By Alex Doe
“I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?”
These are the words uttered by father Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit Priest (Andrew Garfield) who is sworn to find and bring back his mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) from a 1640, anti-Christian Japan. Rodrigues, alongside his fellow missionary, Father Garupe (Adam Driver) are director Martin Scorsese’s two soldiers for Christendom in a country which is described by its leaders as a “swamp” in which Christianity cannot grow. The task is large, if not impossible, in a great story guided by the direction of man that most relates to New York Mob violence, Robert Deniro, and Wall Street Tycoons addicted to Quaaludes. Nonetheless, Scorsese notably delivers this story in a dramatic, cinematic fashion that articulately portrays a piece of a historic persecution with which most are unfamiliar . Silence is a tale of what one undergoes when holding a zealous belief in a land where that is punishable by death, and – in the case of Rodrigues – cause another to suffer the most egregious torture. As a counterpoint, the film also lays out themes of hypocrisy in religion, as well as the idea of Imperialism.
While the film itself lays its foundation on the two missionaries rescuing their fellow friar, it is also a window into 17th century Japan. During this period Japan was formally a feudal administrative system (Danka Seido) which required its citizens to be affiliated with a particular Buddhist temple. This in turn helped to monitor and detect minority devoted Christians who were seen as threat to the traditional Japanese state. In Silence, the state is represented by the ruthless Inquisitor who exposes fervent believers by subjecting them to a test of apostasy. The task is a simple – “only a formality” – to lay one’s foot on a tablet with Christ’s impression. The penalty for loyalty however, is torture followed slowly by death.
Scorsese is no stranger to violence. Many of his films are built around it. Unflinchingly graphic and realistic violence, in fact. Believers lashed to crosses while being plastered by rising tides or being wrapped in straw mats and burned alive, or possibly – for the lucky – a quick beheading by a sharpened Katana. These are the threats that are forced upon the Christian minority.
While Scorsese accurately portrays the obedience, as well as the fear, of the Christian peasant from the state, he also captures the fear and doubts of the shepherds of the sheep. A major theme of Silence is in fact right in the title: the silence of god and the absence of justice. Why does God subject his followers to utter pain, embarrassment, and suffering? These are the questions Rodrigues asks as he sees his fellow man perish. Rodrigues is time and time again called to apostatize to cease the torture of many prisoners. A moral dilemma arises out of the film. Is it worth the renunciation of faith, the scare of hellfire, to end the suffering of others? On the other hand, other hypocrisy is easily seen by the “Buddhist” inquisition as they torture and kill their Christian prisoners. A major precept that is part of the Buddhist tradition is the abstention from violence and actions that cause the suffering of living beings. As the movie shows the ideologies of religions and governments rarely add up in the real world actions of their followers.
Maneuvering into another theme that also relates to government is Scorsese’s look at imperialism. Christianity was unarguably a catalyst for the European Renaissance, with Rodrigues and Garupe embodying western European Christianity in its quest to evangelize every living soul. The Japanese feudal system, however, was in complete contradiction to this idea, made very clear by a story told by the Inquisitor involving 4 concubines (Portugal, Holland, England, and France) and a King (Japan) who found that it was in his best interest to let the women go and find peace by himself. Scorsese looks at this impasse very nicely. Japan wants its own identity, but at the price of the beliefs of its people. On the other hand, it is the drive of the Christian ministry which pushes the inquisition harder. Turning again to the moral dilemma that Silence gives us, a question is asked by father Ferreira. “Do you have the right, to make them suffer?” The film forces the viewer to ponder the question.
While Silence begs many questions, it also leaves the viewer with many emotions. While the film can be ambiguous at times, the story is nonetheless moving and powerful. Garfield and Driver deliver spectacular performances, the scenery is beautiful, and the story is mesmerizing. And the two larger themes of hypocrisy in religion and imperialism that are central to the film are important for the viewer to meditate on. I, myself, am still meditating on it.