Warning: Contains Spoilers.
Moments before Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) apostatizes (that is, abandons the faith), he sees five bodies mummified in burlap, hanging upside down in pits. Their necks have been nicked, slightly, to prevent blood from amassing in their heads in favour of it dripping into the pits. They are alive, groaning into the night – Japanese Christians who’ve long apostatized and whose only salvation is Rodrigues’ apostasy.
Silence is Martin Scorsese’s latest film, based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same name. Scorsese first read the novel in 1989 and was so thoroughly captivated that he has wanted to translate it into film ever since. It’s taken him three decades to do so, during which such luminaries as Daniel Day-Lewis, Gael García Bernal and Benicio Del Toro were cast at various times, only to reconsider due to production delays.
Silence is the tale of two young Portugese Jesuit priests in the late 1600s, Father Sebastião Rodrigues and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who travel to Japan in search of their confessor and spiritual mentor Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) who has allegedly apostatized. Convinced of Ferreira’s integrity and intending to restore his reputation, Rodrigues and Garupe embark on their mission alight with zeal akin to that of their “first fervour.” They take for granted the immovability of their own faith at the beginning of their journey.
Nothing interrogates (excavates?) faith and the extent of its immovability like suffering. Suffering intensifies our craving for divine assurance, answers, and action; experiencing the silence of God in these matters is discouraging and terrifying. There is no deus ex machina in the film as various Japanese peasant Christians experience persecution in the form of crucifixion, decapitation, and drowning. There is not even any musical score to offset or dignify the sound of diegetic agony. The priests, like us, watch merely as spectators. The suffering is unavoidable and unalterable: met only with silence.
My experience with God has not been quite so uniform. I have heard him speak and have seen him act; I have felt him. These things, with the exhilarating breath of Scripture (the Red Sea parted! Christ was raised from the dead!), inflate my faith like a hot air balloon over the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia (this for another blog). God enables possibility. And yet, as I watched the persecution and its attending silence on two separate evenings this week with two dear friends (respectively), I wondered what I would do in a similar situation in the absence of an alternate possibility. Would I remain faithful or, as in the case of some in the film, step on the fumi-e (a rectangular plaque sculpted with the face of Christ or the Virgin Mary) or spit on the cross? Furthermore, what would I do if, like Rodrigues and Garupe, my refusal to abandon the faith meant the torture and death of other people? Lord, have mercy.
As I reflect on it, it seems to me that what we do is neither the main concern of Silence nor of faith. We are a people of mixture: of light and dark, fidelity and betrayal, glory and shame. We are not Christ, and the pride of assuming we are is a recipe for downfall. Rather, we are most like Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), the priests’ Japanese guide who apostatizes, confesses, betrays, confesses, and apostatizes and confesses again. People in the cinema laughed at this inconsistent character.
Two of my favourite scenes feature Kichijiro’s confessions. In the first (pictured above), Rodrigues looks down upon a kneeling, contrite Kichijiro who recounts the story of apostatizing and then sees his family burned alive for their faith. Rodrigues offers absolution and feels invigorated in his spiritual work in Japan on behalf of helpless souls like this. In the second scene, towards the end of the film, Kichijiro comes to Rodrigues several years after the latter has apostatized. Kichijiro wants to make confession to “Padre” Rodrigues, much to the insistence of Rodrigues to the contrary. After all, he can hardly be called “Padre” after what he has done. In the end, Rodrigues and Kichijiro – both apostates – bow their heads against each other and kneel together on a mat, in silence.
It is only when we bring our similar waffling, contradiction, and fickleness to Christ – treading entirely on him amidst the exhaustion of our own spiritual fortitude – that we find faith. For Christ is gracious to advocate on our behalf when we realize our offering speaks, comparatively, a sort of silence. When we understand we’ll always be Kichijiro, and yet still return again.