SILENCE (2016) – Film Review

Rarely has a director of Martin Scorsese’s caliber tackled such weighty religious themes head-on with such heartfelt passion. As such, Silence is not an insignificant film. The controversial story has, unsurprisingly, met with a wide variety of responses; it has been called “one of the finest religious movies ever made,” as well as an egregious “subversion of the Christian faith.”

Since the movie came out last year, most everyone has had his or her say. I’m not sure if anything new can be added to the voices that have already spoken. Still, I didn’t get a chance to see Silence until recently, and, for what it’s worth, still wanted to write down my thoughts. [Insert joke about me not wanting to remain silent about Silence.]

WARNING: There is no way to deal with the thematic elements of this film without revealing major spoilers. In fact, I’m going to enter Spoiler Land and set up camp there. I might even start a fire and cook some S’mores. Yes, this could get sticky.

As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: potentially objectionable content (C), artistic merit (A), and my personal opinions (P).

CONTENT (C): +8/-8, for a total of 0 out of 10

In this section of a movie review, I typically deal with material that some might find offensive or problematic. In Silence, there is definitely violence involved in the torture of Japanese villagers—although, with the exception of one swift beheading, there is very little blood or gore involved.

The most controversial element of the film is how it handles the topic of apostasy. Regarding that in particular, it seems fairly obvious that Scorsese’s intentions are not to undermine the Christian faith. The ministry of the gospel is taken seriously, as are sacrifices made by both Japanese and European characters in the story. The hostility toward Christianity in the film is shown for what it is: evil. At the end, the film is even explicitly dedicated to “Japanese Christians and their pastors.”

To quote Steven D. Greydanus in his review of another controversial Scorsese film, “we must not be too quick to judge any particular portrait of Christ [or His people] merely because it challenges our expectations or makes us uncomfortable.” This sentiment applies to Silence as well. The movie makes us uncomfortable in different ways—some good (hence, the positive content rating), and some bad (hence, the negative—as well as the overall—content rating). I will explore the misfires in-depth in the final section of this review.

ATRISTRY (A): 8 out of 10

Artistically speaking, there is little to critique. Silence is obviously a labor of love by a gifted filmmaker. It received an Oscar nomination for cinematography (and rightly so), but I think it deserves more—including, at the very least, Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Liam Neeson. Even though Neeson’s role is more of a glorified cameo, his performance as a compromised priest is infused with a gravitas that arrests the viewer’s attention. He is, for different reasons, both the best and the worst part about the movie. (I’ll explain the “worst part” in more detail in just a minute.)
If more faith-based films displayed this level of artistry, both in front of and behind the camera, the world would be a better place. Alas and alack, that is not the case. In comparison with Silence, the common faith-based film is utterly repugnant and artless—what one might call enterdreckment.

I was surprised, however, by just how many continuity errors there are in Silence. I have never noticed so many instances in one movie before. They’re nothing to derail the film, but they do stick out like…well, like a Caucasian priest in a Japanese village.

PREFERENCE (P): 5 out of 10

In some scenes, Silence paints a fairly cut-and-dried picture of apostasy and martyrdom—especially when the malicious government officials first appear on the scene. They command a group of villagers to stamp on a fumie—softly, if necessary. They are told it is “just a formality.” And yet when the villagers (including some who are Christians) place their foot on the fumie, they do so with such little conviction that the government authorities demand a further display of apostasy: the villagers must spit on an image of the cross.

Why give a more harsh command if all they are looking for is “just a formality”? Because they know what they are asking for is not a mere formality. By forsaking any profession of faith, Christians are forsaking faith itself. And when the Japanese believers are faced with a choice between denying their faith (by spitting on an image of Christ) and dying, they choose to die.

Anyone familiar with the storyline of Silence is aware that “cut and dried” is not an adequate description of the film as a whole. That is because additional variables are involved when the priests themselves experience persecution. Their moral dilemma is ghastly: renounce their faith publicly or watch as Japanese villagers are tortured in their place.

The movie climaxes when the main protagonist, Father Rodrigues, steps on a fumie himself. This act comes out of great anguish, and only after he has been hounded by Ferreira (Liam Neeson), his former mentor who himself has long since apostatized. Rather than arguing that it is “just a formality,” Ferreira proposes that stepping on the fumie would actually be a meritorious act to save innocent sufferers. “What would you do for them?” he asks. “Pray? And get what in return? Only more suffering. A suffering only you can end. Not God!” Ferreira even goes so far as to say, “To give up your faith is the most painful act of love.” In a moment of intense temptation, these are seductive words. The whole scene reminds me of Eve in the garden, or Christ in the desert, facing the cunning deception of a crafty enemy. The outcome promised is certainly attractive.

