[Yes, there are “spoilers.”]
Silence is not a “Christian” movie. If it were, no doubt the climax would see Inoue and his translator converted, the Japanese Jesuit mission judged an astounding success, and both Ferreira and Rodrigues refusing to trample the fumie (the pictures of Jesus or Mary produced in seventeenth century Japan).
It is also not an easy movie to categorize. I should say, it’s not an easy story to categorize. I’ve read the novel by Shusaku Endo twice, and because the film adheres so closely to the book, they can be considered as one story told in two media.
But what kind of story is it? On the surface, it’s about a man riven with love for the Japanese and his Christian mission toward them, but who cannot seem to help them, no matter what path he chooses. If he holds fast to his faith, they suffer. If he apostatizes, they suffer, perhaps more deeply.
The title hints at the significant theme underlying the entire story: the silence of God. For Rodrigues, though there is sound all around him, he does not hear the only Voice for which he longs. That contrast of silence and sound is one of the masterful devices of the film. There is very, very little music. The sound comes (as it does in the book) from rain, waves crashing, the screams of those being tortured, the chants of Buddhist monks, and the hymns of the martyrs.
Endo’s genius (with Scorsese following) is that both the book and the film are silent about whether there really is an answer according to the terms that Rodrigues sets. Where is God? Is He speaking? Is He speaking in the silence, as Rodrigues seems to hear in the voice of Christ toward the end of the movie and the book?
Even now that face is looking at me with eyes of pity from the plaque rubbed flat by many feet. “Trample!” said those compassionate eyes. “Trample! Your foot suffers in pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.”
“Lord, I resented your silence.”
“I was not silent. I suffered beside you.”
“But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly. What happened to Judas?”
“I did not say that. Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you are now.”
But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.
The question is, of course, is this actually the voice of Christ? Or is it the voice Rodrigues wants to hear, and so does? Because this is neither a “Christian” novel, nor a “Christian” movie, we are left to ponder this for ourselves.
But that’s not the only question raised by the story. Immediately, the question is, what would anyone do when faced with torture if one does not place a foot on a picture? One of the Japanese interrogators puts it this way in the book:
“The sooner you get through with it, the sooner you’ll get out of here,” roared one of the officials. “I’m not telling you to trample with sincerity and conviction. This is just a formality. Just putting your foot on the thing won’t hurt your convictions.”
The officials kept insisting to the Christians that to trample on the fumie was no more than a formality. All you had to do was put your foot on it. If you did that, nobody cared what you believed.
Is it “no more than a formality”? Was it no more than a formality for the Christians in Rome to worship Caesar and to deny Christ, even if, in their hearts, they still held to Christ? When, in an earlier scene, the Christians do trample on the fumie, they are then told that it is not enough, that they must spit on a crucifix and call the Mother of God a whore. What is in a word, an action, a footstep, an image? Jesus says that to deny Him before men means His denial of us before the Father. Is that a spoken denial? A denial in action? A denial of omission, or of commission? Silence requires an examination of all these questions.
And what about Christianity in “foreign soil,” in the “swamp” of Japan, as is repeated more than once? Is Christianity a tree that grows well in one soil, but not in others? Is it merely a Western religion, that cannot adapt to Eastern conditions? This is a thoroughly modern question, as any overview of Christian missionary work can attest. Is Rodrigues correct, or are Inoue and Ferreira? Fascinating that reviewers on the other side of Christian faith have criticized the film precisely for the reasons that Ferreira says Christianity doesn’t belong in Japan: evangelism itself implies imperialistic and chauvinistic motives. And, in a parallel move, that Scorsese has been unfaithful to Endo’s book by focusing on Rodrigues’ struggle, while using the Japanese “other” as a mere foil. These questions are, in fact, at the heart of both the film and the novel, even 50 years ago when Silence was published.
Endo seems to be working through all of these questions and more himself. This becomes clearer when reading his other books, where he touches on many of the same themes– though, perhaps, nowhere as powerfully as here. In a few of his short stories, and elsewhere, the names of Inoue and Kichijiro (the inquisitor and cowardly Judas figure, respectively) reappear, indicating that Endo was working through–both before and after Silence–what these characters mean.
Endo, himself a Roman Catholic, struggles with the nature of a Japanese Christianity. This is complicated by the historical reality of syncretism in Japan, where Christians did combine elements of Buddhism and ancestor worship with Christianity. The Kakure Kirishitan were those who secretly held their faith and later, when persecution ceased, were reunited with the Church; while the Hanare Kirishitan continued to be separated and practice the syncretistic religion they had received. [I recommend the fascinating preface by William Johnston in the Taplinger Publishing edition of Silence. It includes excerpts from interviews with Endo, as well as examination of his views of Christianity and Japanese culture.]
