The sound of Silence

It’s Martin Scorsese’s Silence came to the big screen in December last year and has now come out on DVD. For a film entitled Silence it asks a lot of questions.

The film is based on an acclaimed work of historical fiction by the Japanese Catholic writer Shūsaku Endō. Set in seventeenth-century Japan at a time when, following the dramatic missionary-driven expansion of Christianity, the church was savagely suppressed, it recounts the story of two priests from Portugal who go to Japan to find a third who has gone missing and who they are told may, in the face of torture, have committed apostasy by denying the faith. This is a time when being a believer was no easy matter; the punishment for the faithful was often imaginatively brutal, something the film doesn’t spare us.

Silence is a long and demanding film. It focuses on Jesuit Catholicism and, perhaps most importantly, steps back from the triumphant feel-good conclusion that would make it all seem worthwhile. In fact, Scorsese seems to have gone out of his way to put people off. The nonbeliever might easily find the depiction of faith too uncritical, the believer find it too unsympathetic. There is something in Silence to unsettle everybody.

Yet there is much to praise in Silence and of its many merits can I suggest that realism is the biggest. One of the curious features of our time is that, surrounded by an infinite amount of instantly accessible facts, we prefer films to be fantasy. (It’s a somewhat alarming statistic that the top ten grossing movies of 2016 were all either cartoons or superhero blockbusters.)

In fact there is a real danger that whether we have the faith that God exists or the faith that he doesn’t, we all create our own mental castle, an internal world of the mind so protected and secure in its beliefs that nothing can challenge it. All incoming data, however contrary to what we believe, is instantly reshaped and remoulded to support our belief system. We know what we believe and we make reality yield to it.

It is easy to apply this concept to a religious faith, with the believer ruthlessly filtering out anything that might unsettle them. So within my own Christianity it is all too possible that, taught by inspiring sermons and encouraged by cheerful songs, believers find themselves secure in a world of certainties. They are assured that God constantly pours blessings on his children, always punishes evil and unfailingly rescues his people. Silence unsettles all those certainties. Here we see a world where the faithful are punished, the brutal reign, believers trip and stumble and, for at least some of the faithful, God’s answer to their prayers is silence.  Here in seventeenth-century Japan there is no overthrow of evil, no cosy view of martyrdom either as an obscure theoretical possibility or as a clean, painless ending accompanied by a heavenly choir. You could say that the strength of Silence is its affirmation of weakness.

Yet oddly enough the same criticism of existing inside a mental castle can be applied to those who would not describe themselves as Christians or even religious. After all, everybody believes firmly in something; we all hold some values to be undeniable. Even those who would summarise their belief system as ‘unbelief’ also hold onto resolute certainties: God does not exist, faith is simply a psychological or social phenomenon, there are no ultimate values and certainly none worth dying for. Yet with its two-and-a-half hours of dealing with matters of faith and existence Silence speaks louder than words. Here we see men and women going to death for their beliefs when a simple action or a few words would save them. Are they wrong? Is it better to reject your beliefs – to apostatise – than to suffer torture? Silence asks us all whether we are prepared to stand for anything to the point of death. For all their poverty, confusion and the permanent threat of torture and death that hangs over them, isn’t there something challenging, even enticing, about the Japanese believers? Their certainties bring them pain but aren’t they preferable to doubts that offer nothing? One of the big problems of unbelief is the fact that it’s a creed that fails to inspire. If the heart of my faith is a cross, I feel at the heart of atheism lies a zero.

The genius of Silence is the way that it makes the viewer uncomfortable. But then in this age of the armchair, where comfort is elevated over truth, perhaps we need to be made uncomfortable.

What I find heartwarming as a Christian is that today, two million Japanese are Christians and churches can be found across the country. Many Christians live in Western Japan where the missionaries’ activities were greatest during the seventeenth century.

Revd Canon J.John

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