Why isn’t God answering? 

Andy Stowe reviews Silence by Martin Scorsese.  

Any film about Jesuit missionaries that has Ad maiorem Dei gloriam (for the greater glory of God), the Catholic order’s motto, as the opening of the end credits is telling you that it is a seriously religious film. Martin Scorsese left no doubt about that when he showed his awe inspiring new work to an audience of 300 Jesuit priests and then met Pope Francis.  

Silence is based on the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Catholic, and in his introduction to a new edition to tie in with the film Scorsese writes that it is “the story of a man who learns – so painfully – that God’s love is more mysterious than he knows…”

The director’s treatment of the text is as reverential as his introduction and meeting with the Pope would suggest and much of the adverse criticism has been from reviewers who make a virtue out of not taking religion or ideas other than glib liberalism too seriously. This exploration of how much we are entitled to make other people suffer for our idea of ourselves is one of the best things Scorsese has done and it is as effective for atheists as it is for religious believers. 

Catholic missionaries started travelling to China and Japan in the 1540s. Liam Matthew Brockley’s book Journey To The East  is recommended for anyone who wants to learn more about how the Jesuits established a significant presence in China. Their co-founder Francis Xavier went to Japan in 1549 and within fifty years there were an estimated 300 000 Japanese Christians. Endo’s novel is set at the end of a long period of persecution in which several thousand Christians had been tortured to death and virtually all  the priests have been deported or killed.

The obvious point to be made here is that at precisely the same time Christians were torturing each other to death in post-Reformation Europe and were butchering their way through Central and South America in the name of merciful Jesus. They weren’t really in a position to take the moral high ground but this is not something Scorsese alludes to.  

His focus is on Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and, to a lesser extent, Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) who travelled to Japan because they have heard that their mentor  Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has apostasised under torture. They prefer to believe that it’s a lie because if it were true it would discredit the entire Catholic Church. 

Arriving in Japan they are faced with the extent of the persecution. Successive shoguns have taken a strategic decision to extirpate the alien religion and we can be absolutely certain that Buddhist missionaries arriving in Portugal or Spain at the same time would have had a similar fate. The political justification offered is unarguable. Holland, England, Spain and Portugal have been using Christianity to gain influence in Japan. The theological argument is more subtle – that Japanese culture doesn’t permit the Christian concept of an omnipotent transcendent god. And the state religion Buddhism is shown to be as sophisticated and elaborate as Christianity.  

 This opens up another unresolved question. In spite of a persecution which meant being tortured to death, the religion did survive in large numbers of peasant communities who found it more attractive than the one their rulers wanted them to adopt. In common with many religious believers their attention was grabbed by the idea of an eternity without hunger, pain and suffering rather than high doctrine. 

Rodrigues is eventually betrayed by a deeply traumatised torture survivor and the heart of the film is the intellectual duel between him and his inquisitor Inoue, a man who has shrewdly worked out the weakness of a priest’s willingness to embrace martyrdom. The silence of the title refers to the Christian god’s refusal to communicate with Rodrigues during his ordeal and yet no great leap of imagination is needed to see in his experience what any anti-fascist held by the Nazis or Nelson Mandela must have gone through. Despair and questioning of the ideas that shape your identity must become inevitable at such times. It’s all about how you face them down. Rodrigues chooses to accept the opprobrium of apostasy and it’s for the viewer to decide if Scorsese is right when he says that his religion needs both Jesus and Judas.    

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