Silence [R] 2016.
Wikipedia page. Anthony Lane, New Yorker, “Martin Scorsese’s Strained ‘Silence'”; John Patterson, The Guardian, “Silence: Scorsese’s new film is not worth making a noise about”; Emma Green, The Atlantic, “Martin Scorsese’s Radical Act of Turning Theology Into Art”; Paul Elie, New York Times, “The Passion of Martin Scorsese”
There are some emotions that are beyond language, and my feelings after watching Silence fall deep into that category. While I can write some observations, there is a visceral energy that is resonating in my soul that is hard–if not impossible–to articulate. At best, I can say that there is a sense of horrific tragedy, anthropological and psychological curiosity, an excruciatingly deep despair and sadness, and a hopeful empathy, all of which are conspiring to hijack my own personal spiritual grounding.
On the face of it, Silence betrays the utter failings of all of humanity’s endeavors. In an effort to make sense of this world, the stories we tell ourselves and the narratives that make the most sense to us are in essence the true embodiment of “sin,” that which falls short or misses the mark. The Catholic faith of the priests in the “soil” of Japanese thinking and culture either ends in persecution or disdain. The philosophies of Japanese ideals could not sustain the populace except by condemnation of any variation, especially of a foreign persuasion. Both do not meet the criteria for being a “universal truth,” or even a “truth” insofar as philosophy would define it. And, if that were not enough, the solutions to both of these dilemmas are so wrought with agony as to cause one to consider the meaning of life in the most existentially subversive and undercutting way imaginable.
Perhaps this is why stories like Silence are not meant to be understood “on its face,” (i.e., “on the surface.”) To watch Silence simply as a “movie,” is to dehumanize its presentation. I opine that Silence illustrated so beautifully–and painfully- why stories and narratives, even with their failings and shortcomings, really are the “truest” thing about the human experience. As has been demonstrated many times before, we will sooner give up our security and safety than give up our beliefs and ultimate convictions. This is quite profoundly displayed through the cinematography as the question of whether the physical suffering of torture was worse than the priest’s existential crisis. Honestly, it’s hard to tell. And that may be the point, if a “point” could ever be made about such an excruciating journey.
There is perhaps one philosophical quandary that is shown, but never resolved, perhaps because it is perniciously subtle, yet, I find it to be clear and perplexing. Much of the “faith” and the “beliefs” of the priests (and of many religions in addition to Catholicism) is most true when a person is “personally convicted,” holding to or subscribing to an internal emotional/mental position, posture, or belief. The outer expressions of sacraments and religious practices are, most certainly, secondary to one’s inner spirit. Yet, much is made in this inquisition to publicly display a state of apostasy by stepping on a physical object (albeit a representation of your personal allegiance), disdaining a tangible practice, or voicing a renunciation. How can these two paradoxical expressions of faith be truly reconciled, especially in the context of severe persecution? It is only near the end of the film that we “hear the voice of Jesus” say, “Go ahead, step on me.” Likewise, it seems that it is only near the end of our wits that we come to terms with the physical expression being inconsequential in comparison to the inner conviction, as is alluded to at the end when (spoiler alert) Sebastião Rodrigues is suggested as still holding on to a crucifix, even in death, though his public confession had been one of renunciation. I don’t know if I have any resolution to this. It is simply a paradox, a dilemma, a quandary, and an inconsistency that would be dissatisfying if ever philosophically resolved.
I suppose it would be good to now read the book.
Before I get to the quotes, a friend of mine added his own comments that I thought were worth noting:
One thought you didn’t bring up that stuck out to me was, “Why would non-Christians ever care about this?” The movie meant so much to me, especially as someone who bore some cost to becoming a Christian (though obviously nowhere near as much as those in the movie). But it’s hard for me to imagine a typical non-religious millennial identifying with the characters or drama. One early negative review reflected that by saying something like the movie is just long and uninteresting. I obviously think that even for someone unconnected to faith, the movie can raise some great questions that are worth thinking through, it just might be an uphill battle.
Some quotes that punched me in the gut were when the Inquisitor said to Andrew Garfield, “I didn’t defeat you, Japan did.” It was heartbreaking to me; as if he was saying the equivalent of, “I didn’t defeat your Jesus, the Empire did.” Of course if you watch the movie the whole way through, you realize the Inquisitor’s report of the death of Christianity in Japan was premature.
Another quote was when Liam Neeson was debating Garfield for the first time and pointed to the sky and said, “Sun of God”. It speaks to this enormous challenge of translating Jesus, and complex doctrines like the trinity, across cultures. And with every culture, there will always be an element of syncretism, and we all have to wrestle with how much syncretism is necessary to merely understand Jesus in one’s own context, and how much is robbing Jesus of his culture-confronting powers and simply making him a Japanese- (or American-) friendly Jesus. Again, as someone who keeps up with how Jesus is understood in Arab countries, the struggle especially resonated with me.