Masterpiece or misfire? What to make of Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Silence

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Liam Neeson as Ferreira in Martin Scorsese’s filmic adaptation of Silence by the late Japanese author Shusaku Endo.

Religious themes return to the big screen with the US release of director Martin Scorsese’s Silence on the 22nd of December (Australians will have to wait until February). Based on the novel of the same name by the Japanese convert Shusaku Endo, Silence is a work of historical fiction following two Jesuit missionaries Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) as they journey to seventeenth century Japan.

In Japan the once promising missions of the Jesuit order have given way to violent persecutions of Christianity as an outlawed religion. As perhaps the last priests in Japan, Rodrigues and Garupe seek news of the fate of the Jesuit Provincial, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Nelson), whom it is rumoured has publically renounced his faith.

Silence is a tremendous achievement as a work of art for both those with and without faith. Yet viewers should be warned that the film is a disturbing and difficult treatment of martyrdom. The missionaries, Rodrigues and Garupe, enter Japan with an expectation of martyrdom coloured by the stories of the early Roman martyrs. In Japan however there is no room for heroism or an easy death for the glory of God.

The blood of the martyrs’ we are told ‘is the seed of the Church’. For many Christians there might seem little reason to doubt this adage of the third century writer Tertullian. In the extraordinary conversion of the Roman Empire, an agent of some of the Church’s most fierce persecutions, the voice of God appears to be written in bold across the Church’s history.

Yet the depiction of the Japanese martyrs in Silence should give pause to those who would too simply apply the adage of Tertullian. It is ironically the muteness of God in the face of unimaginable suffering that speaks loudest in the film.

To fully appreciate the tragedy of the Japanese martyrs one must recognise also the tremendous success of the Japanese missions prior to their persecution. In 1549 St Francis Xavier had first preached the Gospel on the Japanese home islands. In the subsequent years Japan embraced Christianity at a rate unmatched by any other Asian mission.

By 1597 Japanese converts numbered some 300 000 of a population of around 20 million. Yet it was in this same year that twenty-six Japanese and European martyrs were crucified for their faith at the beginnings of a persecution of the Japanese Church that would only increase in its scale and brutality.

As the rising number martyrdoms failed to stem the tide of Japanese converts, tortures began to preceded executions throughout the early seventeenth century. The object of these tortures above all was to force an act of apostasy, a public renunciation of the faith, performed by trampling a fumie, a sacred image of Christ.

Most notorious of the tortures was the ‘ana-tsurushi’ or hanging in the pit. Here the victim was tightly bound and suspended head first into a pit. A light cut gave vent to the blood rushing to the head so that many lasted days in the pit before exhaustion claimed them. It was this torture that finally broke Father Ferreira.

The historical record shows that the Jesuit Provincial indeed apostatised. Ferreira lived the reminder of his life as a Buddhist monk in Japan, though later rumours suggest also that he renounced his apostasy and died in the pit that had once conquered him.

For Japan, the persecution of Christians appears to have been almost entirely successful. Today the Japanese Church numbers some half a million, not even one per cent of the country’s population. Some relief may be felt at the tremendous faith of those Japanese Christians who kept their faith alive generation-to-generation until the opening of Japan in 1853. That the rites of baptism and the liturgical year were passed without any outside communication was called a miracle by Pius IX. Yet the blood of the martyrs appears, in most practical and material terms, to have bled into barren soil.

In this sense the history of the Roman martyrs seems much more palatable. The Christianisation of Europe vindicates for us their sacrifice in both this world and the next.  But when the inquisitor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata) boasts that the sapling of Christianity has withered in Japan, there is little practical evidence to contradict his claim.

Writ large history can offer little reason for the suffering of the Japanese martyrs. Yet perhaps more heart wrenching are the film’s depictions of individual martyrs. For their faith, Christians are burnt alive, crucified to wait for the coming tide, and subjected to the pit. Throughout the voice of God is silent.

Most disturbing for the missionaries are the tortures they themselves do not face. In an effort to force their apostasy, the inquisitor Inoue tortures not the priests but the faithful. The price of the release of these faithful is to act where God will not, to trample the image of Christ. Even those lay Christians who have apostatised many times are suspended in the pits. The recantation of peasants has little value for their masters; it is the apostasy of the priests that they seek.

With such moral dilemmas at its heart there will be some who choose to interpret Silence as an endorsement of apostasy under admittedly unimaginable psychological and physical trial. Most controversially the film depicts the voice of Christ imploring a character to step upon his image as an act of love to save those around him. It may also be suggested here that Christ’s voice might instead be interpreted as an act of self-deception, or a result of deep psychological stress on behalf of the character in question.

In the final instance however the film is much more concerned with the questions it raises, than the answers it offers. Though Ferreira may claim he has apostatised to save others, the claim rings with doubt. The very ambiguity of his end speaks to the tensions within the resolution of the film’s climax.

For all the physical tortures and failures throughout Silence, the film presents too its share of triumphs. Simultaneously the most and least inspiring character is that of the fisherman Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka). At every opportunity Kichijiro apostatises rather than face the tortures of the inquisitor.

An alcoholic and a fundamentally weak character, the desperate cry upon Kichijiro’s lips is why he must face trials so beyond his strength of character. Yet at each opportunity Kichijiro confesses his sins. Though the audience does not share the trials of martyrdom and torture, the tenacity of Kichijiro in the face of his failures can become a touchstone for our own struggles with persistent human weaknesses.

The English writer G. K. Chesterton wrote of the great depiction of suffering in the Bible that, “the Iliad is only great because all life is a battle, the Odyssey because all life is a journey, the Book of Job because all life is a riddle.” There are no easy answers to the sufferings of the Japanese martyrs or the questions Silence provokes. Yet perhaps the mystery of suffering should be allowed to stand as it does in the Book of Job, a mystery as yet known only to God.

The sacrifice of these martyrs is simultaneously a great testament to their faith and a part of the great mystery of human suffering. Perhaps the future shall bring a Japanese society that looks back upon its martyrs and pronounces with Tertullian that the blood of the martyrs truly was the seed of the Church. Perhaps a Christian Japan will never come to pass.

But the martyrdom explored by Silence is raised above these human expectations and explanations. It must be felt, not simply understood. Pitied and not judged. In the final instance perhaps the only adequate response is the prayer and the motto of the Jesuit missionaries themselves. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam; For the Greater Glory of God.