It’s hard to watch Silence, Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited religious epic. It’s hard, first, because of all the torture: torture by crucifixion amidst crashing waves, by being hung upside down with your head in a pit, by boiling water poured, over and over, upon your flesh. But also hard is grappling with a moral dilemma that no longer seems like much of a dilemma: Which would you choose? To deny your faith or to allow innocents to suffer?
Silence, based on the 1966 Shusako Endo novel of the same name, is about two fifteenth- century Portuguese Jesuits, Rodrigues and Garrpe, who travel to Japan to find their mentor, Ferreria, a priest who is rumored to have apostatized. (Ferreria is an actual historical figure, by the way, and Endo was a Japanese Catholic, whose novel is considered one of the finest of the twentieth century, especially well-loved by Catholic intellectuals.) The movie focuses on Rodrigues, and while Scorsese’s film is about many things, it’s primarily about whether Rodrigues should deny Christ for the good of the world.
For a secular audience, and even the modern world’s secularized Christians, the question is hard to fathom. Our modern era has just as many questions about suffering, but they take on different ethical shapes. Should we put limits on immigration, allowing more distant suffering to maintain a particular lifestyle here in the states? Should we donate all the money we can to those who most need it, or should we give to our own communities, or simply our families, or just enjoy it ourselves? And what does need even mean? These are complicated questions, but what’s striking about them is how they’re all ultimately questions about bodies, about a material world and how humans can best exist within it.
Those aren’t the questions Silence asks. Or, rather, those are the questions Silence asks, alongside—and within—bigger questions about God, the souls God made, and then where those souls end up when bodies die. And the questions all hinge on refusing to deny Christ, even unto death. Christians have a long tradition of refusing to make gentle accommodations to apostasy. For other religions, this is not such a huge deal, precisely because it’s not necessarily fair to blame people for leaving the faith if doing so would mean the end of a life that could otherwise serve God secretly, not to mention children and the other humans who need them. Even within Catholicism, the question of whether denying your faith is a mortal sin is a tricky one, primarily because a sin’s seriousness depends on its relative freedom, and torture isn’t exactly free.
Yet Christianity is a religion famous for its martyrs and, knowing this, the Japanese inquisitor informs Rodrigues that he will not have the privilege of becoming a witness in death. Instead, he will have to watch as others die, selfishly holding to his own sanctity. This is not a new problem in Christian theology: There are similar debates about pacifism, and whether a total aversion to even moderate violence is more about the pacifist’s purity than the good of the world. It’s a similar sort of puzzle to Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, but without the hint that the Christian world, while harder, is nonetheless better for the soul right here on Earth. A Christian life, Dostoevsky tells us, is a free life, right here, right now, even if it might be an impossible one.
We get no such promises from Endo. We are promised an afterlife, and the certainty of its superiority gives Rodrigues’s fellow prisoners a hope which Rodrigues cannot fathom. His God is too silent, his fear of others’ suffering too intense. Yet it is the afterlife that makes all of this life make sense, as well as what the afterlife reveals: a transcendent order that affirms the least of these, that insists the poor and filthy peasants whom Rodrigues serves are as worthy—even more worthy—than the wealthy ministers who torture him with their deaths. There is a world beyond the suffering of this one, a world for which our suffering is both preparation and test. And yet there is also a Christ who came into this existence, who bled and died and wept and made this world liveable, because of his sacrifice of course, and the example recorded in the scriptures, but also, for Catholics, because of the Church he instituted. Silence is certainly a movie about Christianity, but it also very much a movie about Catholicism, first for its focus on icons and imagery and the holy things you can hold, second, and primarily, for its insistence that what keeps the faith alive are the sacraments and that what keeps the sacraments alive are the priests. That makes Rodrigues’s moral dilemma all the more intense: By denying his priesthood to save particular bodies he might damage those bodies’ particular souls.
