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SDG Reviews Silence| National Catholic Register

Silence movie review catholic

Video Silence movie review catholic

“the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” father sebastião rodrigues (andrew garfield) tells magistrate and grand inquisitor inoue (issey ogata) in martin scorsese’s devastating adaptation of shusaku endo’s silence.

Rodrigues is citing, of course, the famous boast of the early Christian writer Tertullian, who epitomizes the Christian idealization of martyrdom, so close to the core of Christian self-understanding.

This sensibility, which often mixes piety and defiance, inspiration and bravado, even self-sacrificing devotion and personal advancement, was rooted in pre-Christian Jewish memory as well as in the Christian experience of persecution, first under Jewish authorities and especially under pagan Rome. above all, of course, it had its roots in the passion and crucifixion of jesus.

The Christian cult of martyrdom served Christianity well, not only during the sporadic persecutions of the early centuries, but throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern age. The stories of the heroic example of the early martyrs were a source of comfort and hope for medieval Catholics and Orthodox people living under Islamic rule, and a source of pride for the faithful of Christendom.

then christianity went to japan, and in japan it found something new, for which not even the rigors of diocletian’s persecution were a real preparation. When 17th-century Japanese authorities at the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate found it necessary to send Europe’s colonial powers packing and their European Jesus with them, they not only ripped apart the bodies of missionaries. they shattered his narrative.

endo, one of japan’s greatest novelists and a catholic (he has been called a “japanese graham greene”, which is as helpful and inaccurate as most analogies), explored this painful history in his novel silence of 1966., generally regarded as his masterpiece. Scorsese read the book in Japan more than a quarter of a century ago, shortly after finishing The Last Temptation of Christ, and has wanted to film it ever since.

While I’m not (to put it mildly) a fan of The Last Temptation, I noted, writing about it 15 years ago, that it was a film I could only imagine a Catholic director making. Now Scorsese has made another intensely Catholic film, one that I find almost as difficult as The Last Temptation, but draws me in as powerfully as The Last Temptation repels me.

In a way, it appeals to me like a toothache that you can’t help but probe with your tongue, like a painful memory that arises spontaneously in one’s mind, stubbornly unresolved. like gods and men, but much more so, silence tells no one exactly what they want to hear, except those who cannot hear anything else.

poses a challenge to viewers of any faith or none, or any culture or ethnicity, even if the challenge is not the same for everyone. an atheist friend has said that the silence made him want to believe in god. For my part, silence presses my Christian ethos to the breaking point.

It’s worth remembering that Silence has outraged many Japanese Catholics with its sympathetic depiction of persecuted Christians who avoided martyrdom by trampling on fumi-e (literally, “stepping image”), images of Christ or the blessed virgin that Christians suspected they were forced to tread to express apostasy or repudiation of Christ. over time the images are worn away by innumerable feet: mute testimony of each believer put to the test by innumerable past failures. how much difference would one more failure make?

for the Jesuits, the church’s “shock troops” or the special forces, such failure is not an option. when news reaches father rodrigues and father francisco garupe (adam driver) in portugal that their mentor in japan, father christovao ferreira (liam neeson), has apostatized under torture, they find it inconceivable and depart for japan to learn the truth .

director of photography rodrigo prieto paints japan as a world shrouded in mist and shadow, covered in dense forests. The score by husband-and-wife songwriters Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge is a daring ambient skein of crashing waves, insect and bird calls, and other natural sounds mixed with subtle instrumental effects.

More than once Japan is described as a “swamp”, an inhospitable environment for Roman Catholicism: a plant native to European soil that cannot be successfully transplanted to Japan, where its roots rot.

Rodrigues questions this: Christianity in Japan flourished for generations, he says, before the land was poisoned by persecution. But what does Rodriguez know about Japanese Christianity? silence hangs us by the horns of a disturbing dilemma: on the one hand, can a culturally european christianity make sense in japan? On the other hand, if Christianity has changed in Japan, is it still the same faith proclaimed by the missionaries?

Missionaries teach, an interpreter (tadanobu asano) sneers, but you won’t learn. his attitude, exemplified by rodrigues, is that they have the truth, and the truth applies everywhere. Rodriguez does not realize (as did St. Francis Xavier, who was deeply impressed with Japanese culture) that only a culture other than one’s own can teach one to appreciate how deeply one’s apprehension of truth is shaped and colored by culture, and thus begin to probe how differently another culture would appropriate the same truth.

