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Suffering on the Outside: Martin Scorsese’s "Silence"

Martin Scorsese’s film of Jesuit missionaries in Japan is an example of Christian art that reconsiders the art's conventions.
“About three in the afternoon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani (which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)”
—Matthew 27:46
Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Jesuit priest ministering in a 17th century Japan hostile to Christians, craves the sound of this voice, pining for a confirmation of his convictions: something—anything—to demonstrate that God, too, has not forsaken him. Accompanied by Garrpe (Adam Driver), a fellow priest, he enters Japan looking for his former mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who according to rumor apostatized at the hands of the Japanese authorities. Because the Japanese closed off their borders to “Christian” nations like England, Portugal and Spain, Garrpe and Rodrigues travel illegally from Macao to Japan, led by an enigmatic drunkard, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka). Shortly after their arrival, the priests bear witness to excruciating acts of torture perpetrated against the local Japanese Christians. But Rodrigues’ personal test, divorced from the gratification of martyrdom or physical hardship, comes later and is of an altogether different sort, related to epistemological uncertainty and the silence of a seemingly absent God.
When a voice finally breaks the silence, it doesn’t so much confirm Rodrigues’ religious beliefs as it does retroactively reconsider the enigma at the film’s core: “I suffered beside you.” It says—a literal voice we hear in the film—“I was never silent.” Considering that he only observers the torture and martyrdoms without experiencing it himself, the voice that “suffers beside” Rodrigues is thus not identifying with any physical pain, as it has come to be often associated in conventional accounts of Christian martyrdoms, but rather expressing empathy towards Rodrigues’ internal crisis: the collapsing of his faith. Though it is ambiguous as to whether the voice we hear is Rodrigues’ own narcissistic self-justification or the actual words of Christ, Silence nonetheless transposes the Passion narrative on 17th century Japan and depicts the Christian martyrdoms from a removed position.
There is an essential balance to Silence, subverting a colonizer’s prejudices while also considering the prospect that Rodrigues’ missionary work is disseminating objective truth; one does not reduce the other, but enlivens it, makes it meaningful, potent and mysterious. Adapted from a novel by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Catholic persecuted for his religious values at home and discriminated against for his race abroad, Scorsese’s film also occupies the novel’s ambiguous middle ground. Somehow these two values coexist, somehow it all makes sense, and somehow God has not forsaken Rodrigues and these Japanese Christians.  
While the framing of the conventional martyrdom has a direct correlation between form (the Passion) and imitation (historical account of martyrdom), Silence challenges this system by piercing a rift between the two. The imitation—Rodrigues’ posturing as a Christ figure and the martyrdoms that the Japanese authorities force him to behold—is no longer a reliable copy, too distinct from the original to maintain any of its meaning. This is a realm where one can behold without hearing God, bear witness to suffering without deciphering meaning from it. Scorsese’s and Endo’s subversive variant is radically different from the prototypical Christian martyrdom, where the Passion of Christ correlates directly to a martyr narrative, where physical suffering is not only of little consequence but a meaningful pathway to a better existence. Outside of the New Testament’s description of Stephen’s death, Marcion’s account of Polycarp’s execution is the first record of a Christian martyrdom we have. According to New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, the letter is not simply an account of a martyrdom but an account of how one should write an account of a martyrdom, the means by which to find meaning in heinous death and torture:
“Blessed and noble, therefore, are all the martyrdoms that have occurred according to the will of God. For we must be reverent and attribute the ultimate or who would not be astounded by their nobility, endurance and love for the Master? For they endured even when their skin was ripped to shreds by whips, revealing the very anatomy of their flesh, down to the inner veins and arteries, while bystanders felt pity and wailed. But they displayed such nobility that none of them either grumbled or moaned, clearly showing us all that in that hour, while under torture the martyrs of Christ had journeyed far away from flesh, or rather, that the Lord was standing by speaking to them.
