You might have missed the sparsely advertised film Silence, which was in two Winnipeg theatres for about two weeks in January. If you did, that’s a shame, because this is a profound and thought-provoking movie.
Directed by Martin Scorsese, this 161-minute film is based off the 1966 Shūsaku Endō novel also titled Silence. We follow two Jesuits who travel to Japan in the 17th century to seek out whether the rumours that one of their fellow priests apostatised are true. This is a period of history where Christians were sorely persecuted in Japan for their beliefs. Our Jesuits take their lives in their hands to make a journey we expect, as viewers, to be heroic, but the reality is much more complex. The Japanese Christians hold tightly to their faith, but live in constant fear; most Japanese citizens would happily sell them out to the authorities for the princely sum of 30 pieces of silver.
It’s rare to see a film so openly exploring faith from a sympathetic perspective. Scorsese is himself Catholic, and it shows: The spirituality expressed in Silence is Catholic not just by a quirk of history (the Reformation was scarcely more than 100 years old at that point), but by its high view of the sacraments. When the Jesuits arrive in their village, the Japanese Christians are more hungry for Sacrament than Word, begging for Eucharist and Confession, which they have done without for many years.
The Sacrament of Confession is, in my view, the heart of Silence. The Judas-character, Kichijiro, is our Jesuits’ sometime-guide, a Christian who watched his family martyred. He is a pathetic character, one who sins frequently and causes harm to Fr. Rodrigues, the protagonist. He begs again and again to confess and be absolved, repeating his sins and continually apostatizing. Perhaps we can see ourselves in his grasping for the straws of forgiveness and our own inability to free ourselves from repeated sin.
An outsider, one unfamiliar with the Catholic view of Confession, might see Silence as deriding the Sacrament. Popular media often portrays it as a lip-service ritual, allowing us to sin without guilt. Yet Kichijiro is parallelled with Fr. Rodrigues, who has the arrogance to believe that his suffering means he is like Christ. Who is more holy? Who is more to be pitied? Who are we most like? The lives of these two men leave these question open.
Some have criticized the movie, and fairly, for being too bourgeois in its nuanced approach to faith. Do we need yet another film struggling with the silence of God in pain? While I think this criticism is valid, the movie’s explorations are no less important simply because they may not be the main message “the masses” need to hear. Ultimately what we see in Silence is not just a single man facing big challenges to his faith,
but an entire community of faith holding on to hope.