In one sense, this film takes far more seriously the struggle of flesh and the Spirit than many of the movies that have been marketed to Christians in the past few years, which is perhaps why so few Christians have heard of or seem to be going to see this film. Compared to something like God’s Not Dead, this film is more substantial, significant, and considered. And because there are no easy answers, it is far truer to life in this creation. There is no easy, happy ending. And, for some reason, that has caused some Christian reviewers to condemn it (as if a film had to have a prescribed ending in order to say something to Christians).
This is much more Job than Heaven is for Real.
Which means that it is far more Scriptural than anything else that comes to mind in “Christian” cinema. And yet, that’s not to say that it should be viewed as anything more than a semi-fictional exploration of faith, doubt, apostasy, and faithfulness. In other words, this is not Christian propaganda, or proselytizing, or hagiography. Endo is not, by his writing, praising or promoting some point of view. This, I think, is why modern Christians are having trouble with both the novel and the film: they cannot categorize it, so it must be something less than edifying–which, perhaps, says more about Americanized Christianity than it says about the Faith (or the film) itself. The general comfort in which we live–analogized by the fact that I sat in a leather, reclining theater seat to watch the film–has distanced us from the questions of the novel in such a way that the themes are as foreign to us as Japan seems to the Portuguese missionaries, and Christianity to the Japanese persecutors.
Since when is the Christian Faith so fragile that a fictionalized struggle–which is, at the same time, a real struggle–can threaten its adherents? Maybe since American Christians have quarantined the Faith into neat boxes with 90 degree corners and perfectly straight lines. Have we lost the ability to think? (I fear that to ask the question is to receive the answer.)
I wonder, though, if there is not still another level to the story that makes Rodrigues into a Christ-figure, despite himself. That is, perhaps very real apostasy–very real sin and denial–are sins for which Christ died. If Christ’s suffering and crucifixion was graphically specific to graphically particular sins, then Rodrigues (again, in spite of himself) bears on his own shoulders the weight of the Japanese apostasy by taking it on himself. They are set free from the same sin by which he condemns himself.
But even that action is not unambiguous. And Scorsese complicates it by the absolute silence at the moment of Rodrigues’ apostasy, followed by the crow of a rooster. Is Rodrigues Christ (as Ferreira tempts him to be)? Is he Peter? Or is he Judas (though Rodrigues has continually imagined Kichijiro in that role)?
Endo (and, in near perfection, Scorsese has followed him) has taken historical events and told the story in such complex layers that they have become, like our own lives and motivations, nearly impossible to disentangle.
But maybe that is precisely the point: to discern God’s voice in the myriad deceptions and longings and motivations of our own minds and hearts is a frustratingly silent enterprise. Like Job in the vast majority of the book that bears his name, God refuses to speak to him. He prays and rages and asks for an answer, a reason, anything.
God is silent.
But when God speaks, it is not to defend Himself and His ways. Nor does His answer come where we think it should: in our suffering, or our love, or our desire to be faithful. Neither is it to give us answers to our whys, or to intervene in the ways we wish He would. There is an intervention, without a doubt. But it is in the Son’s suffering, the Son’s love, the Son’s faithfulness. It is in the Son’s forsakenness, the Son’s being emptied, the Son’s death.
And it is indeed in silence. A silence more terrible than Rodrigues experiences. But the counterpoint to the silence of God in the face of Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross is not His silence in the face of our cries. Since the seraph closed the Garden’s entrance to Adam and Eve, that is nothing new, and it is not redemptive in itself. The final word is not in how God, though appearing silent, speaks through us. It is in the voice of the messenger sitting on the stone jarred loose: He is not here; He has risen, just as He said. To look for another Word, or another Promise, or another Intervention is not faith, but a failure to take God at the Word He has given. It is unbelief at its most pious: to look for a word from God in some other place than where He has actually spoken.
Neither the book nor the film should lead us to facile and superficial judgments on persecution, blasphemy, or apostasy. Endo–as he himself said–was writing fiction, not theology. But the best fiction can lead us into the deepest theological waters, as Silence leads us to meditate on God’s silence. And perhaps God’s silent refusal to answer the questions we think are so profound can lead us to ask the question whose answer He has already given: whose answer is always and only the forsaken, suffering, dead, and resurrected Christ for us.