Martin Scorsese’s new film “Silence,” about 17th-century Jesuit missionaries in Japan, recently opened worldwide. In the days following its release, I’ve been asked many questions by people who know that I served as one of the film’s consultants. Many of the questions were remarkably similar. And these same issues have bedeviled a few reviewers who seem not to have fully grasped some of the film’s significant religious themes. In general, reviewers who seem open to questions of faith have admired the film—some labelling it a masterpiece. Others, apparently less sympathetic to faith in general, have been less enthusiastic.
But even some thoughtful Christian observers seem to have missed a few essential themes. Or they have understood the themes but disagreed with the film’s approach to complicated questions about apostasy and discernment. Here are my answers to some of the most common questions, and misconceptions, about “Silence.”
Needless to say, these are my own perspectives. A work of art is open to multiple interpretations, so others will inevitably disagree. For the record, I’ve discussed many of these issues over the past two years with Mr. Scorsese, his co-screenwriter Jay Cocks, as well as the actors and the creative team. But I don’t speak for them. This is my own take. (And spoiler alert: I will be discussing several key scenes and the film’s conclusion.)
1. Why does Father Rodrigues apostatize?
First, a definition: apostasy means the renunciation of one’s faith. In the film, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has already been tortured, and, in a cruel twist, the Japanese authorities threatened that if the Jesuit priest did not apostatize, the Japanese Christians among whom he ministered would be tortured and killed. As the viewer knows from the start of the film, Ferreira chose to apostatize rather than see his friends suffer. “Ferreira is lost to us,” says the Jesuit Provincial to Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver). In the film, as in history, many other Jesuits and Japanese Christians are tortured and martyred.
As an aside, this threat—forcing a person to apostatize to prevent others from being tortured or killed—was seldom used on the martyrs. Typically, in Christian history, it is the person himself (or herself) who is tortured and martyred for his or her own beliefs.
Once captured, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe are confronted with a terrible dilemma: recant their faith and set the Japanese Christians free, or hold onto their faith and let others suffer. It is an almost impossible choice. Thus, both Jesuits are forced to “discern” in a complicated situation where there are no easy answers. Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe come from a world of black-and-white and are both forced to make painful decisions in a world of gray.
Some critics seem to have misunderstood the inherent difficulty of the choice. “Why didn’t they just step on the image of Jesus right away?” one journalist asked me.
This misses a key point. A Jesuit’s entire life is centered on Jesus, whom he knows through the Gospels, through the sacraments, through his ministry and through his prayer, especially through his experience of the Spiritual Exercises, a series of extended meditations on the life of Christ. Father Rodrigues is shown several times speaking aloud to Jesus, praying to Jesus and imagining Jesus’s face. Jesus is central for both real Jesuits and fictional Jesuits. Expecting the Jesuits simply to throw that relationship aside—to apostatize—is wholly unrealistic.
Only in the end, after several searing experiences that include his own physical suffering and witnessing the torture and execution of others, after long periods of agonizing prayer and, in particular, after hearing the voice of Christ in his prayer, does Father Rodrigues apostatize.
He apostatized not simply because he wished to save the lives of the Japanese Christians, but because this is what Christ asked him to do in prayer. Contrary to what some Christian critics have concluded, it is hardly a glorification of apostasy.
Confusing as it seems to some Christian viewers, Christ requests this contradictory act from his priest. It makes little sense to anyone, least of all to Father Rodrigues, who has assiduously resisted it for himself. Yet he does it. Because Jesus has asked him to.
How can we understand that theologically? Perhaps by looking at the experience of Jesus on the cross, as recorded in the Gospels. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus struggles mightily to understand God’s will, and says, “Father if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” He does not wish to die. But then he says, “Yet not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). Jesus does something that everyone in his circle opposes and misunderstands. Even Peter doesn’t want Jesus to suffer: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” (Mt. 16:22).The apostles do not want Jesus to suffer, much less to embrace the cross. It makes no sense to them.
Yet Jesus accepts his fate because this is what the Father asks. His actions make no sense outside of his relationship to the Father. Likewise, Father Rodrigues’s actions make no sense outside of his relationship to Christ. In a sense, there is nothing subtle here: He apostatizes, finally, because Christ asks him to. And for those who say that Christ would never ask something like that, ask yourself how the disciples felt when Jesus told them he would have to suffer and die.
Some of the discussion surrounding this movie may even reflect the debates going on inside the church today about Pope Francis’ emphasis on “discernment” for people facing complicated situations, where a black-and-white approach seems inadequate. A Jesuit friend felt the essential question the movie poses is: Can we trust that God works through a person’s conscience, and that God helps us discern the right path in complex situations, where the normal rules seem inadequate to the reality of the situation?
