Silence is a difficult movie. Martin Scorsese has been dreaming of this project for many years, only to finally bring it to fruition in the year 2016. A tumultuous year in many respects, a movie with such explicitly Christian themes that plays with the real historical persecution of Christians could come across as ill-timed in a social environment where Christians have continued to cast themselves as such an embattled minority. The movie could, even in the hands of Martin Scorsese, seem to be a subtle defense of this victim syndrome adopted at large by American Christians. However, the final result has a thornier and more complex message, one buried in an obscure and abstract movie of suffering, faith, and doubt.
The premise of Silence is simple enough. In a time in which Christianity had been outlawed in Japan, two Priests are sent to investigate the supposed blasphemy of one of the missionary priests the Church had sent years ago. Christians are being tortured all across the land, and live in secret for fear of brutal reprisals.
The arriving priests, Francisco Garrape and Sebastio Rodrigues, played respectively by Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield, come with preconceived notions both about what their roles will be in the order of the Japanese “Kirishitan” struggle to survive, and the value of the faith of these converts. Racial prejudice underscores most of the priest’s interactions with their Japanese counterparts, questioning the validity of their faith, their ability to understand Christian doctrine, or even their status as similarly human and capable of appreciating the suffering of the priests.
As the priests go their separate ways, Sebastio Rodrigues meets Inoue-sama (Issei Ogata), the brutal inquisitor behind the tactics of repression and torture that have been implemented to stamp out Christianity from the land of Japan. His goal is not to simply murder Christians, however. It is to end what he sees as an impossible mixing of cultures that have no place in Japan. To this end, he cajoles and threatens, constantly painting a picture of Japan as a place in which Christianity cannot be found. He argues that the Japanese soul is incapable of Christian belief, is instead a swamp where the soil is inhospitable to Christianity.
Inoue-sama, proud and protective of his home and culture, the Buddhist faith, and to his concept of justice, works to convince Garfield’s Sebastio Rodrigues that the only way forward is to accept his vision of biologically essential and predetermined cultural boundaries, denouncing Christianity in favor of Buddhism, and admitting that the Japanese soul and soil is incapable of supporting true Christian belief.
Though there are many concerns that run throughout the film, this becomes one of Silence’s most timely and important statements. Its vision of true, deep evil is not simply cruelty, not torture, not violence, but the devaluation of people’s faiths and beliefs in a cultural war for purity propagated by the rich.
Inoue-sama is hounded by flies throughout his screen-time, a visual signifier of his status as this film’s Lord of the Flies, as he cajoles, criticizes, threatens, and attempts to break the faith of Sebastio. He is the film’s devil, but the army he commands is not of demons that share his beliefs and fervor: he is the commander of people he despises. He looks at peasants, monks, and all Japanese civilians as worms that can’t be trusted to care for their own souls. Christianity is not only a threat to the Shogun, who Inoue-sama serves; it is a corruption of the people in his mind, an outside force that ruins their childlike stupidity.
We see throughout the film many cases of people who couldn’t be more committed and righteous in their beliefs; often more so than the priests visiting. The priests struggle to validate their own beliefs and trials, finding meaning in fetishizing the devout Japanese people’s torture. They use these deaths to give their lives purpose and meaning, while simultaneously asserting their belief in their natural superiority, gifting their Christ and his kingdom to a desperate people. They reduce these believers, people who having been introduced to Christianity have wholly adopted it and integrated it into their worldviews, to signs of the suffering of all Christendom in a cruel and pagan world. They reduce specificity in favor of an abstract object, characterized by pain and sacrifice, and only through their observation and recognition are they able to grant meaning to this suffering.
Inoue counters with his degradation and protectionism, attempting to force a denial of faith from the priests. So the movie positions the conflict as one between righteous faith and repression. But then it proceeds to complicate responsibility to the point where there truly is no hope for any group. The people are crushed underneath an isolationist demagogue, interested in only “preservation” of his idealized form of his culture. And the Church continues to perpetuate a victim narrative that ultimately helps them continue as a dominant force in the world.
Donald Trump is now the President-Elect of the United States. He rose to power on a wave of calls for a “return to the good old days” the concept of which remains abstract enough for the audience to project their meanings into. What he has done, what he continues to do, is show the faults of both Sebastio and Inoue-sama. He is a prideful man, believing that he can show a new way for “the people” that he has chosen as valuable; the people who believe in his dogma. At the same time, he advocates for a protectionist state, one in which there will be less freedom, less diversity. Silence is the movie that illuminates modern American politics, and does so by abstracting historical events into a battle of wills in which all sides but the poor peasants are wrong, regardless of their devotion, or lack thereof.