Christians Aren’t Embracing Scorsese’s Silence, Nor Should They

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Liam Neeson in a scene from Silence.

By Esther O'Reilly Published on February 1, 2017

When the trailer dropped for Silence, Martin Scorsese’s decades-gestating passion project, I was intrigued. I knew nothing about Shusaku Endo’s original novel, though I was wary of Scorsese based on his reputation for work like The Last Temptation of Christ. But this story about two young Jesuit missionaries in the heart of hostile 17th-century Japan looked like a gripping, albeit disturbing examination of martyrdom and persecution.

And it had a cracker-jack cast to boot: Andrew Garfield, turning in yet another stellar performance on the heels of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, Adam Driver flexing his dramatic muscles, and Liam Neeson, about whom little needs to be said. Needless to say, Silence immediately shot to the top of my must-see list.

Unfortunately, several early think-pieces spoiled the ending of the story before I had a chance to read the novel. Still, I read it anyway. The first half is grim but uplifting in equal measure, as we see peasant martyrs display an almost super-human courage in the face of unspeakable brutality. But I knew what was coming. And for that reason, interested as I still was in seeing the film, it no longer topped my must-see list.

It appears not to be topping anyone else’s lists either. It went wide at the beginning of 2017 after a listless promotion campaign and a too-late limited release at the end of the year kept it from generating much buzz with Oscar voters. It was almost completely shut out of the nominations, with the exception of a (well-deserved) cinematography nod. Meanwhile, it’s done about 4 million at the box office, a disastrous loss on a forty-million-dollar film whose actors already took significant pay cuts.

There are many reasons for this, some of which those critics who did see the film have pointed out. Like “Who exactly IS going to sit through a punishingly long, terminally bleak Catholic epic, even to watch Spider-Man and Kylo Ren search for Qui-Gon Jinn?”

Well, Christians, right? Supposedly? This is, after all, a film that dedicates itself in its opening credits to “Japanese Christians and their pastors.” But the evangelical church blocs who dominated entire theaters to see The Passion, God’s Not Dead and War Room are nowhere in sight.

What happened? Jared Wilson at The Gospel Coalition believes there are many contributing factors, but one “huge turn-off to evangelicals” is its “ambiguity.” He writes, “The narrative artistry found in books and movies like Silence are [sic] not suited for tastes accustomed to treacly inspirational music on the radio and the kinds of books found in the ECPA’s Top 100. There is a reason you don’t find literary novels in the Christian bookstore. It’s the same reason movies with Silence’s artistic pedigree don’t appeal.”

In the end, Silence does not represent “Christian values.” Quite the opposite, in fact.

Elsewhere, Wilson scolds, “Here’s perhaps America’s greatest filmmaker producing a movie that represents Christian values — and tells an historically important Christian story — and while we won’t go see it, we’ll go on complaining anyway that ‘Hollywood doesn’t represent our values.'”

That would be a nice lecture if it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that in the end, Silence does not represent “Christian values.” Quite the opposite, in fact.

The focal point of the story is a terrible dilemma forced upon its protagonist, Father Rodrigues (Garfield). Knowing full well that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, the Japanese authorities have determined to break the church from the top down, by inducing its priests to apostatize. Like Fr. Ferreira, the mentor he came to seek, Rodrigues is forced to choose between trampling on a graven image of Christ and watching his beloved converts die slow, torturous deaths. “They’re not dying for Christ,” taunts the inquisitor. “They’re dying for you.”

His companion, Fr. Garrpe (Driver), is separately given the same choice but remains strong to the end, providing one of the book and film’s stand-out scenes. But this is ultimately Rodrigues’s story, and it reaches its climax when he makes his decision: Trample. This also marks the moment when the oppressive “silence” of God is dramatically broken. Unfortunately, it is broken in the worst possible way, as the Christ of the fumie — the image — audibly urges Rodrigues to trample on it.

