Rarely do mainstream films treat religious questions with seriousness and specificity. Silence, a movie about 17th-century Jesuit missionaries, shows what that can look like.
The face of Jesus appears early in Silence, Martin Scorsese’s new film about 17th-century Jesuits in Japan. The missionary priest Sebastião Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, is speaking at length about his faith and feeling God’s call. Instead of cutting to metaphorical imagery, or to scenes of an actor playing Jesus, Scorsese displays an ancient-looking portrait. Jesus, expressionless in his crown of thorns, stares straight at the audience for what feels like 10 seconds or more. It’s a striking cinematographic choice and an apt metaphor for Scorsese’s depiction of faith: Humans can attempt to describe, emulate, and revere God, but ultimately, this is only imitation, the director seems to say. As the priests discover, sometimes it is impossible to know what this imitation should look like. Yet, no matter how they implore God to speak and show them the way, he is often as loud as a painting. He is, in other words, silent.
Scorsese has been wanting to make Silence for a long time—Paul Elie wrote in The New York Times Magazine that since 1989, when the director read the Shusaku Endo novel upon which the movie is based, “hardly a day [has gone] by without his mentioning the project to the people around him: actors, friends, and even his old parish priest.” The Catholic filmmaker certainly hasn’t stuck to piety in previous projects: Movies like Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street are almost gratuitously violent and graphic. Scorsese brings the same sensibility to Silence: We see the blood trail of a decapitated head as it rolls across soft sand; we hear a woman’s screams as she is burned alive. In the context of a movie about faith, though, these gory details create a sense of theological seriousness: Silence is about faith in a world that is broken and appalling, not uplifting and kind.
More importantly, though, Silence engages with ambiguity. “Faith-based film” is the label typically used to describe movies with an agenda: Some, like 2016’s Risen, exist to proselytize, while others, like 2014’s God’s Not Dead, seek to make a narrow argument about politics or culture. For some audiences, this kind of work may be satisfying, and that’s fine. But ultimately, movies in this genre usually aren’t designed to complicate or challenge people’s worldviews; they’re not created to deepen people’s understanding of themselves and the world. Silence, by contrast, treats faith not as a simple point to be made, but as a heart-wrenching puzzle.
Rodrigues and his companion, Francisco Garupe, played by Adam Driver, witness the incredible price these converts must pay for their newfound faith. Imperial officers routinely come through the villages and challenge residents to denounce Christianity by stepping on a plate depicting Jesus. The priests are divided on how the peasants should respond: At one point, Rodrigues instructs them to give in and “trample,” while Garupe urges them to resist. The two priests watch as peasants are murdered in gruesome ways—three are hung from crucifixes built by the shore so that waves can pummel them as they slowly succumb to exposure and dehydration. Eventually, both men are apprehended, and they, too, are asked to renounce their savior. As long as they resist, the Japanese officials keep murdering more peasants.
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