Time and again throughout history, humanity has been lost due to hubris. There is a spiritual arrogance that we are often guilty of that has a way of taking a delicate situation and making a quick mess of it. This pride comes from a deep place in our guts and hearts – a place that believe it knows. It has listened to teachings, studied the supposed Truth, and parlayed that word into action.
People believe, people testify, and people suffer in the faith that they are doing the right thing. But how do they know for sure?
SILENCE is a seventeenth century quest for Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson).
As the story begins, his brother missionaries back in Portugal are learning of his committing apostasy in Japan after his followers are tortured by the ruling class. His status and whereabouts are now unknown. The case prompts two young priests named Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) to strike out to Japan in search of their missing brother missionary.
The quest is a dangerous one. The Buddhists in charge of Japan do not want Christianity to take root in their society, and have been making a point to persecute anyone declaring themselves a Christian. Followers are routinely rounded-up and persecuted, but the prize target is a man of the cloth.
Followers are merely victims; leaders are something to make an example of.
When the missionaries arrive in Japan, they soon split off in the hopes of greater safety and better results. It is Rodrigues we follow for most of the rest of the trip.
The priest goes from village to village, seeing firsthand evidence of Christian persecution. Some is even in the hopes of smoking out Rodrigues himself, since the governing bodies have heard rumour of his arrival. All the while, Christian followers are turning to him, looking for guidance. He, in turn, speaks to God…who responds only with silence.
Eventually, Rodrigues faces his oppressor (Issei Ogata).
Like Christ in the desert, Rodrigues is offered bargain after bargain if he will just renounce. Lives will be spared, whole communities left in peace…all he needs to do is disavow his God. Like Christ in Gethsemane, Rodrigues pleads with The Almighty to take the task away from him, and instead allow him to worship and serve in peace.
The only response is silence.
Martin Scorsese’s feature film career is now fifty years old. As such, it is difficult to decide just where this newest offering fits into his canon of work. Is it a flawed passion project? Is it another masterpiece? Something in-between, perhaps? Hard to say. Scorsese films have a way of requiring the ground about them to settle before we truly know what we have on our hands.
I will say that SILENCE is one of the man’s least accessible movies in some time. It is water torture – steadily and methodically dripping on the same spot, wondering when we might crack. It asks us the same question repeatedly. It’s not out to see whether we will change our answer, but instead is interested on what we learn about ourselves when we inevitably do.
It is an endurance test, but is all the more rewarding for those that can endure.
SILENCE wants us to take stock of what it means to be a person of faith. Is it about dying for what we believe? Is it about killing for others that believe something different? Does enduring excruciating torture and dying a martyr make us more beloved in the eyes of our almighty…or is that our own pride prolonging the inevitable? The answers to these questions are difficult. I do not have them, and neither does this film…but it wants us to ask them of ourselves nevertheless.
The inquisition this film poses is always patient, sometimes painful, and often direct. The film understands that to truly make its point, it cannot skip across the surface of faith like a stone, but must instead dive to its deepest depths. Time and again the camera waits patiently while figures emerge from smoke and fog. The film poses a question and then waits for its answer…and waits…and waits. At times the film feels like it is making us prove our faith by seeing how long we will stick with it. But for the faithful, the rewards are great.
SILENCE is not a mission one takes on early in life, but rather a meditation one makes closer to the end. It requires the ability to admit error, and the understanding that admitting wrongdoing is not the same as embodying failure. It asks us all to make plain just why we do what we do. Are we doing it because it will lead to greater truth? Or because we want to be admired by others…both above and below our station?
The answer is something we need to dig deep within ourselves to find, and is sometimes only found when we block out all else. There in the silence, our greatest truths are revealed.