Here is something about me: I was born with a split diaphragm, my intestines blocking my left lung from growing and pushing my heart essentially into my back, and was given a virtually zero percent chance to live. Spoiler alert, I did live, although without the services of my left lung, ending any chance of my becoming a professional track star. Here is something else: I grew up in a very Catholic family—not frighteningly or repressively Catholic, but certainly devout. We went to church every Sunday, had priests over for dinner, had pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall overlooking our dinner table, and tried as often as we could to pray the rosary as a family. I slept in a bed underneath a picture of a cross with a robe on it that read, “I asked Jesus how much he loved me, and he stretched out his arms and died,” which I retroactively blame for scaring off any ladies I would have wooed in high school. All of this is to say that my family and I experienced a dramatic medical turnaround which might be classified as miraculous, and that my life was, and still is, heavily influenced by the Catholic faith.
Here is one more thing: I don’t currently think that I believe in anything. After another long stint in the hospital during my college years—that pesky left lung again, this time after a spontaneous collapse that needed a rather unpleasant surgery to resolve—I began to feel far away from any belief in God that I used to have. I held on for a long time, tried devoting myself in different ways to old routines or beliefs, different types of prayer, and whatever else was available, but at some point anything that was left in terms of having faith or belief, in Catholicism or in the idea of God at all, withered and faded away. The concepts, history, and philosophy of religion still fascinate me, but outside of that interest there isn’t much else in it for me, or at least not right now. Whether out of habit or bizarre longing, I still compile my thoughts each night in a form that’s akin to prayer, but I don’t believe that anyone is listening. I would very much like there to be something more than this, or something after this, but if I had to put money on it, I’m going with the void. I cannot deny what I feel.
This is a rather long preamble to Martin Scorsese and his oftentimes breathtaking new epic, Silence, but I feel it’s necessary to introduce my personal feelings on Catholicism and religion in general before discussing the film, because Silence is very much a film that will hit you in different ways depending on where you are in regards to faith and belief. That’s not to say that you have to have any sort of religious inclinations or past to get something out of Silence; it is, like so much of Scorsese’s better work, full of striking images, important symbols and motifs, and strong, real characters facing impossible choices as they are tested to their core. But if you do come from any sort of religious background, or are simply someone with a profound interest in the subject of religion, Silence has the power to affect you in ways that transcend the cinematic. The film has been tagged with the overused “labor of love” designation, but Scorsese’s multi-decade journey towards getting the film made does seem like something of an act of devotion. That it exists at all is a small miracle.
Here is what happens in Silence: two Portuguese Jesuits learn that their mentor, Father Ferreira, has apostatized while being tortured while doing missionary work in Japan (the film takes place in the 1600s). The two—Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver)—set out to Japan to spread the Gospel and find Ferreira themselves, refusing to believe that their teacher could have publicly denounced God. They are naive but well intentioned, and their desire to perhaps suffer for their faith is matched by a true desire to spread the faith that they believe in, and aid the Japanese Christians who are living in secret across the country.
Upon their arrival, they find that things are worse than they thought. The Japanese crackdown on Christianity and those practicing it is in full force, and eventually both Rodrigues and Garrpe are forced to make a series of impossible decisions, the kind of “if you put a gun to my head” choices that are usually only considered in an ethics class. Do you tell the followers of your faith to deny God in order to save themselves? Should they apostatize if it means saving the life of a fellow villager? Will God forgive you if you publicly denounce him to save the lives of people who may not even understand the religion that they’re suffering for? What do you imagine God can forgive? What dogmas are malleable and which are rigid, no matter the cost? Are you suffering intentionally for your own martyrdom because you think it brings you closer to Christ? What, in the end, is the purpose of your faith, whether public or private? How much can you allow it to be changed by the world?
[spoilers follow] These are heady questions, and we typically encounter them through Garfield’s Father Rodrigues, who becomes the center of the film as it progresses. He must reckon with all of this alone; no matter how much he prays for understanding, or mercy, or guidance, his God is silent. This, then, is the ultimate query of Scorsese’s film (and of the Shūsako Endō novel it is based upon): how does one understand the meaning and purpose of their faith in a world in which God is silent? And what, if anything, does that silence mean? By the end of the film, Rodrigues has apostatized—a choice that would have been unthinkable at the film’s outset—and yet, as the film’s final moments follow him throughout his new, changed life, he remains committed to the idea of his faith. We can look at that and see madness, self-delusion, inspiration, or perhaps even something to be envious of.
