May 31, 2017


I saw Martin Scorsese's Silence back in January and I have been thinking about it ever since. It is a film about the persecution of Christians in Japan in the mid seventeenth century and the real phenomenon of priests who went there from the Spanish possessions in the Philippines and,after capture, recanted their faith. The story is based upon a novel by the Japanese novelist Shusako Endo, which reimagines the story from the point of view of an imagined priest (SebastiĆ£o Rodrigues) modelled on Guissepe Chiara. There is so much that is of interest in the film and the story: for a start, the mid seventeenth century is an important point in the history of Japan. Japan is not the only country to have partially formed through the persecution of a religious minority- you could say the same of England and Spain for example. There is also the story of the Japanese Christians which is touched on here, who survived through this persecution right down to the present day. Lastly there is the story that I think Scorsese is most interested in, the story of the priest who recanted and why.

The history of Christianity is the history of an extended meditation on this theme. For the Church Fathers this was a real issue or one that was real in living memory. The early Church was persecuted under Emperors such as Nero, Decius and Diocletian. The son of God, according to Christians, met his death in an act of religious persecution. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church said Tertullian in the 2nd Century. Furthermore those images have resonated down the centuries. Martin Luther, for example, cast himself in their image when he went to the Diet of Worms. Martyrdom is key to Christianity- so the real challenge of this film is explaining how a priest, who went to Japan knowing that persecution was happening, knowing that he would be captured, confessed.

The first thing to say is that we don't and can't know why the priests who recanted confessed. Neither I, nor Scorsese, nor Endo have any access to what they thought or why they did it. Even memoirs would be self serving. So all we have is an imagined thought experiment- why did they confess? What I think is interesting about this film is that it provides a Christian counter narrative for that confession. The argument here is that the priest who does not confess is arrogantly seeking to sacrifice others for his own vanity. Confessing is a way of saving the lives of others. The inquisitors do not threaten the priest with torture and death, they say that if he holds out, they will threaten his followers with torture and death. Notice for a second that I have used the word life- not soul. This to me is the real weakness of the argument of the film. There is a Christian case for allowing people to die when they are being persecuted- for tonight they shall be in Paradise. I found this argument on first sight therefore rather weak. It seemed to miss the point of Christian theology. Augustine for example continuously says in De Civitate Dei that the focus of human hope and human fear should be on the City of God not the City of Man.

This is not an easy dilemma but its one on which I think Silence largely turns. Scorsese seeks to address this dilemma in part by having his main character at the end of the film face Christ himself who commands him to make the decision to recant. We can see this as an easy way out for the director. We could also see this as part of another tension in Christianity between the word- scripture- and revelation from God directly. This conflict played its way out in the seventeenth century- just take the English Civil War- but also in the Catholic Church over time, with the conflict between the Church hierarchy and various orders of monks, nuns and friars. Is the Christ that we see a devil or really Christ and how would someone, racked by hunger, listening to the screams of his co-accused, realising the pain and agony that is to come, make that distinction?

I am not going to answer any of these questions. Theologically, there are probably cases on both sides. What I feel is so interesting about Silence as a film is its attempt to take us inside these dilemmas, to let us try and imagine what the right decision for this priest in Japan might have been. From a secular view point in the 21st century, admittedly one I probably subscribe to, that choice seems obvious- confess, recant and save lives. What I think the film almost does and where it does do this, it succeeds in being a great film, is show us that that decision for a 17th Century Catholic priest was not simple nor was it morally uncomplicated.