Scorsese's "Silence" is a Misunderstood Masterpiece
January 8, 2018
Scorsese's "Silence" was one of those films I was terrified to watch, for good reason. It unearths secret questions I've long buried. It takes a bald, raw look at the most terrifying potentials of human nature. It doesn't give clean answers. The evangelical in me hisses at such a film.
Yet there it was, confronting me daily on Hulu, Amazon Prime and Netflix. So I took the plunge. What I found beneath the surface was a beautiful, gruesome, terrifying, and...highly misunderstood film.
Set in 1600's Japan, cataloguing the journey of two Jesuit priests to find their allegedly apostatized mentor, "Silence" is a film about religion, suffering, cultural clashes and the silence of God.
Yet even more so, "Silence", for me, was about something else. This film is about mercy.
Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) begins his journey to Japan desiring to "save the soul" of his apostate mentor Ferrieara (Liam Neeson). The world is cleanly separated into black and white, and the options are as well: martyrdom, or faithfulness. There are several scenes where Rodrigues clearly sees himself as a Christ-figure, set out to take up the noble cross in opposition to the weak.
Yet one character in particular begins to grate against these categories: the apostate Ichizo, who time and time again fails the test of faithfulness, and runs to father Rodrigues to grant him forgiveness of his sin. Rodrigues is forced to offer this man absolution. But why? He doesn't deserve it. His fickle faith continually fails every test. After a Judas-like betrayal of Ferriera, we see Rodrigues struggling. In fact, we hear it:
"Father, could you really love a man like this? I have seen evil, even its nobility. This man does not even deserve to be called evil."
Later, when the site of young Christians being tortured proves too much for Rodrigues, he too apostatizes. He is "damned". And yet, just before Rodrigues tramples the icon of Christ, he hears Christ's voice: "Go ahead. Step on me."
Some (most, I suppose) have taken this scene - and Rodrigues' ensuing, quiet life as an apostate of Japan - as a glorification of apostasy, and even a nod to religious tolerance. These are gross oversimplifications. This is not an apostasy scene - it is a conversion scene.
Up until now, Rodrigues has trusted in his moral strength to survive the opposition of the enemy. He is hoping to earn a place next to Christ. Now, he has given up. He does not see himself as a hero, but a man who is morally impoverished. He will not stand up to the enemy - he, like Ichizo, will trample on the face of Christ. This is the invitation of Christ: Rodrigues must let go of his vision of himself, and rest in Christ's mercy. It is not Rodrigues' faith that dies in this scene - it is his trust in his flesh. For the first time in the film, Rodrigues falls down, and he worships.
"But he goes on to live a life of apostasy! He turns away from his faith!"
Does he? Or does he merely shed the outward religious zeal he once held, and embrace a life before God? Does he begin the process of moral decay? Or does he begin, for the first time, to embrace the weightier matters of the law by resting in the grace of God? I think the film's final scenes give a patently clear answer to this.
Near the end of the film, as Rodrigues sits quietly in his home with his wife and children, the fickle Ichizo returns to ask forgiveness for his final act of betrayal. This time, Rodrigues looks at Ichizo without condemnation. Now as he looks, he no longer sees "the other". He sees himself. Rodrigues perhaps has lost his courage in the face of opposition. But he has also embraced the weightier matters of the law. He is able, for the first time, to exercise genuine mercy toward the least of these.
Scorsese's courage and self-awareness to produce this vision is astounding. As a Protestant, I have categories for this kind of thinking. I don't think Scorsese does. This is part of what makes this film such an amazing piece of art. And yet it's received a shamefully hollow reception from my fellow protestants.
Then again, perhaps that points to the Rodrigues in all of us.