Decades in the making, Martin Scorsese’s Silence, based on Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel, about 17th-century Jesuit missionaries to Japan, is ambitious and alternately gorgeous and horrifying. It is surprising that a film of this magnitude would be all but completely snubbed for Oscar nominations, particularly in the now-expanded category of Best Picture, where the competition is soft indeed. Silence’s sole Oscar nomination is for cinematography, and that is well deserved. With its focus on valleys and mountains shrouded in fog, the film often has the look of the movies of the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.
Commentary on the film has focused on the dilemma facing the two Jesuit priest protagonists, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) and Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield): Can renouncing faith ever be a path of faith? Yet the commentary has tended to ignore a more striking issue and perhaps one more relevant to our own time: namely, what happens to religious faith in a totalitarian political environment that actively and violently repudiates any religion that is not perfectly consonant with the dictates of the political regime.
Around that ritual act, Japanese authorities construct a series of protracted, gruesome inducements to apostasy. Particularly terrifying is the threat that the torture of Japanese converts will cease only after the priests themselves publicly renounce their faith. Suppression was already underway when Father Rodrigues, a priest in Portugal, heard reports that his spiritual mentor, the missionary to Japan, Father Ferreira, had succumbed to Japanese terror and renounced his faith in Christ. Eager to be a missionary himself and to find out the truth about Ferreira, Rodrigues departs for Japan and immediately enters a world of systematic viciousness toward Christians, confronting a horror that he could never have imagined.
The book and the film are much better at holding onto the tragic tensions in the character of Rodrigues than are many of the commentators. One of the film’s consultants, Father James Martin, S.J., editor of America, argues that the film underscores the inadequacy of black-and-white moral theology of the Jesuit priests when confronted with a “world of gray.” But that observation only underscores the inadequacy of the banal categories of contemporary moral theology when applied to a great work of art. The world of Silence is not gray; it is surreal and nightmarish, and its dramatic depiction at the hands of Scorsese moves the film precariously close to the genre of horror.
While the priests are generous and sacrificial, they are also rightly accused of arrogance, of desiring primarily the esteem of the people they have come to serve. They are indeed focused on themselves and their tribulations. One of the key questions is whether Rodrigues hears a divine voice urging him, “Trample!” Jesus himself seems to speak from the icon placed before Rodrigues. If He does, then apostasy would seem to be a path of faith, not just an act of betrayal from which one can repent and return to grace. But it is far from clear how we are to interpret this scene.
This is a world where nothing is as it seems. The film leaves us with questions: Is this a divine voice? Or is it, given Rodrigues’s mentally strained condition, a hallucination? (How odd that God would break His apparently steadfast silence only to assuage the conscience of a Western Jesuit priest.) Or is it, as any Jesuit who had read Saint Ignatius carefully would know was possible, a communication not from the divine but from a malign spirit whose aim is to destroy souls? To seize, even in the spirit of advancing a moral theology of ambiguity, on any one of these interpretations would violate the tortured ambiguity of the film itself.
That is clearly the aim of the Japanese officials who, even as they expend enormous effort to extirpate the Catholic faith, taunt the priests for their failure to realize that Japan is “a swamp” in which Christianity cannot take root. That claim is belied both by the initial spread of the faith and by the lengths to which the Japanese go to rid their country of its presence.
While the lives of ordinary Japanese seem primitive indeed, the mechanisms that the officials deploy are far from crude. Instead, they exhibit a complex, diabolical rationality. The methods are totalitarian in both intent and form. The intent is to uproot completely any residue of Christian faith, to eliminate the presence of any force contrary to that of the government. Buddhism is praised but appears in the film only under the guise of a civil religion. The form is capacious, encompassing any expression of the faith, and sustained through time.
The intent is to uproot completely any residue of Christian faith, to eliminate the presence of any force contrary to that of the government.
The instruments of torture and execution evince the power of totalitarian reason prior to, and in the absence of, modern technology. Torture is designed to work slowly over time and to be a kind of public display of the cost of belief. Public repudiation is as much about humiliation and mockery as it is about officially recanting. These methods deprive the potential martyr of any sense of glory. Both before and after their apostasy, priests are kept alive. Before their desecration of an icon, they are forced to witness the torture and murder of others, whose potential freedom rests, the priests are told, on the willingness of the priests to deny the faith. After their apostasy, the priests are kept around as examples of the falsity and cowardice of Christian leaders. They are given public roles, forced to break their vows, takes wives, and assist the government in its ongoing detection of forbidden Christian elements in the country.
What sort of religion can survive in this setting, where religious liberty is systematically denied? If anything endures, it is minimalist and completely privatized; indeed, what remains is so private that it cannot emerge from the interior of the soul. In everything external to one’s thoughts and feelings, there must be complete conformity to the dictates of the state. Nothing less than public complicity with and docility toward the state is acceptable. If the film raises questions about the silence of God, it draws our attention equally to the silencing of religious speech and action.
In the service of a totalitarian ideal, government agents exhibit a kind of enlightenment rationalism. They are meticulous, patient, thorough, articulate, and confident in their control and ultimate victory. One of the more instructive characteristics of Japanese rule in the film is that it is not just a regime of terror, desecration, and destruction. The surrealist nightmare of isolation, torture, and death that it constructs for believers stands in contrast to the world enjoyed by apostates, to whom, the officials offer comfort, work, community, and the esteem of both the elites and the common people. The strategy is smartly designed to suppress memories of, and longing for, any higher calling, any end beyond the scope of the state.
— Thomas S. Hibbs, the dean of the Honors College at Baylor University, is the author of Shows about Nothing.