Based on an acclaimed 1966 Japanese novel, SILENCE is an historical drama from Martin Scorsese about two Roman Catholic priests in the 17th Century who travel to Feudal Japan to find out if it’s true that a famous missionary priest has committed apostasy after Japan’s ruler began a brutal campaign of persecution against Christianity. Though a little overlong, SILENCE is still a superbly made, often heartbreaking, artistic movie that ultimately paints a strong positive picture of Japan’s earliest Christian missionaries and converts, but some extreme violence and complex theology warrant extreme caution.
The historical background to this story is worth noting. In 1543, a Portuguese ship was blown off course and arrived in Japan. One of the leading feudal lords at the time was intrigued by the firearms the sailors brought with them. So, he started producing his own firearms to defeat his enemies. Eventually, the patriarch of the Tokugawa family joined with this lord to unify Japan. After achieving some great success in the early 1600s, the patriarch began to fear that the Christian missionaries that Portuguese, Italian and Dutch sailors brought with them would convert his subjects to the belief that all men and women are equal in the eyes of Jesus Christ, who is the Creator God. So, he started an intense campaign of persecution against the Christian missionaries and their converts.
SILENCE picks up in the middle of this persecution, in 1633. A revered priest named Ferreira (an historical person) is forced to witness the execution of many Christians. Six years later, word has reached Europe that Ferreira has renounced his faith after being tortured himself. Two Portuguese priests in China, Sebastian Rodrigues (whose mentor is Ferreira) and Francisco Garrpe, ask to be sent to Japan to find out if the stories are true.
The two priests are given a Japanese guide, who’s suffering intense guilt because he too renounced his faith during the horrible persecution and was forced to watch his whole family, who didn’t renounce their faith, be martyred. The three men reach a remote part of Japan, where they run into a group of Japanese Christians, who have gone underground. Father Sebastian, who narrates the story, and Father Francisco hide from the authorities. However, henchmen from the third ruling Tokugawa shogun (a grandson of the original patriarch) soon come to the village and threaten to kill four Christian men, including the priest’s guide, unless they recant their faith. The men have to put their foot on an image of Jesus Christ to demonstrate their apostasy. The guide, who’s returned to the faith, once again renounces his faith, but the three other men don’t.
So, the shogun’s men, led by a diabolically clever older man, tie the three men to crosses on the beach with the tide rising to tumbling heights over their heads. In a heartbreaking scene, the oldest of the three men, a powerful Christian believer, soon dies while one of the men prays for the Lord to accept the man’s soul in heaven. The man who prays lasts several more days, Francisco narrates, and sings a hymn while he finally does die.
Eventually, Sebastian and Francisco decide that one of them should travel to Nagasaki to see if they can find Father Ferreira. The other will leave Japan.
The Takugawa shogunate’s men soon capture Sebastian, however. The clever man from the persecuted village turns out to be the Takugawa shogun’s main inquisitor, the infamous Inoue (“In-o-way”), an historical figure. Sebastian is put in jail and forced to watch numerous Christians being tortured or killed. One man who refuses to recant is simply beheaded. Meanwhile, Sebastian’s interpreter often personally taunts and mocks him and his Christian faith.
Inoue confesses to Sebastian that Japan’s leaders have found that torturing the Catholic priests doesn’t work so well because it often just inspires other priests and their followers. He says they’ve found it more effective to torturing other Christians or even former Christians while the priests watch. So, he and his men start torturing Japanese Christians and even Japanese apostates to force Sebastian to renounce his faith.
Will Sebastian succumb to this new form of torture? Will he ever meet Father Ferreira?
SILENCE is superbly filmed and acted. Director Martin Scorsese does some of his best work directing the movie. Andrew Garfield, who also stars in Mel Gibson’s wonderful Christian movie, HACKSAW RIDGE, once again gives an excellent performance. He’s clearly become THE actor of the moment. Adam Driver, as Father Francisco, also delivers a fine performance, as do all of the primary Japanese actors involved in the movie. SILENCE is shot, however, in a realistic manner using naturalistic realism. This makes the movie play more like an art movie than a fast-moving blockbuster entertainment.
Best of all, SILENCE is nothing like Scorsese’s blasphemous TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Christian faith is respected in the new movie. In fact, despite the apostasy and doubt that occurs during the movie, the ending actually confirms faith in Jesus Christ’s work on the Cross.
SILENCE has some profound theology in it that echoes some of the concerns St. Augustine expressed in his writings. It also asks some astute questions, such as where is God when it comes to the brutal persecution and suffering that occurs during the story. Thus, more than once, Father Sebastian asks himself why God is allowing the Japanese Christians to suffer so much.
