Silence is what was heard in the theater I sat in after watching Martin Scorsese’s film of the same name. It wasn’t stunned silence I “heard” but more the quiet after a long exertion and this film, all two hours and forty minutes of it, was hard work.
Silence is Martin Scorsese’s “Schindler’s List.” It is a beautiful looking film about a subject matter that is gut-wrenchingly inhuman. And like the movie about the Holocaust, is it a worthy film I will never see again. Like all Scorsese films for me, there is much to admire in Silence. But also like all Scorsese films — at least for me - there is always some obligatory theme or individual scene that makes me bristle either on an artistic or spiritual level. The artistry of this film is magnificent — which leaves me with a spiritual bone to pick. Unlike the classic film director Frank Capra from the 30s and 40s who always seemed to have his deep Catholic faith bubble up to the surface in his films, Scorsese’s Catholic doubt claws its way through his entire oeuvre. In other words, I should have realized before walking into the theater that sooner or later Silence was going to turn into a Martin Scorsese movie.
I walked into the theater nearly three hours earlier with no illusions of expecting to see beams of light and angelic voices bringing comfort and joy. Ironically, there is an otherworldly voice in this film but it is encouraging sacrilege. Still, this is the most spiritually moving film Martin Scorsese is likely ever going to make and it is a film with some pretty deep speculations when it comes to faith and the trials that faith can throw in front of us.
Although well-crafted and capable of giving a scintilla of hope of faith restored and forgiveness granted — the film is mostly swamped tsunami-like by the doubt that Scorsese wraps himself in and wears like a shroud.
I don’t think it was intended but as I watched this film and listened to the words being uttered by the main apostate priest and the Japanese masters toward the lone priest hold out in the film, their words made me think of Jesus in the desert or Eve in the garden.
And in what I’m sure Scorsese saw as a pivotal scene in the film, when the Liam Neeson character explains to the priest protagonist that the peasants, due to their culture, are incapable of understanding the Son of God the way westerners do, it denigrates the martyrdom these faith illed people suffered and also smacks of cultural imperialism.
The scandal of the cross is the ultimate counter-cultural event because it grates against all cultures from all times, whether the Shogunate ancestor worshippers of Japan, pagan Roman patricians, human sacrificing Aztec mystics or highly respected and revered Hollywood icons. To suggest one culture cannot understand the Gospel message is a little xenophobic nor all that accurate as the proof of the Church spreading throughout the world across cultures, across languages, bridging everything in its path attests to.
There has been a lot of talk about the concept of martyrdom and the apostasy that occurs in the film. Personally, I think the film is less about apostasy than it is on the efficacy of violent acts of physical, emotional and spiritual torture. No character in this film is reasoned or tempted out of his faith. Rather, he is subjected to ghastly episodes of the most intense forms of brutality imaginable which calls into question where the characters who suffered this treatment were even culpable of an act of apostasy.
It’s a powerful subject made all the more profound by its accuracy — but the story of the Church in Japan doesn’t end there. It would probably take a Frank Capra not a Martin Scorsese to appreciate the epilogue of what happened after last priest was either killed or turned into a vassal in the 1600s. Japan sealed herself off from all outside contact for more than 200 years. But in 1865 Japan re-opened to the world and a Catholic priest was allowed back on Japanese soil. He was asked by a peasant woman if he was a priest sent by the pope. To his utter amazement he discovered that for 250 years the Church endured in Japan without clergy and under extreme hardship…and in “silence.”
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.