Silence: Pure Theology? 

My religious upbringing was limited to secondary exposure. In North Dakota, “Jesus Loves You” posters, Home Goods’ renditions of suburban Christianity, decorated my grandparents’ home. In Saitama, the day began at my obaachan and ojiichan’s Buddhist shrine Wafts of earthy frankincense from burning incense and the ringing of the rin (singing bowl) dissipating to a crisp silence still permeate my memory. In Providence, my mother carried down superstitions––which had no distinctly spiritual significance to me––but were nonetheless infused in my upbringing: throwing salt after funerals, never sticking my chopsticks upright in food, and so on. My mother often talked about death in vaguely Buddhist terms, frequently recalling a co-workers’ story whose reincarnationist tones were unmistakable. My father took me to a Unitarian Universalist church for a year, which welcomed atheists, yet any memories of sermons have long since disappeared. Most of my close friends who were raised Christian––either in Catholic or Lutheran churches––only spoke of their distaste for such experiences. Ultimately, I never felt truly connected to the idea of religion; even my mother’s spiritual inklings felt awkward, somehow in disjunction with what I perceived as reality. 

When I first watched Silence (2016), Scorsese’s rendition of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel Chinmoku, I was left with unease. The film is of exorbitant beauty––thanks to cinematographer Rodriguo Prieto. But in its almost three-hour runtime, it is also a relentless exercise in spiritual agony. Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), two young Jesuit priests from Portugal, journey to Japan to find their teacher, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly given up the faith. Set in Tokugawa Japan, during the onset of sakoku isolationist policy, Europeans’ attempts to “trade with, influence, and colonize” were strictly regulated (Nye). Rodrigues and Garupe enter a Japan that has criminalized them and their religion; they meet Kakure Kirishitan (“hidden Christians”), who practice their faith secretly so as to stay under the government’s radar. Discovered Christians are tortured and killed by Inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata), who weeds them out by forcing them to reject their faith, stepping on a fumi-e, a carved image of Christ or Mary. Ultimately, Silence is Rodrigues’ story, as he must reconsider his “perception of what it means to minister and have faith, one forged in a European context (Wilkinson).” 

At this purely personal level, Silence excels; it questions what it means to be faithful, offering an answer far more complex than the public imitation of Christ. Marta Figlerowicz writes: “Behind the religion’s hierarchical and ritualistic veneer, Silence earnestly asks how a commitment to Christian values can be preserved and proselytize, even when the believer is too weak to uphold them consistently.” Even as an atheist, the earnestness is felt. Yet upon a second rewatch, some four years later, the sanctity of such an acutely personal exploration of faith turned sour. The uneasiness I was left with on my first viewing was only exacerbated: can the film contend with faith without contending its own undertones of racism and colonialism? Does the Japanese-ness of the story matter?

Chinmoku, the source material for the film, reflects its author’s Japanese Catholic identity––Shūsaku Endō’s race and religion shaping his experiences of otherness. His religion set him apart in a majority Buddhist Japan. Leaving for France in 1950 to study French literature, Endō “anticipated that immersion in the culture-Catholicism in France would be a sort of spiritual homecoming (Dewey).” But racism forbade him from such a spiritual welcoming, and in two years’ time contracted tuberculosis, forcing him to return to Japan. Endō’s deep acquaintance of being Other informed his book Chinmoku (1966): “For [him], there are no easy routes to salvation; a person’s body––its ethnicity, its weaknesses, its susceptibility to pain and desire––is as much his link to the life and sufferings of Christ as a person’s soul (Wilkinson).” His novel, though written through the eyes of a white male protagonist, articulates the racist, colonialist undertones of Rodrigues’ conception of religion––inseparable from a European empire’s formation of power. Scorsese’s rendition touches on the Portuguese priests’ patronization, but conceives a narrative concerned purely with theology.  

The Japanese characters who are given significance, bestowed names and screen time, are Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), a repeatedly apostatized Christian, Inquisitor Inoue (Yoshi Oida), the merciless persecutor of Christians (whose title “Inquisitor” reminds of Catholicism’s own violence), and his assistant, the ‘Interpreter’ (Tadanobu Asano). Each challenge Rodrigues: “Kichijiro is his Judas, the betrayer, and Inoue is a sort of Satan tempting him with ease and comfort in the midst of his wilderness, just like Christ (Wilkinson).” The Interpreter, who translates for the Inquisitor and Rodrigues, urges the Jesuit to apostatize. He also gives the audience one of the film’s brief recognitions of Rodrigues’ (and the other missionaries’) arrogance. The Interpreter squats in the small makeshift prison, a broad-brimmed bamboo hat shadowing his face. He speaks to Rodrigues:  

“There was concern that we might miss certain subtleties in your testimony if you were told to speak only in Japanese….We want it to be fair. And we do have a better grasp of your language than you do of ours. Father Cabral never managed much more than arigataya. All the time he lived here, he taught, but would not learn. He despised our language, our food, our customs.” 

