Martin Scorsese has a higher purpose in making films. He is not merely trying to entertain or provide a couple of hours of escapism. He wants the viewer to wrestle with difficult questions. Silence is a mixture of beautiful filmmaking and a complex and challenging story that will linger with you long after the final credits. It tackles such subjects as faith, doubt, and persecution. It is a religious film of tremendous depth that deserves the careful attention of the viewer.
Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to search for their mentor. In seventeenth-century Japan, Christianity has been outlawed, and persecution is rampant. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garppe (Adam Driver) receive word that Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has denied the faith. They decide to risk their lives to find out the truth. Once in Japan, they discover a vibrant community of Christians who are willing to risk persecution for their faith. The journey of Rodrigues and Garppe is arduous. It is filled with moments of great joy and sheer terror, and one is constantly wondering just how much the human spirit can endure.
There are many aspects of Silence that are worthy of discussion. One of the most striking elements is the contrast between Christianity in seventeenth-century Japan and Christianity in twenty-first-century America. Silence is often painful to watch, not because of the violent scenes of persecution, but because of how it pierces the hearts of modern believers who have sacrificed very little. There is a feeling of uneasiness as one watches Japanese peasants tortured for their faith while sitting in cushioned chairs at the local cineplex. Silence can quickly and easily get under your skin, and this is exactly what Scorsese wants. At one point in the film, a man says, “Why wasn’t I born when there wasn’t any persecution? I would have been a great Christian.” It is one thing to be a Christian when it is what everyone around you is doing, and it costs you little or nothing at all. It is quite another thing when it may cost you your life.
Silence recognizes that humanity and faith are complex. Not everyone in the film is a super Christian who readily volunteers to face persecution. One man in particular continually asks the priest to hear his confession. His sin is the same each time. He confesses that he is a weak man. This man commits cowardly acts over and over again. His behavior is despicable, and yet the priest receives his confession and forgives him each time. Watching these events unfold on screen, the viewer easily feels anger towards this man. You began to root for the priest to deny him confession, but then you remember the words of Jesus.
“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.'” (Matt. 18:21-22)
Watching Silence one recognizes that faith is a complicated thing. Some are good at it, and others are not, but isn’t mercy and forgiveness at the heart of the gospel? Shouldn’t we seek to be like the priest and forgive the despicable in others because God has forgiven the despicable in us? It is questions like these that make Silence a demanding film, but also a rewarding film because if we wrestle with the questions, then it is possible we might be transformed by what we have encountered.
Perhaps, the most difficult challenge raised by the film stems from the title itself. Persecution may not be the worst thing a Christian could face. For some, the pain of torture pales in comparison to the silence of God. Job suffered as much as anyone, and he wanted just one thing, for God to speak. It is in these moments where believers face their greatest test. Thankfully, many of us will never have to endure such tribulation, but we should be mindful of those who have gone before us who have. It may cause us to pause before we boast about the strength of our own faith.
Although difficult in many ways, Silence is a welcome film. It does not follow the same trajectory as many popular religious films. It does not provide easy answers and a nice warm conclusion. In fact, you may have more questions after you walk away from this movie than you did going into it. What makes Silence worthwhile is that it takes faith seriously. It is not shallow in any way. In Silence, professing Christ will not help you to win the football game. Instead, it may cost you your life. However arduous it may be to take in the images on the screen and wrestle with the story presented, it is a rewarding exercise because Silence deals with life and faith as it is rather than offering the false hope of a shallow faith and a happy ending.