Do Japanese Kirishitans worship the Christian god? how would rodrigues know? his zeal and piety are earnest and admirable, but his vision is clouded with complacency and arrogance. perhaps silence is a true tragedy in the classical sense, in which a virtuous man is undone by a fatal flaw.

in particular, rodrigues seems initially stronger and more disciplined in his faith than garupe (garrpe in the novel), who struggles more with his doubts and failings. “You are a bad Jesuit,” Rodrigues scolds Garupe with a smile. sometimes, however, weakness proves stronger than strength.

themes of weakness and betrayal are embodied in the figure of kichijiro (yosuke kubozuka), an unhappy wretch whom the priests hire as a guide on their route to japan. A drunkard, a coward, a drug dealer, Kichijiro earns the distrust of the priests early on; He evokes both Judas and Graham Greene’s mongrel in power and glory, although unlike both, he regrets it over and over again.

Rodrigues eventually finds himself haunted by Kichijiro’s plight: Had he been born into a Japanese Christian community before the current persecution, Kichijiro could have lived his entire life as a happy and decent Christian. Is it his fault that he was born too late, in an era of unprecedented persecution?

Tourtullian’s boast about the blood of martyrs was written in an age of bread and circuses, in which believers willing to suffer and die for their faith could show the multitudes what they were made of. In Japan, by contrast, authorities quickly learned that trying to publicize dramatic examples of individual believers backfired. now they were made to suffer ignominiously, away from the public gaze.

“Smite the shepherd,” wrote the prophet Zechariah, “and the sheep will be scattered.” Japanese inquisitors not only learned this lesson, they also learned an insidious reverse principle: to break the shepherd, wound the sheep.

some are willing to trample fumi-e for a living. as painful as it is, his neighbors understand, and even the authorities sometimes seem to regard the whole thing lightly, as a mere “formality”. but what if stomping on the fumi-e isn’t enough? rodrigues might be willing to suffer any torture for his faith, but what happens when the cost of his fidelity is the suffering of others?

The climactic moment is hotly debated, and rightly so. is it an act of treason? an act of selfless love? both at the same time? less debatable is what follows. In the end, the question is not whether one has betrayed God, but whether in doing so one has completely abandoned him, or whether there is still hope of forgiveness.

like the seventh seal of ingmar bergman, the title suggests the silence of heaven in the face of suffering and evil. this is an important topic, though it’s worth noting that silence wasn’t endo’s preferred title, and he later regretted accepting the editor’s suggestion on this point.

What makes the cross-examination of West and East vital on screen is the depth and complexity of the performances on both sides.

Garfield and Driver underwent substantial training in Ignatian spirituality under the guidance of Jesuit Father James Martin, including conducting a silent retreat, and it paid off. Garfield channels his aura of wholesome sincerity in a very different direction than the last long-suffering man of faith, Hacksaw Ridge’s Desmond Doss: intellectual, thoughtful, sophisticated enough not to notice the limitations of him.

Next to him, the driver is an ascetic presence (he lost 50 pounds for the role), his sepulchral voice conveying authority and long discipline. neeson makes the most of what is almost a glorified cameo, particularly in the excruciating reunion scene.

Japanese actors are possibly even better. As the inquisitor Inoue, Ogata (a comedian as well as an actor) is eerily fickle, a mask of politeness that sometimes gives way to unexpectedly humorous quirkiness and menacing contempt. the asano translator is a friendly, even jovial, sadist. (He is a less familiar face to Americans than Ken Watanabe, whom he replaced thanks to what now appears to be happy conflict.)

One of the most haunting scenes belongs to shinya tsukamoto as mokichi, one of the villagers to whom the priests minister in the tense but uplifting opening.

humbled by the villagers’ in extremis devotion, rodrigues tells mokichi that his faith gives him strength. “my love for god is strong”, mokichi replies haltingly. “Could that be the same as faith?” yes, replies rodrigues thoughtfully, it must be.

Not long after, mokichi fails a test of apostasy and is sentenced to a gruesome crucifixion in the waves, slowly overwhelmed by the incoming tide. Toward the end, as the villagers and executioners maintain a silent vigil, Mokichi raises his voice and sings a plaintive tantum ergo (the last two lines of Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Eucharistic hymn pange lingua).

In a story of a long defeat, here is a privileged moment of grace. here, for all those who have ears to hear, god is not silent.

see also apostasy and ambiguity: silence asks hard questions about faith and persecution

steven d. greydanus is the film critic of record and creator of decent movies. he is a permanent deacon in the archdiocese of newark, new jersey. follow him on twitter.

Viewer Warning: Intense scenes of torture and threats, including graphic violence; ambiguous religious themes. might be fine for mature teens.

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