In short, Silence excuses and affirms doing evil that good may come.

No relief is provided in the book’s bleak epilogue. Apostasy becomes a way of life for Rodrigues, as he cooperates with his old mentor to purge Japan of Christian articles and renews his own renunciation to the authorities on a daily basis. He takes a Japanese wife and lives out the rest of his days as a pawn of the state. Like his mentor before him, he puts his disavowal of his faith in writing.

One of the only places where book and film diverge is in Scorsese’s very last shot: As the camera zooms in on Rodrigues’s Buddhist funeral pyre, it shows a crucifix cupped in his hands, slipped there by his wife. However, this shot is in the spirit of the book, which shows by repeated divine affirmation and inner monologues that Rodrigues still secretly considers himself a follower of Christ, just not in a way the Church who has ostracized him will understand.

In short, Silence excuses and affirms doing evil that good may come. It puts words in Christ’s mouth that fly in the face of his explicit teachings. This is not merely “ambiguous.” It’s blasphemous.

Yes to Excellence, No to Blasphemy

It’s a shame, because there’s a grain of truth to what Wilson is saying. He’s right that there’s an artistic disconnect among many Christians. He’s right that too many evangelicals are like Remy’s brother in Ratatouille: so used to a steady diet of junk that they are incapable of appreciating gourmet food when it’s put in front of them. And he’s right that, consequently, a lot of fine Catholic art which deals more in suffering and sadness than in tidy happy endings is ignored by the wider Christian masses. This is a conversation worth having.

But Silence is the wrong conversation-starter. Literate, conservative Catholics, including Japanese Catholics, were rejecting this work long before there was such a thing as CCM music or a Christian movie industry. You’re not going to pin this one on Protestant evangelicals who loved God’s Not Dead. If Wilson wants to broaden their horizons, a murky apologetic for apostasy is not the place to start.

If the Church is ever to move the conversation about faith and art forward, we need more categories than bargain bin kitsch and well-made but pernicious distortions of the faith. We need to lose the snobbery that assumes you must be a fan of the one if you reject the other. We need a united coalition of Protestants and Catholics willing to say yes to excellence, no to blasphemy.

Is that too much to ask?

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  • Olaf

    I did not read the book, but I saw the film. I had a pretty bleak outlook during the film about it’s purpose. Especially the Japanese translator comes through so slick and logic: “Japan is a swamp in which the Christian tree will not grow”, but I soon realized that this was just the voice of the devil. The last scene was powerfully positive to me: Rodrigues was still a Christian, he and his wife. He was such a clever ‘kakure kirishitan’ (hidden Christians) that even we as movie goers could not know it – much less his evil persecutors. Only God knows how many people he pastored to while being underground!
    Also, the person of Kichijiro is so much like me: always falling, always doing what he does not want to do, but Jesus is always taking him back and forgiving his sins.

  • Braden_Campbell

    Didn’t Jesus come to earth in order to be “trampled”, crushed for mankind’s inequities so that those who believe in him might live?

    • m-nj

      ahhh, nope….

      Luke 14:26

      “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” -Jesus

      Luke 17:33

      “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.” -Jesus

      while “life” in these verses broadly denotes that we turn over our wills to the Lord, it can and certainly has been expressed in loss of physical life here and now, e.g., martyrdom

      and further

      John 15:18-20a
      18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.

    • Kurt

      Excellent point. In fact, the book (I haven’t seen the film) makes this very point and is one of the motives of Rodrigues for trampling.

    • Ken Abbott

      Yes. Once for all (Hebrews 9-10). It is finished, done. Not to be repeated. And now he sits at the Father’s right hand in glory, reigning and interceding for his people.

  • Char B

    Yes to excellence, no to blasphemy.

  • BTP

    I disagree. I read the book and haven’t yet seen the movie. But it is obvious that the Japanese were effective in killing Christianity in Japan, and that they did it in pretty much the way the book explains. Failure is as much a part of the Christian story as success. For every Peter, a Judas.