The allegorical parallels to the Passion of Christ that Rodrigues uses to frame his own story break at the seams and reveal his position as far lower than the one he envisions for himself. Silence has multiple narrators, but unlike Scorsese's Casino or Goodfellas they’re in succession, not conversation. Following their development toward epiphany and an undercutting of Rodrigues’ self-mythologizing, Endo’s story and Scorsese’s adaptation, written with Jay Cocks (who also adapted The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York), revises this narrative without reversing it entirely. The film explores the shambles of a false perception, what happens when Rodrigues falsely imposes the conventions of martyrdom on his own life, constructing an altered reality. His feelings of self-importance are bolstered by the foundational elements of how Christian martyrdoms are narrativised, which Ehrman lists:
“a person could be put to death simply for claiming to be Christian, and part of the crime involved “atheism,” that is, not acknowledging the existence and power of the pagan gods; suffering martyrdom brings eternal life; the temporary suffering at the hands of human torturers is nothing compared to the eternal torments reserved for those who oppose God; the struggle between antagonistic pagan mobs and Christians is actually a cosmic battle between the devil and God; and God’s certain victory in this contest, seen above all in the death, could not help but attract the notice of pagan on lookers.”
Following what Ehrman lays out here, Silence’s subversion is largely in how it presents the Japanese authorities: ruthless, tyrannical and deceptive, yes, but also economical and in their own twisted way, indicative of a modern form of doubt. The inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) is not asking the Christians to worship Buddha nor is he rashly martyring Christians, which he knows will lead to more resistance; instead, he tortures them, leaving execution as an absolute last resort. Both Inoue and the Japanese interpreter are classically trained by Jesuit priests with full understandings of Christian theology, arguing that although Christianity may hold value in nations like England and Portugal, it does not in Japan; they’re advocates for a culturally relative notion of truth.
In the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom, physical suffering points directly back to God’s will: temporary pain for everlasting life, a claim that is in self-evident opposition to the Japanese authorities. The executions in Silence, far from celebrations, are symbolic attacks on Christian rituals and this alleged connection to some higher purpose: burning at the hot springs as corrupted baptism; hanging by the ears highlighting God’s silence; the use of crucifixes in execution as pastiche and mockery of Christ’s sacrifice. Purportedly, there was no need to pin Polycarp to the stake for he stood and burned on his own volition. The Japanese Christians on the other hand, do not embrace their fate so confidently: struggling, squirming and shrieking as life is slowly stolen from them.
Kichijirio is placed in the role of Judas. Uttering the same words that Jesus said before his disciple betrayed him—“What thou doest, do quickly”—Rodrigues is less a Christ figure that brings salvation to the Japanese people than a Peter, a fallible human who, when put under pressure, denied Jesus three times. Rodrigues’ frames his story as a re-telling of Christ’s suffering, and as such, it is not a critique of “white savior narratives” or whiteness at all, but about the intersection of a colonizer’s mindset with the conventions of martyr stories. Rodrigues’ view of his mission, latent with a sense of cultural, racial and religious superiority, stems from a failure to identify with the Other’s culture and way of thinking. But one part of Scorsese’s film is to break down the character’s self-illusions, developing him to a point where he can “suffer beside” and not “suffer above” the Japanese Christians.
This “suffering beside you” is inherent in the Catholic liturgy. Beholding of another’s suffering, in particular Christ’s suffering, serves as mediator between God and our perception of him. In The Stations of the Cross, 14 paintings or reliefs depicting the day of Jesus’ crucifixion on the Via Delarosa, create a proto-cinematic experience, the faithful walking from image to image, immersing oneself into a place and event in time along Christ’s path to Calvary. The steps from each station are a simulated pilgrimage, using the mounted images as a primer for prayer and an intermediary between spectator and spirit: beholding becomes a means of hearing God, of magnetizing the voice to the image, to the face of Christ. Recreating this phenomenon and subverting its role, the act of beholding shifts from an uncomplicated gaze to an unholy spectacle staged by the Japanese authorities, who force Rodrigues to observe Garrpe’s death, imprison him in a cell with a clean vantage point of executions, and set his apostasy where Christians are being hung upside down. These forced observations by the Japanese authorities corrupt beholding as a means of encountering Christ.
The shots in Scorsese’s Silence fluctuate between two extremes, a mise en scène that identifies the difference between form and original, alternating between polarities: extreme wide shots and close-ups, elaborately configured compositions reminiscent of the work of Akira Kurosawa and tight shots of faces that exude the same empathy for suffering as the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer. This fluctuation of beholding at a distance, and identifying difference between Christ’s face and the face of the Japanese who suffer, exudes a fundamental understanding: If Jesus himself, fully man yet also fully divine, had wondered if God had forsaken him, what can be expected of mortal humans divorced from that privileged access? It is the mise en scène that breaks down the conventions of the martyr narrative, identifying this difference of imitation from the original Passion of Christ. But it’s in recognizing the difference that there is empathy, and if that is in fact any indication of an active benevolent God suffering with them, maybe he was never silent, maybe he never did forsake them.