Theologically, the movie is a rejection of the legalistic heresy of Donatism, which destroyed the church in Northern Africa and opened the door to the Muslim conquest of Africa. For example, the movie shows that merely stepping on a Christian icon doesn’t necessarily mean anything. After all, should a forced conversion to Buddhism (or Islam for that matter) actually be considered a real conversion?
At the same time, the movie is also a rejection of antinomianism, the heresy of lawlessness. The priest’s guide, who keeps apostatizing but then returning to the faith throughout the movie, is shown to be a pitiable, lost figure, who obviously has never truly been born again. As a result of this depiction, the movie clearly shows that true Christian faith must bear some true or actual fruit or works/deeds showing that your faith is real. Otherwise, your “faith” is probably not really faith empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Eventually, the movie shows that Christ is always with us when we suffer, whether or not we hear His voice. The Good News is that Jesus finally does show up toward the end when Sebastian actually hears His voice, and he makes an important decision. That decision is reflected in the movie’s third act and in its final shot when Christian faith is affirmed.
If there is a criticism of SILENCE – and there is – it’s in the fact that this is a certain kind of denominational movie where Christ’s suffering, and the suffering of His followers, takes center stage. Thus, SILENCE focuses more on the Crucifixion, the suffering of Jesus on the Cross, rather than the Resurrection. Jesus came not only to share in our pain and suffering, but also to overcome both by His death and resurrection. He won the victory for each of us and empowers us with His Grace to be more than conquerors in Him.
That said, the movie contains lines of dialogue mentioning Paradise and the Life to Come, when Jesus will welcome all Christians into His heavenly kingdom. “And, He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” – Revelation 21:4.
SILENCE has no foul language or lewd content. However, there are scenes of extreme and disturbing violence. They include a decapitation, scenes where people are wrapped in straw mats and burned or deliberately drowned, scenes where people are tied to crosses and made to suffer, and instances where people are hung upside down with their heads in a pit after being slightly cut so that they slowly bleed to death. The movie also contains scenes of people renouncing their faith and debating or questioning theological points. So, MOVIEGUIDE® advises extreme caution.
Although it’s not discussed in the movie, there are some historical indications that the Japanese pagans eventually martyred Father Ferreira when, as he was nearing death, he publicly recanted his apostasy. There are also some reports of Christians from overseas coming to visit Ferreira in Japan and, upon their return to Europe, reporting that Ferreira was emotionally distraught and even regretful about the apostasy he committed while being tortured by the Buddhist pagans.
(CC, BB, FR, Ab, VVV, N, AA, M) Strong Christian, moral worldview of brutal pagan persecution of Christians in Japan, with many positive references to Jesus, faith, prayer, salvation, and Heaven, with some references to Buddhism and some theological nuances that may confuse some people and that may require some instruction by professional theologians, including one or two scenes with an ex-priest who makes some arguments against Christianity with a jailed priest and repeats an argument that Japan is figuratively a “swamp” where it alleges Christianity can’t take root; no foul language; scenes of extreme and strong, often disturbing violence with some blood includes a decapitation where the man’s headless body is dragged off screen, scenes where people are wrapped in straw mats and burned or deliberately drowned, scenes where people are tied to crosses and made to suffer (including having water from a hot springs poured or splashed on their heads and/or bodies), and instances where people are hung upside down with their heads in a pit after being slightly cut so that they slowly bleed to death; no sexual content, though priest is forced to commit apostasy and marry a Japanese widow; some naturalistic upper male nudity and partial rear male nudity; brief alcohol use in the form of sake and man appears to be a bit drunk in one scene; no smoking or drugs; and, persecution but rebuked and Christians are forced to renounce their faith but some don’t.
SILENCE is an historical drama from Martin Scorsese set in 17th Century Japan. Two young Catholic priests, Father Sebastian and Father Francisco, secretly travel to Japan, where Christians are undergoing intense, brutal persecution by the shogun running the country from what is now Tokyo. Reports have reached overseas that the leading Catholic priest in Japan, Father Ferreira has renounced his father. Eventually, Sebastian is captured and jailed. The shogun’s inquisitor tortures Japanese Christians to get Sebastian to renounce his own faith.
Though sometimes slow, SILENCE is superbly filmed and acted. Director Martin Scorsese directs one of his best movies. Andrew Garfield, who also stars in Mel Gibson’s wonderful Christian movie, HACKSAW RIDGE, once again gives an excellent performance; so do the other English language and Japanese actors. Best of all, SILENCE is nothing like Scorsese’s blasphemous TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Christian faith is often respected. In fact, despite the apostasy and doubt that occurs, the ending actually confirms faith in Jesus Christ’s work on the Cross. SILENCE does contain scenes of extreme, disturbing violence and some complex theology. So, MOVIEGUIDE® advises extreme caution.