It is a mystery to me why Martin Scorsese’s last movie Silence, about Christian missionaries in Japan, premiered at the Vatican. Although Scorsese is Catholic and at some point in his life even wanted to become a priest, it seems that more than just offering a historical account of an encounter between cultures and religions, the movie critically interrogates the viewer about Christianity. For 2,5 hours the movie’s characters are confronted with questions that have plagued the religion for ages, and they don’t get answers. Instead, they and the audience are left puzzling over some of Christianity’s central principles.
The movie, set in the mid-17th century, follows two Portuguese priests who travel to Japan to find the man who used to be their mentor but reportedly renounced his faith and continued life as a Buddhist. Along their search, the two priests meet a few groups of Christians who practice their faith in secrecy as the Japanese rulers have outlawed the religion. By that time, European efforts had already resulted in the conversion of hundreds of thousands of Japanese to Christianity. Those who after the ban decided to keep practicing their faith were called ‘hidden Christians.’
In the movie, the small communities of Christians are overjoyed at the priests’ arrival: finally they can have confessions and mess. Living in a village without clerics, they couldn’t confess their sins to anyone and be forgiven, and thus were trapped in knowing that they were unable to reach salvation. This shows the possibly problematic consequences of the institutionalized character of Christianity. The practice of confession necessitates a clergy: it is not a faith that you can practice completely on your own without connection to a church, such as in a remote village in the Japanese jungle.
Sin and confession
The need for confession (as well as baptism1) is very critical in Christianity, for the religion teaches that human nature is inherently sinful. To blame is of course Eve, who disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, leading to the Fall of Man and burdening all people with the stain of the ‘original sin.’ This is something you are born with: everyone has morally corrupt inclinations. (To complete this crash course in Christianity: the reason Jesus came to earth is to carry the sins of all people in their place, so they will be able to go to Paradise. In that sense he was sacrificed, hence the ‘Lamb of God.’) Thus, because individuals inevitably sin every now and then, and redemption can only come (from God through Jesus) through a cleric, confession is a fundamental necessity for a life that is aimed at reaching Paradise. The movie’s Japanese Christians live the cruel reality of first getting introduced to the idea of confession as the only way to be rescued and then being left with no way – priests – to do so.
This rather negative image of human nature, in which sin is unavoidable, leads to a cycle of sinning and confessing. In the movie this is addressed through taking it to the extreme, by one of the Japanese Christians who served as the priests’ guide. He repeatedly betrays them, renounces Christianity to save his life, and comes crawling back asking for forgiveness again and again: “Please let me confess. Bless me, padre, for I have sinned. I am sorry for being so weak. I will try again to be strong.” This happens so often that one can hardly think of his remorse as genuine anymore. The priest asks himself how Jesus could love a ‘wretch’ like him, just before he once again forgives him for what he knows will not be the last time.
The movie shows that, to identify Christians, the Japanese rulers urge people to step on a stone with an image of Jesus carved in it (the fumi-e) or to spit on a cross. Doing so would mean renouncing Christianity and would set the captives immediately free, making them escape torture and death. The confession-addict is repeatedly compelled to do this by his natural human drive to survive and avoid pain and misery. He wants to live, although he is tangled up with the world and his understanding of his religion. Christianity tells him that avoiding suffering in exchange for what seems to be a simple harmless movement is a sin that closes the gates to Paradise. Christianity also explains him why he sins: the human is inherently weak and bad. Finally, it offers the solution: forgiveness through Jesus so you can still go to Paradise. The problem and the solution come as a package, problematizing human’s natural inclinations.
Prosecuted by their rulers, throughout the movie the Japanese Christians are tortured to death in various ways. One of the priests, too, is killed, while the surviving one repeatedly ponders a question which since long ago many a theodicy has attempted to answer: why does God allow so much misery in the world? The priest is of course well aware of the purpose of suffering in Christianity, a religion founded on a man who sacrificed himself to save mankind. He says “I pray to be on trial, like his Son.” The idea of the desire to suffer is with us from the beginning of the movie: the opening scene shows a number of crucified Christians experiencing severe pains and we are told that some of them in fact asked to be tortured, so they can demonstrate the presence of God within them.
