Why can there not be one good, self-avowed Catholic film? I am not talking about the ones you can find on Formed, which has become a sort of Catholic Netflix. Those are good for what they are: solid productions preaching to the choir. If you want a film where Catholicism is considered normative behavior, you have to go back to the 1940s and 1950s when the Faith held a certain amount of clout in Hollywood. Then the 1960s happened and ruined everything. I detail these occurrences as a practicing Catholic who sees the Church and the situation in the world as akin to the early days of Christianity. Compared to what we once were, the number of avowed Catholics is small, smaller still the numbers who actually show up on Sundays, let alone daily devotions. The number one mission of the Church in those heady first years was to go out into the world and seek out new converts. That is largely the backdrop for today’s film, Silence (2016).
Silence is an important film to understand from a Faith perspective, and hence I am not going to give a substantial plot synopsis as I usually do. Suffice to say, two Jesuit priests, Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), are sent to seventeenth century Japan to find their former teacher, mentor, and fellow Jesuit missionary Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Word had reached Fathers Garupe and Rodrigues that their mentor had apostasized (turned away from) the Faith. They cannot believe it. When they eventually make it to Japan, they find the remaining Christians hungry to have a priest to administer sacraments, and eager to protect them, but no sign of Father Ferreira. Eventually, Father Rodrigues is separated from Father Garupe and captured. Instead of granting him the blessing of martyrdom, they want him to apostasize, as it turns out Father Ferreira actually did when he finally visits Father Rodrigues. To further force Father Rodrigues to do so, the Japanese officials torture their Christian compatriots, telling him that if he leaves the Church he can save them. In a truly disturbing moment, Father Rodrigues hears a voice he interprets as God’s, places his foot on a symbol of Jesus, and commits himself to apostasy. He then spends the rest of his life in Japan, along with Father Ferreira, helping the Japanese government identify Christian material before it comes into the country. Though there are some glimmers of his beliefs, he must repeatedly swear to his disconnection from the Faith regularly until the day of his death.
Hopefully this brief summation of Silence will give you some context for what is to follow. From here on, I would like to approach this review thematically. My reaction to it was not a positive one. God is truly great, though. Last week, I was scheduled to meet with my spiritual director, a priest at a local parish. Due to a conflict, he had to postpone to this week. This turned out to be a grace (as is everything if you truly understand it) because if allowed me to see the film before I met with him. I will not go into every detail of our conversation, but his immediate response when I discovered he had seen it and asked what he thought of it was, “deeply flawed.” These few words echo my sentiments. My own training as a spiritual director (yes, spiritual directors have spiritual directors) included instruction in Ignatian Spirituality. For the uninitiated, this is a different way of saying how Jesuits practice the Faith. One thing I knew about the film is that both Driver and Garfield, but particularly Garfield, spent a year studying Ignatian Spirituality in preparation for their roles. Garfield even basically took on a Jesuit spiritual director and went through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. The length of time you take to do them can vary, but they are a period of intense Scriptural, Spiritual, and contemplative introspection. They were developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the sixteenth century, and the word “exercise” well describes what the retreatant (for they are meant to be a part of a retreat) undergoes. In short, they are meant to strengthen you and your relationship with God. It is little wonder that Jesuits have been called, sometimes derisively, God’s foot soldiers. And this is all without even mentioning the fact that the film’s director, Martin Scorsese, briefly trained to be a priest before becoming a filmmaker.