Based on other reviews I have read, some people see this moment in the film as a turning point for Rodrigues. His pride has become more and more apparent to the audience, up until the point where he caves in and apostatizes. This act shows him coming to the end of himself as he acknowledges his limitations. By stepping on the fumie, he begins the process of crawling out of the shell of his ethnocentrism, no longer seeing himself as the imperialist savior of the people of Japan. His apostasy is, ironically, a movement from pride to humility.

It is true that Rodrigues’ pride becomes more and more apparent as the movie progresses. It shows up in a small statement here and there. It is revealed in how he corrects the villagers in their pronunciation of the word “paradise” so that they use the proper—i.e., European—term. Later in the film, his pride becomes strikingly evident in how he reacts when coming face-to-face with the apostasy of Ferreira. Rodrigues is not broken over Ferreira’s compromises so much as he is condescendingly disgusted with them. His initial response to Ferreira reveals not godly sorrow over a wounded (at best) or lost (at worst) faith, but rather a haughty and worldly condemnation of another human being.

However, I do not see Rodrigues’ apostasy as a character arc from pride to humility. He is simply trading in one form of pride for another. Before, his pride revealed itself in a type of messiah complex: he had an inflated view of his perceptions and abilities in contrast with those of others. There was never a possibility in his mind that anyone other than him knew what was best. (One example is when he encourages a group of peasants to consider stomping on a fumie to avoid persecution, to which another priest, Father Garupe, rightly responds with correction.)

It is true that with his apostasy, Rodrigues’ confidence in himself is, in a sense, shattered. As a result, what’s on the surface changes, but what’s inside remains: pride. A pride that says it can renounce his faith to serve his neighbor so that he may maintain his faith in service to his neighbor. Rodrigues has decided to follow God and serve his fellow man on his own terms. His arc is destructive, not redemptive. To quote Steven D. Greydanus again, “Perhaps Silence is a true tragedy in the classical sense, in which a virtuous man is undone by a fatal flaw.”

Yes, the situation is complicated by the nature of the threat against Rodrigues and the other priests. They are not given a simple and straightforward choice between denying the faith and dying a martyr’s death; they are given the choice between denying the faith and watching others suffer torture at their expense. It is an especially harsh and sadistic burden forced on their shoulders. I do not wish to minimize the moral and psychological anguish this places on them. Were I in Rodrigues’ shoes, would I still stand firm? I can’t say for sure.

What I can say for sure is that there is actually a third option, and it is the option taken by Father Garupe. Rather than stand by as others are tortured in his stead, he rushes to the rescue with such passionate selflessness that he himself is also killed. It is not the glorious kind of death that Rodrigues would have wanted for himself, but it is a glorious death from an eternal perspective: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). In his death, Garupe avoids being counted among those who have “trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:29).

In stark contrast to Garupe’s final moments, Rodrigues’ final years are described in the movie with these words: “[he] never acknowledged the Christian God. Not by word or symbol. He never spoke of him and never prayed.”

The ultimate problem with Silence is not that it asks us to sympathize with Rodrigues’ temptations and failings. Such sympathy is warranted. The ultimate problem with Silence is that it leads the viewer to not only sympathize with Rodrigues’ apostasy, but also to legitimize it. For the rest of his life, Rodrigues is forced into repeated demonstrations of a denial of his faith. We are asked to consider that these demonstrations can be, as the Japanese officials claimed earlier on, just a formality.

Silence postulates that it is possible to live an innocuous Christian life, in which all public pretense of faith is stripped away. Whereas Christ condemned those who repeatedly blessed God with their lips while their hearts were far from Him (Mark 7:6), Scorsese asks us to at least consider approving of those who repeatedly curse God with their lips (or feet) but whose hearts clandestinely draw near. Such a prospect may seem attractive within our modern cultural milieu, but not within the framework of historical Christianity.

At times, Scorsese has crafted works of art that have ended up communicating something other than what he purposed. It appears that he did not set out to blaspheme Christ with The Last Temptation of Christ, but that ended up being the end result—a fact which even Roger Ebert (who loved the film) conceded. Scorsese did not attempt to glorify vice with The Wolf of Wall Street, but that ended up being an unintended consequence. Nuance and ambiguity gave way to inadvertent mixed messages.

Similarly, Silence does at times display nuance and ambiguity, but the denouement—including the final shot of the film—settles not for complexity so much as a cacophony of disjointed, and ultimately contradictory, sentiments. For these reasons, Silence unfortunately earns the lowest movie rating I have yet given.

CAP score: 43%