Silence is in awe of the faithful and seeks a place among them. Martin Scorsese’s twenty-eight years in the making film is an adaptation of Shusako Endo’s famous novel about a seventeenth century Jesuit missionary, Rodrigues, who searches feudal Japan for his disappeared mentor, Ferreira. Under the Tokugawa family shogun, Japan entered a period of political isolationism and Christian persecution (since Christianity was seen as weapon of colonization). Rodrigues and the Japanese Christians who hide him are in mortal danger throughout. They are in spiritual danger too, since the first attack the authorities use against them when they are captured is to try to get them to apostatize. Silence is a testament to the remarkable faith of the persecuted Japanese Christians, an exploration (indictment?) of Japanese culture, and an inquiry into the essential nature of faith and particularly confessional, Christian faith.
Endo’s novel is famously ambiguous in its ending. Like other mid-twentieth century novels built on unreliable narrators (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, One Hundred Years of Solitude, sorta), Silence’s effect depends on the reader understanding the narrator’s point-of-view, the author’s opinion of the narrator’s opinions, and the reader’s own feelings about that interaction. Endo complicates that relationship further by telling his story from his protagonist’s perspective until the moment the narrative climaxes and then introducing a new character to report on what happened after that moment. This leaves it up the reader to decide how what occurred at the climax affected the protagonist and the overall meaning of the book. Endo’s novel is a kind of Rorschach test for determining one’s own cultural and religious inclinations. Silence the novel welcomes interpretation.
Silence the film is Martin Scorsese’s cinematic interpretation of Endo’s novel, and so it is also Martin Scorsese’s interpretation of the novel’s ending and ultimate meaning. Most of the film adheres strictly to Endo’s narrative, but Scorsese does make choices in his film’s third act that clearly communicate where he lands on the narrative’s meaning. If you are a lover of the novel—as many of us thoughtful, art-loving Christians are—you might resonate with Scorsese’s interpretation. It might bother you as well. The filmmaker who gave us Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and The Wolf of Wall Street seems comfortable with the chance that viewers might misinterpret his films. The filmmaker who gave us The Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead, and Hugo wants the viewer to know how he feels. The first two-thirds of Silence belongs to the first group of films. The final third, to the latter.
Silence is also Scorsese’s most composed film. Rather than rely on emphatic camera movements and sharp edits to tell this story, Scorsese and director of photography Rodrigo Prieto frame and light each shot with a precision that reminds me of Stanley Kubrick and John Alcott’s work in Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange. Silence is stately, reserved, observant, arguably uninvolved in all but a few moments. I suppose this mimics Rodrigues’ posture throughout the narrative, but in a film where the perspective is necessarily another step removed—the camera is not the protagonist—from the novel’s already removed, first-person perspective—Rodrigues’ report on what he saw—the effect is somewhat cold. (This taciturn tone is alleviated by a couple of the Japanese actors – Shin’ya Tsukamoto as “Mokichi” and Issei Ogata as “Inquisitor Inoue.” Both men give broad performances that both unsettle Rodrigues and provide the film with a touch of humor. The film’s entire cast is good. Issei Ogata is the star.)
On the other hand, separating Rodrigues’ perspective from the film’s perspective in the scenes that show Japanese Christians being persecuted grants the persecutions greater emotional intensity than what Endo accomplishes in his book. Unbound from Rodrigues’ reflections, the viewer is allowed to reflect on the plight of the persecuted Christians on her or his own. The movie’s otherwise disconnected posture also yields the moments of visual flourish heightened impact. When Rodrigues’ emotions finally boil over, they spill off the screen. This contrast between remove and sentimentality was jarring for me on first viewing, but I suspect it will feel correct upon subsequent viewings of the film. I imagine the admiration and compassion Silence has for the persecuted Christians will come through even more clearly when I watch the film again.
That really is where Scorsese’s affections are located in this film – with the martyrs. The movie is in awe of their faithfulness to Christ in this, the most dire of circumstances. Scorsese even dedicates the film to those Christians and their pastors. Rodrigues’ faith is differently shaded, a contested faith seeking steady footing in a world of cultural complications and theological contradictions. Silence longs for Rodrigues’ conflicted faith to find a place among the pure faith of the martyrs. It insists upon it, almost desperately.
Reflecting on the film a few days after seeing it, I find myself praying that God’s mercy is wide enough to include both uncritical and critical confessors. I know “there’s a wideness in God’s mercy I cannot find in my own,” and all of our theological pondering and posturing does nothing to expand or contract God’s love, a love that radiates upon history of its own accord, seeping into even the most remote and “unreachable” corners of Creation and of the human heart, a love that “will not let me go,” even when I let go of it.
Rodrigues is a fictional character, but he’s based on a real man, Guiseppe Chiara, and I hope he found peace. I hope the real Christians that sheltered men like him found peace. I hope their persecutors did too. I hope Endo found peace. I hope Scorsese finds peace. I hope I find peace. I hope we all find peace. We cry out for God to reassure us, to quiet our doubts. Perhaps God’s answer is God’s silence, a presence that says stronger than any speech, “I’m here. I’ve always been here. I’ll always be here. Rest your head upon my bosom. Be at peace.”