With this in mind, some of what went on in Silence is understandable, whether or not you have been through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises like me or Andrew Garfield. Much of what the film has Father Garupe and Father Rodrigues saying fits with the time in which it is set. As with so many moments in history when Christianity spread from just another Middle Eastern, monotheistic sect, to a globe-spanning religion, there is a clash of cultures. You see this less with the Japanese peasantry to which the two young Jesuits minister, and more with the Japanese officials attempting to rid their country of Christianity. And I do mean “their country.” Father Ferreira becomes a puppet of the Japanese hierarchy. There is a verbal altercation between him and Father Rodrigues over the finer points of the Faith, especially the parts that the former had to give up to save the lives of Japanese Christians and his own. Japan was, and still is, a Buddhist country. In trying to convince Father Rodrigues to apostasize, the Japanese inquisitor Inoue Masashige (Issei Ogata) and the interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) point out similarities between Buddhism and Christianity, particularly in their message of service to others. It is Father Ferreira, though, who says that Japan is a “swamp” where the root of the Faith is impossible to take. He goes on to say that man’s nature cannot be moved. In responding to these suppositions (because that is what they ultimately are), Father Rodrigues makes some good points, but much of what he says at this moment, and earlier, rings of imperialist thought that is far too often linked to the missionary activities of the Church. The argument over truth is a nebulous one, although Father Rodrigues is absolutely correct when he rebuffs his former teacher by saying that truth is truth no matter the continent on which it is said. Jesus died for the sins of the world, not just those of the Israelites. A more effective rebuttal, though, would have been to point out the genuineness of the beliefs of the people Father Rodrigues encountered from the moment he landed in Japan. Father Ferreira has an answer to this, even if Father Rodrigues does not bring it fully to his attention, when he claims that those same people do not truly understand Christianity. This is insulting not to the Faith, but to the people who practice it. The film shows the peasantry having a firm grasp of what it means to be a Catholic, Sacramentally and Spiritually. Father Rodrigues sees it repeatedly throughout his travels. It is driven home when some of the first Japanese Catholics him and Father Garupe encounter, are crucified for the Faith. The two Jesuits witness this happen, and yet that does not seem to prove anything to Father Rodrigues?
Martyrdom is a difficult subject, and one that is covered in Silence. When the two young Jesuits depart for Japan, they expect to never see Europe again and to likely die for the Faith. It is a possible fate for which many missionaries were prepared, historically speaking. It is also something about which the Japanese hierarchy became keenly aware of as to its power. You see, Jesus shared in the burdens of the common people. He was born into poverty, labored as a carpenter, and died at the hands of the same kind of people who held sway over feudal Japan. The film does not make this point, ashamedly, but one of the attractions of Catholicism, and Christianity more broadly, is that it appeals to the lower orders. Falsely, several intellectuals have tried to make the Faith a tool of whatever ‘archy they feel deserves their ire. And yet the millions of converts to the Faith over the centuries testify to the fact that the Faith is one of the commoner. The Catholic Church gets lumped in with higher rungs of the social strata because it sometimes looks fancier than what it is in reality. For all the glitz of Vatican City, there is the work of people like St. Francis of Assisi, and other orders, that take a vow of poverty. You can see this also in the trials endured by Father Garupe and Father Rodrigues. Same, too, with the majority of Japanese Catholics in the film. Aside from their desire to have Mass said, to have their infants Baptized, and to Confess their sins, they see the priests as the living manifestations of Jesus. As such, they are perfectly willing to share in the sufferings of the priest, even to the point of death. And these are the people that Father Ferreira says do not truly understand the Faith? I say again: for shame!
Continuing with the theme of martyrdom in Silence, there is one key lesson about it that Father Rodrigues seems to forget: that it is not something you can freely choose. You and I as laypeople are much freer than anyone who has given their life to serve the Church, which is a kind of dying to self as well. If you watch Chosen: Custody of the Eyes (2017), one of the points that Sister Amata makes is that our lives are not our own. What does that mean in the context of Silence? It means that when Father Rodrigues is told that he can save the lives of Japanese Christians by giving up the Faith, it is a lie through which he should have seen. Ultimately, no matter what Inoue or anyone else tells him, Father Rodrigues has no power over himself or the others being slowly tortured to death. Truly, I understand the predicament. Who among us can ask another person to die for them? That is how it is presented to Father Rodrigues, and Father Ferreira drives this dagger home by telling his former pupil that to do anything else would be prideful. I am sorry, but no. Just as much Father Rodrigues supposedly had a choice to apostasize and end the suffering of others, so too did Inoue have the ability to not inflict physical harm on those same people. Ultimately, I am thankful it is a situation I have never had to face, and I hope to never do so. At the same time, I pray that if I do, I will remember that only God has real power of life and death over me.