  • Charles Burge

    The fact that Martin Scorsese directed it is pretty much a non-starter for me. After The Last Temptation of Christ, I don’t trust him to treat the subject of Christianity with respect.

  • Kurt

    I hardly call Silence blasphemous. The story is setting up a conundrum that is not easily solved (unlike many Christian films). Rodrigues must choose between rejecting his faith (in action only) and saving the lives of Japanese converts. His choice to trample the fumie (an image of Jesus’ face) is awful, but therein lies the intriguing conundrum-to do what he believes Christ would do in saving the sufferers, he must sully an image of that very Christ. To many who have read Endo’s novel, it is a story of faith trying to work itself out in the most heinous of circumstances.

    • Luke Schwanke

      Absolutely. I think the author of the article has failed to appreciate the depth of the film, particularly given the insight offered by the original Endo novel…

      • Artes DeLucca

        This author is one of those “Christians” who only looks at superficial things, and is apparently incapable of appreciating things from the point of view of the Artists / Writers. She knee-jerk makes dumb conclusions which only attack Our Lord’s call for us all to expose sin, wherever there is suppression and ‘Silence’. The movie is a metaphor for what is going on now in the world, and in the USA. How could she miss it?

    • Right. It’s a question of which takes priority: Matt 10:33 against Matt 25 and the parable of the Good Samaritan. And then you can look at Mark 3:1-6 and see that Jesus picks mercy over law. And you can also look at First Corinthnians chapter 13 where Paul stipulates that between faith, hope, and charity, charity is the “greatest” commandment. Though certainly within the realm of argument, Endo in my opinion has picked the correct choice.

  • Luke Schwanke

    It seems that the author of this article may have missed many of the more nuanced themes present in Silence. The “blasphemy” dilemma was the low hanging fruit that some people may have understandably failed to see past and beyond to the more interesting questions of faith and philosophy… Pretty disappointing to see such a intellectually deficient article appear on The Stream.

    • Artes DeLucca

      Exactly. More than disappointing, shameful. The movie is an important metaphor for what is going on today in the world and here in the USA. Fellow believers such as Kim Davis jailed merely for refusing to violate her beliefs on traditional marriage when she was asked to issue a license to a couple that was attacking the very Institution of Marriage, or for most of us having to “bow down” to the sell out of Roe v. Wade “or else” have our Pastors effectively jailed or hunted down by the IRS. How could that have been missed?! There is not a single mention of this in this horrible knee-jerk stone-throwing Article. Not to mention the reason why Scorsese did not get proper theatrical distribution support for this, is due to the communist atheistic Hollywood, which also denied Gibson his $30m minimum needed for theatrical distribution for the ‘Passion’. Instead of helping poor Martin out, she only adds to the general evil of a dumbed-down faithless mob trying to ‘Silence’ this film, when it is one of the most important messages of our time. Shame, Esther! Shame! Please recant, and make corrections, now that you know!

      • ARB

        I’d hardly describe the article as viciously as you do (it seems to be absolutely fair in what it does say, regardless of the alleged oversight), nor Scorcese as glowingly (because he frankly isn’t worthy of such fawning).

        Even if the movie can act as the metaphor you’re suggesting, you’re still paying to watch someone fail, to collapse as a coward and betray everything he stands for, with the additional atrociously unfaithful depiction of Christ directly asking to have such betrayal exacted upon him. Even if your metaphor holds, it’s still a dressed-up version of depicting a booming voice from on high suddenly ringing out to Kim Davis saying “Yo, I totally get where you’re coming from, Sistah, I’m cool with you going along with re-defining that marriage thing I made and misleading millions into believing that the whole man+woman thing was a big typo in the Bible if getting fired makes you uncomfortable.” It’s exactly the same message that the radical left has been trying to beat into our heads since Obergefell; is it not a bit of a problem to you that the movie puts this same message *into the mouth of God Himself*?

