Review of Scorsese's "Silence": God's Strangled Word of Love

Having just celebrated the feast of Saint Paul Miki and Companions, it seems an opportune time for me to finally get around to reviewing Martin Scorsese's film Silence

It is a very good movie--one of his best. Surprisingly, given how violent Scorsese's movies can be, the Shusaku Endo novel on which this movie is based is a much harder experience: in the book, one feels the silence of God much more agonizingly and the torture is lingered over. 

Scorsese does a masterful job. The movie is a credit to Christianity (a powerful testament to sacramental Catholicism in particular), especially because it does not sugarcoat the ambiguity and brutality of the world that must actually be evangelized. It is an antidote for bourgeois Christianity, and that is medicine we all need.

The movie is a ringing endorsement of the reality of the Christian mystery, despite the seeming silence of God and the inhumanity of man. Endo in his novel makes a much more harrowing case for the absence or sadism of God, though I think the same fundamental affirmation of the faith is painfully attained through the novel. 

There have been criticisms of the movie (and a fortiori of the book) that it whitewashes apostasy. Though knowing there are earnest Christians who have this concern, I am worried about the pharisaism often bound up in this criticism, especially that particular flavor of pharisaism called Donatism, a heresy that Saint Augustine had to battle, a rigorism that would not allow the reintegration of clerics who had apostasized under Roman persecution. Donatist mercilessness in fact is profoundly Pelagian, another heresy which Saint Augustine had to contend with, for it made sacramental grace dependent on the "worthiness" of the celebrant rather than recognizing the priority of God's love. A Church of the pure is the Donatist/pharisaical vision. It is an absurdity and a blasphemy. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleans us from all injustice" (I John 1:8-9).

And it is always a temptation. It is grotesque to sit in judgment on those who have been tortured, and say, "Tsk, tsk, you are so evil for having apostasized." First, we make the assumption that we would not fail under the same circumstances. How in the world could we know that? Martyrdom is a grace. It is not a work of ours. (Again, Pelagianism and pharisaism are inextricable.)

Second, it is simply a failure of Christian charity. We cannot look at the tortured and have anything as our first and fundamental reaction except, "My dear brother, my dear sister, let me surround your broken body and soul with my burning heart." Even bracketing charity, any other reaction would be inhuman.

This is not to gloss over the fact that apostasy is an intrinsically evil act. It is. Of course. But it's moral theology 101 to recognize that renunciation of the faith under torture is not done freely. The act is morally impossible, objectively; subjectively, how could we possibly judge culpability? To do so would be essentially pharisaical. 

We should never water down the high and supernatural demands of Christianity. We should live a life of mortification precisely so that when the bell rings, we will not hesitate to part with status or money or comfort or life for the sake of the truth, for the sake of witnessing to the reality of Jesus Christ. There is no mitigating this requirement. A life lived in preparation for martyrdom is the only way to live the Christian life. So, yes, apostasy is just about the worst disaster that a Christian could succumb to. There can be no faith in the world if Christians do not live and die according to the rhythms of the invisible Kingdom of love. That is how the Kingdom breaks into materiality, how the divine life is incarnated: in the flesh of our temporal existence.

Let's make this even clearer: what should we teach our children in this regard? We should teach, and we should make clear by the conduct of our lives, that under no circumstances should one compromise one's commitment to the truth, one's commitment to witnessing to the reality of Jesus Christ. 

So, it is not that I disagree with those who have reservations about downplaying the gravity of apostasy. I just think many critics (leaving the pharisaical ones aside) misunderstand what Silence is presenting in the full subtlety of high art, which comprehends far more than systematic theology. I love the latter, but I love the former more--precisely because of my commitment to the amplitude and reality of truth.

We see in both the book and the movie that Endo makes clear the degrading effect of apostasy (even when sacramentally absolved) in the figure of Kichijiro. If one overlooks this character, one misses "the moral" of the story. Endo gets it completely correct: any sin can be forgiven--even repeated apostasy. God's mercy is very real. BUT. The temporal effects of sin are also real. Kichijiro becomes more and more craven with each failure. In that mirror, we are to recognize the cost to Fathers Ferreira and Rodrigues of their failures. Their subsequent lives of comfort are far more craven than Kichijiro's; they become comfortable anti-Christian tools of the state. Kichijiro at least always comes back for absolution. The sacramental reality has seized him at a fundamental level.

[A side note: Endo seems quite clearly to model his book off of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, which everyone should read. It is a technically flawless novel, and a profoundly true one. The isomorphisms between the two books include the characterizations: Kichijiro replays the half-caste, Inoue is the lieutenant, the apostate priests are repetitions of Padre José.]

The silence of God in the suffering of others begins to break Father Rodrigues. Those who would moralize about this would seem to have had no intimate experience of the dark night and of the pain of the world. From the novel: "They were martyred. But what a martyrdom! I had long read about martyrdom in the lives of the saints--how the souls of the martyrs had gone home to Heaven, how they had been filled with glory in Paradise, how the angels had blown trumpets. This was the splendid martyrdom I had often seen in my dreams. But the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians I now describe to you was no such glorious thing. What a miserable and painful business it was! The rain falls unceasingly on the sea. And the sea which killed them surges on uncannily--in silence."

At the climactic moment of the novel, Father Rodrigues is compelled to step on an iconic face of Jesus to save the lives of his sheep being tortured by being hung upside down in a pit above excrement with small cuts in their heads so that they bleed to death over several days. It is not morally insignificant (subjectively, though not objectively) that he apostasizes to save others and not himself. Again, who can judge him? We must judge the action as wrong, but who can judge this man at that moment? 

But then there is concern that in the book and the movie, Father Rodrigues hears what seems to be Christ's voice as he agonizes over the final moment of betrayal: "You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross." It seems to be a choice for solidarity with one's fellow-man ("social justice") over against the silence and indifference of God before our suffering. 

Now, this cannot simply be Christ's voice. The cock literally crows after Father Rodrigues steps on the fumie. I think the last two sentences truly are the voice of Jesus (they are simply true), and Satan is twisting that truth by framing those sentences with his own "you may trample." Again, who would judge Father Rodrigues for being moved by the screams of those entrusted to his care? And yet there is the objective fact: he does not go on to live a life in solidarity with his poor hunted flock. Rather, he serves state power and actively works against Christianity. He had been so full of real faith and the desire for martyrdom when he begged to be allowed to journey east. This is very grim tragedy.

For us, there can be no question of judging the tortured. There can only be the reality that the truest love for our neighbor will always be a total commitment to Jesus, that is, to infinite wisdom and love. Our lives are lived from Him and in Him. All good comes to us through Him, Who is broken for us, with us, in us. I want nothing else, nothing else than to make His presence tangible to my neighbor. Failing to live by faith in Jesus alone, despite the stratagems of the world, means depriving an often brutalized world of the only hope there is: in dark or day, Jesus the only way.