The most disturbing part of Silence, however, is at the point of Father Rodrigues’ apostasy. Throughout the film, this is done by the inquisitor presenting a Christian image or symbol, and usually having the adherent step on it. There are two ways of viewing this act. One can look at the image as simply a pale facsimile of the Divine. Such is the lot of symbols. On the other hand, symbols have power. They are meant to point the way to God through the senses, which are given to us by on high in order to experience God in many ways. On His way to Calvary, Jesus was beaten, whipped, scourged, and yes, stepped upon by various onlookers. When we Catholics remember Jesus’ triumphal day, especially on Good Friday, the celebration invokes the sights and sounds of Jesus’ Passion. This is also part of Ignatian Spirituality. One of the abundant gifts God gave us is an imagination, and Jesuits are taught to use it to place themselves in Scripture in order to experience it firsthand. In some moments, one can actually hear the voice of God speaking. This is something Father Rodrigues has apparently witnessed before, and it happens again for him at that fateful moment. When I discuss similar occurrences with my spiritual directees, I am always cautious with them. St. Ignatius said that anything that leads you closer to God is a good thing, and that is usually what I emphasize. For me, no matter the excuse given, it is the opposite of what happens to Father Rodrigues. One of the reasons for the Faith in its totality is that the path to God is one in need of constant renewal. It is one of the blessings of the Sacraments, though certainly possible in extreme circumstances such as Father Rodrigues. Still, I have difficulty imagining God saying to somebody to step on Him in order to save others. What about his own salvation? While there does seem to be tidbits in later years where he seems to still have the Faith, such as the secret Cross with which he is cremated, it is difficult to see how such an act could lead him closer to God. In the end, that is what God wants for us all.
Already, this discussion of Silence is my longest review yet. Because I do not wish to take any more of your time, I will begin to bring it to a close. Needless to say, I do not recommend to anyone other than those who are most firmly grounded in their Faith. There is too much about it that is misleading. I will admit that one could make the argument that Father Rodrigues, despite the oaths to the contrary he apparently had to yearly swear (as if that does not matter!), perhaps lived in as much of a Christian manner as he could in his remaining years. Who knows? The film does not show us much of that time. Instead, I would like to end by discussing perhaps the most everyday Catholic character from the film: Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka). The majority of your average parishioners will never be called upon to face a quarter of the struggles he faced. By and large, we are free to practice our Faith as we wish. Those who do not forget the importance of following the Sacraments will go to church on Sundays, Confess occasionally, and perhaps tithe. What links Kichijiro to so many common Catholics today is the fact that he is a sinner. We all are, of course, but Kichijiro’s seems a little graver. Repeatedly, when given the choice between death and apostasy, he chooses apostasy to save his own life. When he does this for the first time, it leads to the martyrdom of his family. He does it a couple more times, but each time he is emotionally tortured by it and comes to Father Rodrigues for Confession. To make a good Confession, no matter how habitual the sin or its supposed severity (there are no distinctions with God), God desires one main thing: a contrite spirit. Pointedly, when we finish, we say the Act of Contrition. Father Rodrigues sees in Kichijiro somebody who is interested solely in saving his own skin, and comes to believe that the Japanese Catholic is not truly a Christian. And yet, towards the end, Kichijiro is not only still trying to Confess despite Father Rodrigues’ apostasy, but is eventually caught with a Christian image around his neck. This strikes me as in line with the behavior of so many Catholics. We wear Crosses around our necks while taking part in all manner of sin. Thank God for Confession. I only hope that you are truly sorry when you enter the confessional. If you are one of those Catholics still trying to find your way through habitual sin, I do not suggest this film to you.