In the novel, language takes primacy over images, the divide of truth and the ability of words and corresponding concepts to capture it. After Rodrigues is arrested and re-introduced to Father Ferreira, now living under a Japanese name with a Japanese wife, his old mentor argues that the faith of the Japanese was never the true one, rather a hybridized counterfeit misconstrued by the limitations of language: the Japanese Christians are called “Krishtian,” their God is not God but “Deus,” their Son of Man misinterpreted as the “Sun of Man”—all referents to a faith that is material-bound. Garrpe and Rodrigues note that the Japanese Christians’ worship is directed at the objects and relics, not the person of God.
This relationship between language and images is reversed in Scorsese’s film. This disparity, though also linguistic in nature, is primarily visual, as the camera’s gaze, so often taking Rodrigues’ perspective, simultaneously reflects on beholding as a means of communication and reparation with God. If Endo’s novel is concerned with the relationship between culture and language, and how language can express, communicate and carry out God’s will, Scorsese’s film explores that same relationship but with images and sounds—with cinema itself. A multiplicitous signifier of conflicting ideas, the face of Christ in Silence denotes relativism and truth, pain and emancipation, renunciation and faith. Rodrigues’ perception of Christ’s face is idealized: smooth, symmetrical and exuding profound love. The Japanese have a different image, or at the very least, a different perception of what it means. The most ubiquitous representation of the face of Christ in Silence is the fumie, an image of Jesus or Mary that the authorities required suspected Christians to step on and renounce their faith.
Every depiction of Christ’s face in Silence is a representation sculpted by human hands, obscured by subjective perception. But if there is a God behind the representations and the camera’s gaze, it’s imbued in the empathy of the visual choices: the dignity of its cuts and in the forgiveness behind its placements, angles and compositions; the recognition between the differences in circumstances between the conventions of martyr histories and their original incarnation in the Passion of Christ. Scorsese’s form is especially apparent when compared to the only other film adaptation of this same story, Masahiro Shinoda’s Silence (1971).
When the locals who hid Rodrigues and Garrpe are tested with the fumie, they step on it one by one, shaken by their denunciation of their faith. Sensing the Christians’ discomfort, the authorities demand that they condemn the virgin Mary as a “whore,” or spit on the face of Christ. How this scene is assembled encapsulates the difference in Shinoda and Scorsese’s approach, because while the former cuts to the opposite side after Kichijiro has spit on the face, showing his saliva running down the fumie like a tear, Scorsese holds his angle on the apostate’s horrified face, never cutting to the reverse side, choosing to place emphasis on his remorse. Decentering the priest from his own story, Shinoda’s film puts us right in the middle of the torture instead of beholding it from outside. There is no God observing, and if Rodrigues is meant to be his conduit, this fantasy is totally abolished: a critique of the priest by removing the removed perspective.
Silence’s thematic canvas culminates in Rodrigues’ apostasy. Before Rodrigues completes what Ferreira calls “the most powerful act of love that has ever been performed,” the voice tells him to trample: the sounds of the words magnetized to the blank face of Christ on the plaque, as if the words were coming from the inanimate object. With empathy for an act that subverts martyrdom, the camera—as beholder—inspires this experience, or it is a mediator between God and the priest. Rodrigues steps on the face of his Lord; everything goes silent. And yet, in this act that denies God, it is the moment that will make Rodrigues realize that God, perhaps, had not forsaken him. “I suffered beside you. I was never silent,” the voice says at the film’s end.
But this quotation raises more questions than it solves: How does an immaterial and timeless God interact with sense-bound humans? Can we hear him? See him? Touch him? If we can only experience God through our sense perceptions and our sense perceptions of representations, how does that alter our understanding of him? And with this mediated communication in mind, how can we differentiate our own wills from divine commands? That last question, the relationship between divine will and the interpretation of it by humans, lies at the intersection of Silence’s multi-faceted point of view. Deconstructing a colonial subjectivity while, rather trickily, upholding Christian values, Scorsese’s film is an example of Christian art that also works as a reconsideration of its conventions.  
There has been very little intelligent commentary since the release of SILENCE, apart from the default flow of vague tributes to "spirituality" that you expect every time (increasingly) a Terrence Malick film arrives. Thank you for this deeply insightful food for thought.
Agreed - was getting very fed up of every critic saying it's too 'inaccessible' or 'only worth the suffering for Christians who can relate to the crisis of faith.' It might be esoteric but that's not a bad thing.
What an absolutely fantastic piece!

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