in the absence of formal clergy and are elated to have two padres on their shores again. Rodrigues becomes increasingly troubled by rumors of Ferreira taking a Japanese name and wife, completely shirking the duties of the faith. As Rodrigues and Garupe perform their priestly functions for small coastal fishing villages, they live in fear of the Inquisitor who travels across Japan looking to make examples of those who continue to practice the faith of the Europeans.
Scorsese delivers a film about faith, colonialism, and the way religion is twisted by political forces that does not come down on any side of the argument. He is devoted to presenting the full breadth of this argument, both the sympathetic and the abhorrent. For the first half of the picture, we are given a front row seat to the tortures the Japanese government inflicts on the priests and the believers. Then around the halfway mark, Rodrigues is granted an audience with the Inquisitor, and we start to see the way the Japanese are viewing missions work. A parable is told about a king with four warring wives who are all seeking his attention, and in the process, they destroy his palace. The Inquisitor explains that the wives are England, France, Portugal, and Holland, and the king is Japan. To the Japanse government, Christianity is part of an advance effort to destabilize their hold on the populace, shifting the allegiance of the people to the European faith which in turn would make the nation open to further European colonialism.
This viewpoint is not wrong at all. The Vatican is infamous as a political organization, wielding vast amounts of wealth to shape policy in Europe and abroad. There’s no doubting the faith and devotion of the hearts of the priests, but they accept the words of their leaders without questioning and as a result, harm people in other lands while believing they act with good intent and that makes everything okay. Scorsese continually points out the Japanese believers’ obsession with the symbols and icons of faith, almost as if these are magic amulets that imbue them with power. One way the Japanese get them to apostatize is to step on fumi-e. This was a metal plate bearing an image of Jesus that Japanese authorities used in their inquisition. Rodrigues struggles with what he should tell the believers when their life is on the line, and they are being asked to step on this object. Is the power of faith in this image or the words of the rituals, or does it exist as something transcendent?
The climax of the film is no surprise, the inevitable reuniting of Rodrigues and Ferreira and it is the high point of the film. The full complexity of this situation is rolled out, and the audience realizes that there is no clean solution for the priests. Their worldview is not compatible with a thousand years of Japanese culture that has developed differently. The peasants are being crushed under the heel of a tyrannical government, but it’s inevitable, based on the history of colonialism, it wouldn’t get better with one of the European powers in charge. In the same way, the business class and monarchies of Europe used the Church, so too does Japan used Buddhism. They proclaim it is the only valid religion in their lands, but we don’t see the leadership practicing the tenets of that system. The same can be said about the rulers of Europe. There’s no easy answer for Rodrigues, and he grows frustrated in the silence of his god to guide him. A moment comes that gives the priest an epiphany, and he goes down an unexpected path, leading the title of the film to take on a richer meaning. Silence, like Doubt and First Reformed, are the mature nuanced movies on faith that we need. They don’t dishonestly present faith as part of a manufactured culture war, rather pictures like these know that belief should never be easy and, if it is genuine is a life long struggle.