    • The article does reflect how conservative Catholics have reacted to the film. I have not seen the film but read the novel several times. It’s a great novel. It doesn not endorse apostasy. It puts the requirements of saving the suffering (Matt 25 and else where, especially the parable of the Good Samaritan) in conflict with Matt 10:33. It presents the problem of which takes priority, not endorsing apostasy.

  • jayceej

    Recognizing that the stepping on the image is supposed to be symbolic, to me as a non-Catholic believer, choosing the lives of fellow believers over stepping on a man-made graven image would be a no-brainer. I might hate doing it, but it wouldn’t have had the effect on me as denying Christ or the Bible. Perhaps that is some clue why the film isn’t that meaningful to non-Catholics. (I didn’t see the movie, never heard of the book.)

    • Ken Abbott

      If I read the article correctly, it appears that the Japanese authorities saw trampling on the crucifix as a denial of Christ, an attempt to force the priest/missionaries to apostasize.

      • jayceej

        I agree, Ken, but his subsequent lifestyle seems as though he also felt that he committed an act of apostasy.

    • Mo86

      Yes, this is an excellent point. I haven’t seen the movie but I did recently finish reading the book.

      “Perhaps that is some clue why the film isn’t that meaningful to non-Catholics.”

      Exactly. At the same time, I am torn. In this situation, stepping on the image was seen and understood as renouncing the faith. But biblically, I don’t think it would have been. I hope I am never put in such a situation!

  • Craig Roberts

    Why would anyone with any sort of Christians convictions wish to see a movie that portrays someone losing their faith? The corrupt think it’s cool to see movies that show people sinking down to their level, but the faithful yearn for an uplifting experience that confirms, not craps-on, their beliefs.

  • Craig Roberts

    The theme is similar to ‘1984’ where the protagonist is tortured by the authorities and forced to renounce what he loves most. The problem is that neither movie has a real hero. Both protagonists cave under pressure and so neither can be considered a hero. Movies without heroes (even conflicted or slimy anti-heroes like gangsters) rarely do well at the box office.

  • Russell Board

    Read Makoto Fujimura’s book Silence and Beauty to get deeper insight into the film and especially the book, which examines themes of faith, failure and forgiveness, looks sympathetically at those believers (like most of us?) who aren’t heroic in their faith, and reveals much about the culture of Japan. Fujimura quotes a university professor who is among Japan’s most famous painters calling the trampled fumie “the best portrait of Christ I have ever seen.”

    • Mo86

      Thanks for this book recommendation. It’s on my Amazon Wish List!

  • Jake Drosselmeyer

    Ms. O’Reilly, thank you for yet another great article!! Anyone trashing this is completely missing your various spot-on points. Yes, it was an incredibly beautifully shot film, but it promotes the sort of faith our current culture wants kept “personal” and unspoken. The questions of doubt it raises are perfectly valid and known even to the strongest of faithful clergy, especially faced with such evil. Empathize as we might with Fr. Rodrigues’ plight, his actions make him no hero. His “internal faith” would have been declared anathema by the first century church, who coopted the term martyr, literally “witness!” There’s no “except when” in Jesus’ statement: “Whoever denies Me before men, him also will I deny before My Father.” The true heroes of this story are the Japanese martyrs. Around the great altar in the throne room of heaven there stands a multitude of such heroes robed in white, being asked to rest a little longer until their full number joins them.

  • A must read for all Silence movie-goers.

    Well reasoned. Well written.


  • Jim

    I just so happened to see this depressing film yesterday, the feast of St. Paul Miki. I found two of the main the characters to be unbelievable. The two young priests seemed more like first-year seminarians than well formed Jesuits of the 17th century. I also doubt that Jesuits would not have been able to refute the Buddhist/Shintoist arguments against their faith. The account of the Martyrs of Nagasaki is inspiring. This movie is not.

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