“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?’)”
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 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 comes later and is of an altogether different sort, related to the 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.” If Rodgrigues observers the torture without experiencing it himself, then the voice that “suffers beside” him does not identify with physical pain (crucial to accounts of Christian martyrdoms), but rather expresses sympathy for Rodrigues’ internal crisis: the collapsing of his faith. Though it remains ambiguous as to whether or not the voice is Rodrigues’ narcissistic self-justification or the actual words of Christ, Silence nonetheless transposes the Passion narrative on 17th century Japan and depicts 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 maintains the source material's ambiguous perspective. Somehow these two values coexist, somehow it all makes sense, and somehow God has not forsaken Rodrigues and these Japanese Christians.
In conventional accounts of martyrdom, there is 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. Scorsese’s and Endo’s version radically differs from conventional accounts of Christian martyrdom, where the Passion of Christ correlates directly to a martyr narrative, where physical suffering is not only inconsequential but a meaningful pathway to a better existence. In Silence, one can behold without hearing God and bear witness to suffering without deciphering meaning from it.
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 that we have. According to New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, the letter is not simply an account of a martyrdom but a template for how one should tell these stories. Here, then, is a way to find significance 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.”
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 have been 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, we might see how 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) doesn't ask Christians to worship Buddha, nor is he rashly martyring Christians, which he knows will lead to greater 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; in other words, 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. This claim is in diametric opposition to the position of the Japanese authorities. The executions in Silence, far from celebrations, are symbolic attacks on Christian rituals and their alleged connection to some higher purpose: burning at the hot springs as corrupted baptism; hanging by the ears as a way to highlight God’s silence; the use of crucifixes in execution as 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. By demonstrating how Rodrigues’ frames his story as a re-telling of Christ’s suffering, Silence does not critique “white savior narratives” or whiteness at all, but illustrates how a colonizer’s mindset can easily hide in 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 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 another’s suffering, in particular Christ’s suffering, can serve as a mediating act 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 as the faithful walk from image to image, immersing themselves on the 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 undermining its transcendent potential, the Japanese authorities stage unholy spectacles for Rodrigues to behold: not only is he made to view Garrpe's death, but he is also imprisoned in a cell with a clean vantage point of numerous executions. These forced observations by the Japanese authorities corrupt beholding as a means of encountering Christ.
In the novel, language takes primacy over images. 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, but 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.
The relationship between language and image is reversed in Scorsese’s film. The camera’s gaze, so often taking Rodrigues’ perspective, 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 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 loving. 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 as an act of renouncing their faith.
Every image of Christ in the film is tainted by human hands. If there is a God behind these representations, he is made known only indirectly: namely, through shot choices that actively emphasize the resilience, pain, and commitment of these Japanese Christians, and not their acts of denunciation. If this empathetic perspective points to the existence of a benevolent God suffering with the Japanese Christians, then maybe he was never silent, maybe he never did forsake them. The film's formal generosity—and its conflation with a potentially empathetic deity—is especially apparent when one considers the only other adaption of this 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. Sensing the Christians’ discomfort, the authorities demand that they condemn the virgin Mary as a “whore,” or spit on the face of Christ. The differences in how Shinoda and Scorsese assemble this scene demonstrate their opposing views on the material, 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 omniscient God, and if Rodrigues is meant to be his conduit, then this fantasy is totally abolished: a critique of the priest by removing the removed perspective.
Silence culminates in Rodrigues’ apostasy. Before completing what Ferreira calls “the most powerful act of love that has ever been performed,” the voice tells Rodrigues to trample: the sounds of the words magnetized to the blank face of Christ on the plaque, as though the narration emerged from the inanimate object. Amidst an act that subverts martyrdom, the camera—as beholder—mediates between God and the priest. Rodrigues steps on the face of his Lord; everything goes silent. And yet, in this act that denies God, Rodrigues realizes that his Lord, perhaps, had never forsaken him. “I suffered beside you. I was never silent."
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 tricky point of view. Deconstructing a colonial subjectivity while, rather trickily, upholding Christian values, Scorsese’s film is an example of Christian art that also reconsiders many of its conventions.