Yet there is another deeply Catholic sensibility to Scorsese’s film, something reflected in virtually all of his work. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” and there is a sense in Catholicism that the purpose of this life is still very much this life and not simply a preparation for the hereafter. Old Protestant stereotypes of Catholics are worth remembering. Catholics drink too much. They have too much sex. They fight and yell and cry. Then they go to confession and do it all again. Scorsese’s Catholic vision captures not only the power of human fragility but also the beauty and joy of it. In the film, Rodrigues is always touching someone, and it is a powerful demonstration of the possibility of celibate intimacy. When he holds his brother Jesuit—for warmth, for strength—we never get the sense they are lovers, though it is entirely obvious that they love. Rodrigues is always connecting to human bodies—and it is their dignity, their being made in the image of God—that makes his moral choices so complex.
A need to explain suffering is often given as the cause for belief in God. It’s our own suffering that makes us believe there must be some transcendent meaning for why the race is not always to the swift, or, more prosaically, why bad things happen to good people. Yet for Max Weber, that gets it all wrong: We can deal with our own suffering, he thought. It’s others’ suffering that has to explained. We develop a belief in gods—and then the complex theologies to support those beliefs—because we sense on some deep level the unfairness of other people suffering while we do not. We want to do something about it. So we can believe. Or, in the case of Silence, we can deny our belief.
Yet this is a secular framing again. Even if we believe that the problem can extend from bodies to souls, the question is still one of how best to serve the needs of others. But what if the only real question is how to love God?
George Orwell wrote a famous review of Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter, one of a long series of excellent mid-twentieth-century Catholic novels, of which Silence was very much a part. In it, he writes that Greene “appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingué in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class night club, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only, since the others, the non-Catholics, are too ignorant to be held guilty, like the beasts that perish.” Silence, whether the film or the novel, has none of these problems, primarily because it’s never clear to us where the moral lines are. Rodrigues at times seems to hear the voice of God telling him what to do, and, in the film, he is given visions of an image of Christ. The dilemma here is not the difficulty of doing right but the near impossibility of knowing what’s right, a classic Jesuit problem within the spiritual exercises, and for which the answer is less a matter of certainty than a matter of discernment, slippery as that word comes to be.
Both the film and in the novel share with Greene a focus on the pathetic sinner, in this case the Jesuits’ guide in Japan, Kichijiro, a man constantly drunk and treacherous, whom Rodrigues describes as not even capable of being called evil. He asks at one point why he had to be born in a time when it was so hard to be a Christian: Why could he have not had a life where to be born and to die believing in Christ required no great effort?
The paradox of the Christian life is that this is both true and not: On the one hand, Jesus assures his followers that his yoke is easy and his burden light (Matthew 11:30) yet on the other, he asks them to be perfect as his father is perfect (Matthew 5:48), reminding that many are invited but few are chosen (Matthew 22:14). Christianity should always be hard: The Protestant way around this is to insist that works have nothing to do with our salvation anyway. The Catholic solution is the sacraments, dispensing divine life again and again.
I found myself quietly crying as Kichijiro kept asking to make his confession. Yet one Protestant criticism of confession is that it allows people to just keep sinning, knowing they’ll get out of jail again when they need it. It’s never clear to us if that’s why Kichijiro acts the ways he does—he seems too pathetic to be that guileful. If nothing else, his yearning for a priest’s absolution reveals his sense of a world beyond this one, an awareness with real stakes. Yet the question for Silence is not whether another world exists but how such a recognition should affect our lives here.
Silence ranks among the great cinematic treatments of religion, along with those of Dreyer, Bresson, and Bergman. It bears comparison to Joffé’s The Mission (also about missionary Jesuits, also featuring Liam Neeson in a supporting role), though it’s more thoughtful, less on-the-nose about the big important sacrifices.
The film raises other big questions: about the nature of missionary works and its relationship to state power, about the possibility of every religion being right in its own way. These are questions that land differently in our century than they did in Rodrigues’s. Yet the film’s biggest question is Christianity’s oldest. Jesus famously cut the greatest commandment into two parts: to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. He left it to the Church, and to art, to figure out how to make them work.
Jeff Guhin is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.