A Jesuit spiritual tradition may also be helpful here. In the Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius speaks of three levels, or “degrees,” of humility. The first level is when one does nothing morally wrong. In other words, one leads a good life. The second level is when a person who, when presented with the choice of riches or poverty, honor or disgrace, is free of the need for either. In other words, the person is free to accept whatever God desires, not being “attached” to one state or the other.
The third level of humility, the highest, is when a person is able to choose something dishonorable because it brings him or her closer to Christ. “I desire to be regarded as a useless fool for Christ, who before me was regarded as such,” in the words of the Spiritual Exercises. A person accepts being misunderstood, perhaps by everyone, just as Christ was.
This is what Father Rodrigues chooses, confusing as it may be to Christian Europe, to his Jesuit superiors—and even to modern-day filmgoers.
2. Does Father Rodrigues still believe in God after his apostasy?
To my mind, definitely. Mr. Scorsese’s film is clearer on this than the novel by Shusako Endo. The novel’s epilogue, told from the vantage of a Dutch clerk in Japan, who recounts the story of Father Rodrigues after his apostasy, leaves open the question of his faith. Frankly, I found the ending of the book maddeningly vague.
The film, however, leaves no doubt, as I see it. Severalscholarsbelieve this was Endo’s underlying intent: Rodrigues holds onto his faith even after his public apostasy. Mr. Scorsese and Mr. Cocks have given filmgoers an image to convey this interpretation: the magnificent final scene, which shows Rodrigues’s funeral rites, during which his Japanese wife inserts into the dead man’s hands his old crucifix, given to him by one of his Japanese Christian friends. When I first read the scene in the script I was deeply moved by this image of “holding on” to one’s faith.
My own interpretation is that Rodrigues’s wife grasped how important the crucifix was to her husband and, in turn, how important his faith was to him. It’s also important for viewers who doubt his faith to ask themselves why Rodrigues would have held onto this object if he no longer believed—especially at risk to himself and his family.
Admittedly, I am biased. I want Father Rodrigues to have held onto his faith, and when I first read the script I was grateful for this scene, clearer than the novel’s vague ending.
At the same time, I may understand Father Rodrigues’s position in a special way. As a Jesuit I know what it is like to encounter Jesus in the Spiritual Exercises. (By the way, so doesAndrew Garfield.) The notion that a Jesuit could suddenly disbelieve in the Jesus he had known for his entire Jesuit life seems absurd. Again, I am distinguishing this from the public apostasy. Even Father Ferreira, as subtly played by Liam Neeson, seems to reveal his discomfort with his public apostasy, as he shows in his conversation with Rodrigues. In the film, Ferreira’s words speak of apostasy but, to me, his face indicates he is still struggling with his decision.
But there is an easier way to see that Rodrigues still believes in God. At the end of the film, despite having publicly recanted his faith, he addresses God in prayer. “To this very day, everything I do, everything I’ve done speaks of him. It was in the silence that I heard your voice,” he says.
If he didn’t believe in God, he wouldn’t be speaking to God.
3. Is Kichijiro intended to be a comic character?
I’ve heard that the figure of Kichijiro, initially Rodrigues’s and Garupe’s Japanese guide, and later Rodrigues’s friend, elicited some chuckles in movie theaters. Kichijiro is, by his own admission, a sinful man. He repeatedly apostatizes and cravenly turns Rodrigues in to the Japanese authorities.
Time and again, Kichijiro returns to Rodrigues for confession, and towards the end of the film, after Rodrigues’s apostasy, he seeks out the former priest to hear his confession.
Some viewers have found Kichijiro’s manifold weaknesses and his repeated desire for confession amusing. I found it human. Who hasn’t struggled with a sin that comes back to haunt us? Who hasn’t felt embarrassed about repeatedly confessing the same sins? Who hasn’t longed for God’s forgiveness?
Towards the end of the film, this seemingly weak man also helps to bring Father Rodrigues back to his priesthood by seeking confession. In a moving scene, Father Rodrigues places his head on Kichijiro’s head, as if in prayer. Or absolution.
Kichijiro’s final scene may be the most mysterious. A Japanese authority notices a necklace around Kichijiro’s neck and rips it off. He opens the leather pouch and discovers a Christian image. Kichijiro is revealed as a Christian and is swiftly led away, presumably to die.
It took me three viewings to realize something: Kichijiro would become a traditional Christian martyr. Kichijiro would become the kind of person that Catholics would later venerate. How ironic that this “weak” man becomes the inadvertent hero, while the “stronger” man, Rodrigues, whose “martyrdom” is of a different type, will not be venerated. It is a mysterious meditation on sacrifice and martyrdom.
4. Why was God “silent”?
This is perhaps the most difficult theological question. It is not surprising that both Endo and Scorsese took the word as the title of the book and the film. Over and over, Father Rodrigues laments God’s silence. The meaning here, it would seem, is twofold.
