Have you ever watched a movie on an airplane and forgot at times where you are? It happened to me last week, as I finally saw the movie Silence. I had blogged twice about the Martin Scorsese directed film in the months leading up to its release in late January this year. (See Silence: The End of Triumphalism and Silence Part 2: The ‘Hidden’ Japanese Christians). But I left the states in mid-January before it came out in wide release, and missed it in India also where it was only shown in a handful of cities including New Delhi. Several friends have asked me what I thought of it, and only now am I able to offer some reflections.
Silence is based on a book of the same name written by Japanese novelist Shusako Endo, and that is one of the most important things to consider as you watch this film. I had first read the book almost 20 years ago, and bought and read another six of his books in the next few years. Endo was a convert to Christianity in his early years, and spent the rest of his life trying to conceptualize and communicate the Christian faith to his Japanese friends and nation. If you have ever read E. Stanley Jones’ book, Christ of the Indian Road, it was a similar task that engaged Endo: to see a Japanese Jesus clothed not in Western clothes but Asian.
Silence was one of the most disturbing, powerful books I have ever read. Endo dealt in his novel with the themes of the great persecution of the Christian Church in Japan in the early 17th century, in the decades before the nation shut its doors to the rest of the world for another almost 200 years. He deals not only with the presence, but also the absence of faith. Of profound issues of doubt, suffering and above all, with the seeming silence of God. Martin Scorsese, the famed film director, also read the novel over 20 years ago, and vowed some day to bring it to the big screen.
But how to take a book of such profundity, subtlety and complexity, and transform it into a movie that would even in a small way approach the level of a masterpiece of human and religious struggle? It took Scorsese 20 years to do it. I encourage you to read the book, preferably before you see the movie, but at least after. You will of course be the judge of how Scorsese did, but in my opinion he came very close. This is one of the most painful movies you will ever watch. It was for me. Not just because of the scenes of torture of the priests and local Japanese believers (based on actual events), but even more the inner tortures that the various characters go through in their struggles with the Silence of God.
There is so much I could say about Silence. I don’t want to give away anything, but would only appeal to the viewer to watch until the end. If you stop during it, you will miss the whole context of what Endo was trying to communicate. It is not that there are answers at the end, but you will at least see what the author (and filmmaker) was bringing out from their perspectives. When the movie finished and I sat in my airplane seat, I was stunned. I looked at the screen flight map in the seat next to me, and I was over Greenland. It seemed so surreal, to have just finished watching a movie like this, and to be so high in the sky over Greenland.
Here are some simple points of reflection. You will undoubtedly have your own.
1) No matter what you think of the Jesuit mission to Japan in this period, it is hard not to deeply admire the sacrifice and simplicity of the Portuguese priests that face almost certain death and suffering. Andrew Garfield gives a masterful performance as the younger priest searching for the “apostate” priest played by Liam Neeson. Garfield reportedly went through his own faith transformation by preparing for and acting in this movie. (As part of the preparation, the actors playing Jesuit priests did the 30 day Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola retreat, where people spend large amounts of time going through the Gospels seeing the life of Jesus also through their imaginations.) At the beginning of the movie, one of the narrators says this line, “The only baggage they (the priests) brought to Japan were their hearts.” One of the criticisms of the movie was that these priests were coming to Japan to try and “change” the religion of the Japanese. But remember that the writer of the novel is a Japanese Christian, who while at times critical of the Western missionary enterprise and wishing for more of a Japanese expression from the beginning, also seems to deeply and genuinely admire and respect the lives of these priests.
2) This is not your parents’ “Christian Martyr” movie. Remember The Robe or Quo Vadis? These were two movies made in the 50’s and 60’s that had sections featuring the persecution of the Christians under the Romans in the first century. In these movies, generally, the Christian martyrs go to their deaths rejoicing, with seemingly no doubts, no torments of soul, or at least very little. Not so in Silence. This movie, as did the book, brings out the painful choices both foreign priests and local believers must make. There are no easy answers here, no triumphal certainties. There is the Silence of God, and the assurance in various ways that somehow Jesus continues to suffer with His friends in Japan. You want a movie with easy answers, that has you walking out of the cinema (or airplane) feeling entertained, or “encouraged”? Don’t watch this movie, or read this book. But that is part of the problem that Silence indirectly challenges. So much of what passes for Christian writing, films, and music these days is meant to either entertain (“edify”) or “encourage” us in our faith, as if that is all we ever need. But as a result our souls are weak, our witness shallow, our perspective so limited.
3) There is no music in this movie. What? A movie without music? Scorsese instead of a sound track, or I guess you can call it a sound track, uses only the sounds of nature, of creation. The movie starts with silence, then slowly the sounds of birds. It ends with silence, and then the growing sounds of the waves coming into the beach. How ironic that in a movie dealing in depth with the Silence of God, the very sounds are from creation. I sat in my airplane seat for almost the whole credits, just listening to the sounds of the ocean waves. I can only imagine what it must have been like in a theatre, if people stayed long enough. Is God silent? Or is He speaking all the time His own language of love, even or especially in His created order? You decide.
Whether you are a Christian believer or not, please see this movie. Please read this book. It will shake you. Find someone you love and trust to discuss it with. Not to argue with, but to hold these complexities together in a place of love and mystery.
(Photo credit from Christophe Baumer, The Church of the East)