Silence is the story of two priests who travel from Rome to Japan in search of their former teacher, Father Ferreira, who is said to have apostatized* under persecution from the government. Father Ferreira wrote to Rome of these persecutions and of his commitment to suffer with the Japanese Christians. Rumors begin circulating that despite this commitment, Ferreira ultimately apostatized. Two of his pupils, Garrupe (Adam Driver) and Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), refuse to believe them and sail to Japan to vindicate their teacher.
Silence is at once beautiful and disquieting. Based on the book of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, Silence is a work of historical fiction revolving around the real persecutions of Christians** from the end of the 1500’s to the 1800’s. One central way the Government did this was to send officials from village to village and order the inhabitants to step upon a fumi-e (a picture of Jesus or Mary) as a way to recant their faith. If they refused, they died. If they recanted, they lived. There were also rewards for turning in Christians that effectively insulated the Christian communities, unable to trust anyone but themselves. I get the sense that this story is born out of Endō’s struggle with not only the continued legacy of these events but his own wrestling with what it means to be a Christian and what kind of God he actually believes in. The effect is deeply unsettling.
Several Judases and No Christs
There are four elements that particularly stuck with me seem and crucial to the story: the pride of the priests, power unquestioned, the role of Judas, and the role of the Spirit.
First, while the priests genuinely care for the vitality of their teacher and the condition of the local Christians, their sense of self importance is noxious. At one point when Rodrigues is traveling through the countryside he remarks that he is likely the last priest and that when he dies Japanese Christianity will die with him. I realize that I as a 21st century protestant undoubtedly see the world differently than a 17th century Catholic priest. That said it’s not only me who picks up on this self aggrandizing but the samurai. The samurai learn that killing the priests makes them martyrs*** . However, while the priests are prepared to suffer and glory in their suffering, their savior complex won’t allow them to watch local Christians suffer when they could intervene. Thus punishing the local Christians until the priests apostatize works to turn the priests and cut the people off from leadership.
This pride leads to the most curious element in the story: not once do the priests contradict the narrative that they are the ones with the power to save the people. In every way possible it is the government and their samurais who have the power to initiate these persecutions and to decide who lives, who dies, and what an acceptable confession can be. The people have a better concept of this which is why they insist on hiding the priests and conversely why the priests chafe at their secrecy. I believe the reluctance to question the government’s power increases the ability of the samurai to cleanse the country of as much of Christianity as they deem necessary.
Another way this pride manifests is in Rodrigues’ identification with Christ and the correlating identities of Kichijiro (their guide to Japan) with Judas and Inoue (the leader of the samurai) with Satan. Throughout the movie we see a reflection of Christ’s face superimposed on Rodriques’ and there is the running comparison of his time in Japan with Christ’s in Gethsemane. All these comparisons are inevitably poor fits. Notice how he seems shaken when the identity of Inoue is revealed. How could he possibly expect this evil deviser of torture and turner of priests to be the same man who rides into town smiling and prattling on about how this is all an unnecessary formality? It’s because he’s just a man.
Kichijiro for his part is perpetually disloyal to his faith, but is there a sadder character in this story? So affected by his initial apostasy and the murder of his family he feels unworthy of God’s love and a seemingly strong sense of self-hatred. That said, is there a character more loyal to Rodrigues than Kichijiro? The poor priest would like to be rid of him at several points but is unable to drive him away. [Spoilers] Further complicating this narrative of Kichijiro as Judas to Rodrigues’ Christ is that after the priest finally does apostatize a rooster crows three times. In the end we’re left with several Judases and no Christs except the one who speaks unexpectedly through the Fumi-e.
The Mystery of Salvation
Lastly, what do we make of Endō’s picture of salvation? Despite Rodrigues’ foretelling that the faith would die with him and Ferreira’s assertion that the Japanese never understood Christianity to begin with, the film is dedicated to the Japanese Christians and pastors. History tells us they were never wiped out, but what were they? All our usual litmus tests for faith seem illegitimate in light of their determined faith. Moreover what about Rodrigues? He regularly apostatizes, rejects his vocation, abstains from the sacraments, and shows no outward expression of faith until his death where we seem him gripping the crucifix. Weren’t all those seemingly faithless acts motivated by the voice of God? Was it in fact the voice of God? I have no solid answers but it seems Endō is deliberately trying to undermine our (perceived) ability to answer for someone else’s faith. He seems determined to leave us merely in the care of the Spirit and clinging to a God who is gripping us even when he appears silent.
I love both this movie and the book it brings to life. I believe Endō effectively calls into question the pride that can so easily infiltrate Christianity, challenges our perceptions of who Jesus is, and calls us instead to the God who shelters his people for 250 years in hiding and asks a priest to apostatize in service to himself. I’m still left with only a lapful of questions but I’m grateful for them and hope you will be too.
*A technical word for giving up your faith.
**I’m not sure if there were Protestants in Japan or only Catholic missionaries. Regardless they’re both Christians.
***St Paul Miki and his companions were martyred on Februrary 5th, 1597 and are celebrated on the 6th every year