But confronted with the extreme ordeal of the Japanese Christians, the priest is increasingly disturbed by the question when too much is too much. “Why did God make them bear such a burden?” “Why do they suffer so much?” He can’t explain the apparent passiveness of God: “Why the answers I give them seem so weak?” “Why is their trial so hard?” “How can I explain His silence?” The movie holds the Christian idea that suffering serves a greater purpose against the light. It raises the question whether martyrdom – being killed for your faith – is actually meaningful. And martyrdom is not just an outdated ideal: in his YouTube review a bishop cheers the heroism of those in Silence “who died a horrific death defending their faith.” The movie itself however takes no standpoint. Maybe the tortured are rewarded in the afterlife, maybe not.
Silence shows the Japanese Christians struggling with their understanding of their faith while the priest struggles to explain to them notions he had maybe never problematized. A mother’s happy face goes blank after the priest has to deny that baptism guarantees entry to Paradise. “No, but God is there now” is his unsatisfying answer. Later on, the priest loses himself for a brief moment when he frustrates over his fellow captives’ calmness in the face of death. “But isn’t it good to die?” a girl asks him. “Paradise is better than here. No hard work, no tax, no suffering.” The priest can only agree, while the doctrine he wholeheartedly followed all of his life is crumbling before his eyes.
Christianity helps people to accept and endure a life even if it’s very difficult. The miserable situation of many poor peasants in Japan explains why hundreds of thousands of them converted to Christianity: it brought the positive message of a promise of salvation in Paradise as an escape from their hardship on earth. Their deplorable lives were suddenly not without purpose anymore: their suffering became meaningful and would be rewarded. It’s a hope that essentially involves not much more than passive waiting for better moments – aptly, in the priests’ native language, Portuguese, ‘to hope’ is the same word as ‘to wait’. In Japanese, the word ‘hope’ doesn’t have a proper direct translation.2
Language has been a great barrier for the European missionaries in Japan in their attempts to spread the doctrine of Catholicism, all the more because they were introducing new concepts that were sometimes untranslatable. The word for God was initially translated as Dainichi, which happens to be a deity in Buddhism, making some Japanese think that the priests came from a new Buddhist sect. Another option, the word deusu (as in Deus), was found to be too similar to the word daisuso, meaning big lie.3 In the movie, the lost priest-turned-Buddhist claims that Catholicism had always been wrongly understood in Japan, saying that the Son of God was misinterpreted as the sun of God. “In Japan, the Son of God rises daily.” The two priests too find themselves repeatedly lost in translation: “We listened to their confessions all night, although we couldn’t be sure what was being confessed.”
Religion to improve a life
From an atheist’s point of view, religion can be explained and justified on two grounds. It can be reasoned that a society as a whole can function better if based on a religion that deters people from doing bad things or revolting (by the belief that they will ultimately be punished). The other level is the individual’s: by nature, people search for a sense of belonging, (moral) guidance and certainty. Religion accommodates people’s minds by offering answers to unanswerable questions about their surroundings, life and ethics. Christianity, like other religions, offers a coherent account of life to hold on to – maybe just not a very cheerful version, imbuing believers with feelings of guilt in return for hope (no guarantee) for salvation in Paradise.
For devout Christians however, the question is of course not whether the religion’s message is joyous or not: what matters is that it is the truth. And if the truth isn’t pleasant – well, too bad. The Japanese rulers show in the movie more pragmatism in their approach to Christianity: “we find it is of no use and no value in Japan.” The priest tries to convince them: “we believe we brought you the truth. The truth is universal. If it isn’t the same in Portugal as in Japan we couldn’t call it the truth.” His lecture is countered by a metaphor: trees might flower in one soil and die in another. “You don’t understand Japan,” the priest is told. Convinced of his truth, he replies: “you don’t understand Christianity.” We are shown the dialectics of the encounter of two world views: one of the main ideas the movie puts forward is the relativity of truth.