By the film’s final shot, it’s quite clear what Scorsese thinks of Rodrigues. A tale of compromised, shaken, but enduring faith feels natural for a director who has given us so many challenged, defeated characters looking for some kind of redemption throughout his career. Silence doesn’t feel like an endpoint for Scorsese, but it does feel like his definitive statement on Christianity, more fully realized and cut-and-dry than his previous takes on the religion, including his earlier, far more controversial masterpiece, The Last Temptation of Christ. That film found the oh-so-tricky middle-ground in portraying a Christ that was fully man in addition to his divinity, with all the doubt and misunderstanding that comes along with being human. Father Rodrigues is a far smaller figure than Jesus (which is kind of the point), yet no more racked by doubt and guilt and shame. He has to come to terms with what his faith means and what the implications of that meaning are. People die because of his belief. He has to reckon with that. He has to confront the fact that he is able to save them only by denouncing his own God, and helping the Japanese inquisitors root Christianity from the very place he sought to help it grow. Scorsese, and Endō, reveal this to be something of a simultaneously tragic and victorious ending: Rodrigues is certainly excommunicated from the Church, but at the same time, he has come to a new understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. As he says, his “whole life” testifies to Christ, even in his apostasy.
Rodrigues is able to make peace with the silence of God. He is, by the film’s end, even able to believe (or at least, imagine) that God has been with him the entire time. Whether that is a revelation or a delusion will depend on your own personal ideas regarding religion. When I first read Silence, probably somewhere around 5 years ago, I found the ending to be both a bolster to my flagging faith, as well as a stark rebuke to the oft-preached Catholic doctrine that suffering is, in many ways, a good thing, because it brings you closer to God. That line of thought leads to a sort of glorification of suffering—no less than Pope John Paul II self-flagellated—instead of taking a more practical, loving approach. Whipping oneself is not healthy, rational behavior. Neither is standing by, silent, while people are beheaded, bled out, or drowned because you won’t perform a symbolic renunciation of your faith. Silence offers Rodrigues as an emblem of a kind of quiet, radically different Catholicism; one that understands that the modern world (in the 1600s as well as today) cannot be governed by laws based on a text that was written second-, third-, fourth-hand (and more) nearly two thousand years ago.
Watching the film now, understanding that the faith I once possessed is no longer a part of me, I expected a different set of emotions at the film’s conclusion. Perhaps I would balk at how long Rodrigues’s realization took, or maybe I would leave the theater ready to denounce religion and the absurdities and nonsense done in its name. I remembered only the basic outline of the plot, though the ending had stuck with me. But when Rodrigues steps on the face of God; when he is finally, quietly buried with a small, handmade cross secretly pressed between his palms, I felt a bizarre sort of longing, not romantic, but not entirely different from that feeling, for the ability to believe so purely in something. The other feelings, those I’d experienced when first reading the book and those accrued over the years between the page and the screen, were there as well, but more than anything else, there was a sort of remorse and nostalgia for the belief I once had, which could be so small and beautiful when stripped of all the messy bureaucracy and authority and judgement and noise that accompanies it—not to mention the many evil deeds that its power structure protects (at least in Catholicism; having never been anything else, I won’t pretend to know what the experience is in other religions). Silence is a movie about reevaluating what we believe, a movie about a personal faith rather than an evangelical one. A faith that serves people without dividing them. I am, in an odd way, given that I never have and most likely never will meet the man, happy that Martin Scorsese seems to have found a way to make peace with his faith. That’s really all anyone can ask for. At the same time, the film helped me accept that my peace might exist without religion. But I think that might be a sort of faith nonetheless, and one that’s principles are maybe not so different from what Rodrigues finds in Japan. I believe in reason, I believe in goodness and trying to aid my fellow man. But I also believe in silence, and at times it is so unbelievably loud that when I lay in bed at night and think about casting wishes and thoughts and desires into the void, I want to weep, because I know nothing is on the other side, receiving my thoughts.
But most of the time I do it anyway.