It's the early 17th century. Two Jesuit priests have traveled to Japan in search of their mentor, Ferreira, rumored to have renounced the faith. Christianity has been outlawed and Japanese Christians forced to practice their religion in secret, with the threat of execution if discovered. Ultimately, the two priests are captured and pressured by the authorities to deny the faith by trampling on a carved plaque bearing an image of Jesus. If they refuse, they are threatened not with their own execution by slow torture, but that of Japanese Christians.
[Spoilers ahead. Be warned.]
This is not a triumphalist movie. A character quotes Tertullian's famous line about the blood of martyrs being the seed of the Church, but the relentless persecution of Japanese Christians does not bring about a renewal of faith in the hearts of those forced to watch. Christianity is only driven further underground, with those who continue to practice Christian rituals in secret claiming openly to be Buddhist. Ferreira, now writing a book that denounces Christianity, says that the Japanese converts were never true believers.
Although many Christian reviewers have praised the film, others denounce it for condoning apostasy. But does it? In a pivotal scene, Rodrigues hears a voice that he believes to be that of Jesus, telling him to go ahead and trample on the image. Tellingly, a rooster crows immediately after he obeys, while he falls to the ground, weeping.
Unlike the apostle Peter, though, Rodrigues is never given the opportunity to repent. Mercilessly, the film follows him through the rest of his life. We see him and Ferreira using their knowledge of Christian symbols to help the authorities identify banned devotional items. Every few years, he is required to write out a new renunciation of his old faith. When his servant Kichijiro is caught with a Christian amulet and dragged away, Rodrigues does not dare to intercede for him, or even express sorrow. We do see a tiny crucifix hidden in Rodrigues's hand when he eventually dies and is cremated, but does it still mean anything, after so many renunciations?
I think a viewer's interpretation of the film's "message" may depend largely on what they already believe about Christianity and apostasy (or what they assume the director, Scorsese, believes--Scorsese previously directed the film adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ). I couldn't see the consequences of Rodrigues's denial of his faith as anything other than tragic. Not because stepping on the image was an unforgivable sin, but because each subsequent scene shows him betraying more and more of what he used to hold sacred, each time with more to lose if he refuses. When Kichijiro is taken away, presumably to torture and execution, we see no evidence that Rodrigues even considers risking himself to save him. But wasn't it to save others that he first stepped on Christ's image?
And was it really Jesus telling him to trample? I was reminded of the angelic child in The Last Temptation who encourages Jesus to come down from the cross instead of dying, but is later revealed to be Satan himself. It's up to us to decide how to interpret the voice Rodrigues hears (just as it was up to him).
In contrast, in a scene much earlier in the movie, Japanese Christians who initially went ahead and stepped on the image (at Rodrigues's behest) refuse the next test (to spit on a crucifix and call the Virgin Mary a whore), and are condemned to death. Despite Ferreira's later claim that they weren't true Christians, they die on crosses (set in the sea as the tide comes in), singing hymns.
Silence is brutally honest about the costs of both devotion and apostasy, and too honest to tell the viewer which is right.
This may be unpalatable for those who want an inspiring story to encourage and affirm them in their own faith. But I wonder if it's dishonest, on some level, to want only the stories of the Church's success; to refuse to face those of its apparent failure. Because Christianity really was almost wiped out in Japan. What can we say to that? What do we say to the thousands of Christians around the world who, even to this day, are executed and imprisoned for converting to or refusing to denounce their faith?
We might quote the last several verses of Hebrews 11, but perhaps there's something almost obscene about doing so from the relative comfort and security of the at-least-superficially-Christian west, where most of us won't face any worse persecution for our faith than being laughed at and losing friends. For those of us who believe in encouraging people in other countries to become Christians, Silence lays bare some of the consequences. This is what will still happen to some of those we've helped convert. Can we live with that? Should we?
Silence is an uncomfortable movie, and a long one (2 hours and 41 minutes). It wasn't a box office success, and most of the Christians I know have never heard of it. I'm not surprised it wasn't successful; I'm not sure how much sense some aspects of the film would make for anyone not intimately familiar with the Christian faith, and yet it's deeply offensive to many Christian believers (though not on the level of Last Temptation).
We don't hesitate in recommending it to anyone who appreciated Mysterion, though. While light on speculative elements, it's an unflinching examination of many of the questions we're most interested in here.
Just set aside plenty of time, and don't expect to be cheerful after watching it.
(Silence is a 2016 film based on the Shusaku Endo novel of the same name, directed by Martin Scorcese, and distributed by Paramount Pictures. Starring Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, and Liam Neeson. Available from Amazon for rent or purchase.)