The title of the movie refers to the silence of God. The priest keeps asking God and Jesus why they are so quiet. Why don’t they tell him what to do? Why don’t they save him? Why don’t they stop people from making his life so difficult? (Granted, his sorrows are marginal: he is never tortured himself but only suffers psychologically from witnessing others suffering.) Did God leave them? Eager to assure themselves of the opposite, the two priests are awed by the sight of an overflying bird and interpret it as a sign of God. It happens during a rare moment of sunshine and tranquility in the movie: they lay their heads in the conviction that God is by their side. A sign for what, though? Shortly after they discover they are being watched and have to rush back into their refuge.
During his captivity, the priest is forced to look at the torturing of Japanese Christians and the other priest and is asked to apostatize to save them – the Japanese’s strategy is to try to win the priest over to their side. The argument is brought up that “if you are truly a Christian you will apostatize and not let them die – Christ would have apostatized.” The priest-turned-Buddhist who once was his mentor likewise urges him to step on the carved stone to stop the suffering. “A painful act of love,” he admits, but: “it is only a formality.” The priest refuses: such is the meaning given to a simple movement.
There is a degree of hypocrisy in the priest’s attitude. Upon seeing all the suffering, the priest repeatedly begs the tortured to apostatize to save their own lives. If however he himself is asked to apostatize to end his followers’ suffering, he refuses every time. That raises the question: what is the ultimate motivation of his faith? That he doesn’t want to go to hell? Why does he want others to apostatize (and thus end up in hell), just to make their earthly life less painful and to save the priest from the sight of their suffering? “They did not die for nothing!” he cries out, trying to justify their torment to himself. He is countered by the cruel fact: “they died for you.” The truth is slapped in his face: “the price for your glory is their suffering.”
All that time, there is silence on the part of God or Jesus, giving him no solution to the cruel choices he is faced with. Disowning God and Jesus is out of the question for him, yet how can he defend causing so much misery? In a response to the movie, a Catholic author remarked that Silence raises “the sinister possibility that Christian faith and love are internally conflicted, making a lack of integrity, at least in extreme circumstances, inevitable.”4 At the very end of the movie, when the priest can no longer bear seeing his followers being slowly tortured to death and is shown hesitating before stepping on the stone with the image of Jesus, we finally hear God’s Son talking to the priest. And what does He say? Just step on me.
Finally, the priest apostatizes. But he has to be told by Jesus to do so, whether this voice comes from inside himself or not. Maybe the movie’s ultimate lesson is this: to think for yourself and act upon it. To me, the movie shows blind adherence to certain principles to be irrational and possibly harmful. It is preposterous indeed to think that one ceases to be a good or faithful person after putting ones foot on a carved stone. Religion should have the effect of improving the life of an individual and the people around him or her. Being a good person should mean, I would say, leading a moral life and that includes avoiding suffering if you can, and pragmatism if needed. I have never understood why unconditional determination should be praised.
The movie doesn’t take a stance: the priest isn’t shown to grow over the course of the movie into realizing the relativism of truth, and he can be applauded for either steadfastness or opportunism. After his apostasy, he lives the rest of his life as a Buddhist in Japan, though we see him trying to cope with internal conflict. After he dies, he receives a Buddhist burial, but the last shot shows his body holding a cross in his hand. The fact that he has had to live with this inner struggle for years illustrates what negative consequences it can have when a religion convinces someone of one absolute truth. The priest probably led a good life after his apostasy as much as he did before, but he is profoundly worried about whether he is doing the right thing because of the belief in the definitive truth of Christianity that was instilled in him.
Having said all this, I understand that the movie can be taken to mean different things, or not aims to convey a message at all. This is brilliantly done by Scorsese, whose beautiful directing of the movie even landed him a meeting with the Pope. Yet, to me the movie is fundamentally critical towards Christianity because the type of questions it raises elaborately emphasize the religion’s problematic sides. I’m puzzled whether the clergy at the Vatican upon watching the movie did not see or wished not to see the critical undertone.
- The only sacrament possible for Japan’s hidden Christians was baptism, because that could be done by lay people if no priest was available. This meant that they were at least able to save their children from the bizarre fate of hell or limbo in case of premature death.↵
- According to a quote in this article, it is either translated with “ibo, meaning desire, or nozomi, which describes something unattainable.” I have been told that to express hope Japanese would rather say “it would be nice if…”↵