Rodrigues interjects, illuminated by the sun peering in, his “Christ-like glow,” all the more exaggerated by the thick Jesus curls that frame his face: “I’m not like him. I’m not like Cabral.” The Interpreter scoffs, and then affirms Rodrigues’ hypocrisy: “We have our own religion, Padre. Pity you did not know this yet.” True to his missionary ethos, Rodrigues disagrees, affirming the absoluteness of Christianity’s truth.  

Of course, there is irony to both sides of this conversation: the Japanese persecuted Christians, and the Portuguese’s weaponized Catholicism in their colonization efforts. However, the very resistance (and persecution of Christians) on the part of the Japanese is also part of a resistance to European colonization. But Rodrigues never needs to realize this, nor does the audience. When he eventually does apostatize, it is framed as a direct challenge to his faith; he must repudiate a self-image as mirror of Christ and find faith only in silence. As Figlerowicz writes: “If this is Scorsese’s most philosophically ambitious and spiritually pure form of Catholicism, his film also inadvertently reveals its solipsism.” 

Rodrigues’s prison is not the pain of the tortured and murdered Japanese Christians, but rather the stifling of his self-image via their pain. In the crowd of otherwise anonymous Japanese Christians is Monica (Nana Komatsu). She is given a few lines but her central performance is through piercing cries, which embody the pain of her fellow Japanese Christians. Rodrigues watches from his cell as one of the captured peasants is murdered. Wooden bars frame every shot, distancing Rodrigues from it all. The man’s decapitated head rolls towards him as Monica’s pained yells overwhelm. Through Rodrigues’ obscured view, Kichijiro appears and apostatizes for the third time, running away from the characteristically-Christian suffering. The framing suggests that: “…Rodrigues cannot feel the pain of the Japanese Christians whom he sees tortured and killed, except as their pain provokes, or mirrors, his suffering (Figlerowicz, emphasis added).” These people, who in his own words, “live like beasts and die like beasts,” can only reach personhood through embracing Catholicism, and with it European ways of living and thinking. Kichijiro is not just a test to Rodrigues’ faith; it is not just his endless renunciation of the faith that challenges Rodrigues, but too is inability to be colonized under the umbrella of “European salvation (Kang).”   

Silence was, in Scorsese’s words, a “‘pilgrimage’ of sorts (Wilkinson).” The film’s mediation on a particularly Catholic spirituality is long and exhausting, and culminates in a revised vision of faith. Andrew Garfield’s year-long training with a Jesuit priest signals that Scorsese intended to reflect the inherently private nature of such a pilgrimage. And Silence does so marvelously. But Garfield’s preparation speaks volumes: Silence doesn’t care about the issues of race and power that underlie its theology. The depth of historical context in Endo’s novel is entirely absent from the film: 

Silence ignores the economics of why Western faith found a berth in Japan to begin with and breezes over the underlying cultural clash that, one untrustworthy character argues, makes it impossible for Christianity to take root in the ‘swamp’ of Japan (Yamato).” 

Is it not troubling that the film’s empathy for Rodrigues surpasses that for the Japanese peasants, who are persecuted in a country whose inequality drove them towards Christian teachings? The film suggests that faith can exist on both a private and public sphere––even in God’s silence, Rodrigues remains faithful to Him. But even in silence, Scorsese’s film fails to extend itself to others, never quite departing past spiritual tourism.  

*Silence (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2016) is available to rent on YouTube.  


Sources/Further Readings 

Dewey, Brett R. “We Have Never Seen His Face.” 2005. 

Figlerowicz, Marta. “White Men on a Mission: Martin Scorsese’s Long ‘Silence’” Los Angeles Review of Books. January 29, 2017. Accessed March 18, 2021.  

Kang, Inkoo. “It’s Hard Out Here For An Imperialist.” MTV News. January 13, 2017. Accessed March 18, 2021.  

Nye, Malory. “Martin Scorsese would like us to see Silence as a film about religion––but its central issue is race.” Medium. December 24, 2016. Accessed March 18, 2021.  

Wilkinson, Alissa. “Silence is beautiful, unsettling, and one of the finest religious movies ever made.” Vox. January 14, 2017. Accessed March 18, 2021.  

Yamato, Jen. “‘Silence’: Scorsese’s Flawed, Frustrating White Savior Tries To Save Japan From Itself.” Daily Beast. July 12, 2017. Accessed March 18, 2021.