First, Rodrigues does not experience God’s presence in his prayer, and he feels God’s absence in the lack of clarity over whether he should apostatize. Second, he feels that God is silent in not helping those being tortured and killed. The scene of the two Jesuits watching from afar as the Japanese Christians are crucified in the ocean depicts this torment.. They long for something to be “done” to prevent their deaths.
In the first case, there are numerous examples of devout Christians feeling distant from God. The best known contemporary example is St. Teresa of Calcutta, who experienced a long “dark night” of silence for many decades, until the end of her life. Endo’s book was written before the knowledge of Mother Teresa’s silence was made public, but he was aware of other saints who have experienced silence, for example, St. John of the Cross. Like St. Teresa of Calcutta, Rodrigues does not hear God’s voice in his prayer as he once did. This is painful, but not rare.
Yet by the end of the film, Rodrigues says that God was in “everything.” (The Jesuit way of saying this is “finding God in all things.”) “It was in the silence that I heard Your voice,” he says. Besides hearing the voice of Christ asking him to trample on the fumie, he recognizes that God was all around him, even if not speaking directly to him in his prayer. God may not have been speaking to him interiorly, he realizes, but exteriorly.
The second question is more difficult. Why does God “permit” the Japanese Christians and the Jesuits to suffer? This is the great theological “problem of suffering” or “problem of evil.” In short, “Why is there suffering?” As anyone who has experienced profound suffering knows, even the devout believer, there is no satisfying answer to this question.
Three Christian perspectives, however, may be helpful.
First, the Christian believes that Jesus, who himself underwent suffering, understands suffering and is close to the one who suffers. Second, as a refinement on that insight, some theologians speak of God suffering with those who suffer. Third, Christians believes that suffering is never the last word. There is always hope of the Resurrection, of new life not only for the one who suffers, but for humanity.
Where was God when the Japanese Christians were being tortured and crucified? I would suggest: With them, close to them, beside them and watching with as much anguish as Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe did as they watched their friends being crucified in the ocean.
5. Why were the missionaries there?
This was another common question among reviewers who faulted not simply the failure ofFathers Rodrigues and Garupe to apostatize quickly, but their very presence in Japan. Why were they there at all?
The history of Christian missionaries—in Japan and elsewhere—is a complicated one. Remember that when speaking about “Christian missionaries” we are talking about a 2,000-year history that begins with St. Paul and took place in almost every country in the world. Add to that the variety of the originating countries of the missionaries, and you get an idea of the complexity of the history. Even if we consider simply the era in which the film is set, the 17th century, almost every European country, was sending Christian missionaries abroad. Also, we must take into account the wide variety of approaches among the many Catholic religious orders active in the missionary field: Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans and so on. In some instances, missionary priests, brothers and sisters traveled with representatives of the colonial powers and were seen, rightly or wrongly, as adjuncts of these political actors.
But the missionaries came to these new lands to bring what they considered a gift of inestimable value to the people they would meet: the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Let us look at the case of Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe. Both have come to Japan to spread the Gospel. (We can reasonably presume their being sent from Portugal not simply to find Father Ferreira but later to remain in Japan.) They are bringing what they consider to be the most precious thing that they know to a new people: Jesus. Is it arrogant to say that they are bringing a gift? Others may think so, but not to my mind. Think of it as a physician wanting to bring medicine to someone he or she knows is in need. And doing so at peril to his or her own life.
In reality, Jesuit missionaries poured themselves out selflessly for the peoples among whom they ministered—enduring extraordinary physical hardships, mastering the local languages (even writing dictionaries for those languages, which are still in use), eating unfamiliar foods and working as hard as any of the people with whom they ministered. (Read the diaries of St. Jean de Brébeuf, one of the North American Martyrs, and his admonitions to his brother Jesuits that they needed to paddle their canoes as hard as the Hurons did, so as not to be seen as lazy.) This is called “inculturation,” a loving insertion of oneself into the local culture.
Jesuits both fictional and real did this out of love. Out of love for God and love for the peoples with whom they were ministering. If you doubt their motivation I would ask this: Would you leave behind all that you knew—your country, your language, your family, your friends, your food, your culture, your traditions—to travel across the globe at immense risk, in order to give a gift to a group of people whom you’d never met, a group of people whom many in your home country think are unworthy of being given that gift—knowing that you might be tortured and killed? To me that is an immense act of love.
In the end, “Silence” is about love. Or maybe loves. Father Rodrigues’s and Father Garupe’s love for their old mentor, Father Ferreira. The three Jesuits’ love for the Japanese people. Father Rodrigues’s intense love for Jesus Christ.
Most of all, Jesus’s love for him, for his brother Jesuits, for the people of Japan and for all of humanity. Understand love and you will understand “Silence.”