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Reflections on Scorsese’s Silence

I’ve been teaching a 17-week online film course for high school students. My students read Through a Screen Darkly, keep reading journals where they respond to what they read, participate in a private Facebook group discussion about film interpretation, watch a wide variety of movies, and write reviews of them.

One of my students, Carly Anderson, made a special request for her final film review. Even though she watched one of the assigned films along with her classmates, she also went out to see Martin Scorsese’s film Silence, and she was inspired. Could she write about that instead?

I was delighted by her enthusiasm. I was even more pleased with what she turned in.

So, with her permission, I’m sharing this — her passionate paper on a difficult film, one that made a strong impression on her.

Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson in SILENCE by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films.

清、この夜、ほしは、光

(kiyoshi, konoyoru, hoshiwa hikari)

This is the opening line to “Silent Night,” in Japanese, and I will never forget singing it with faltering words to a room full of small Japanese-American children after a Christmas church service. Something settled into my heart that night as I tried to carry on conversations in a language that struggled to roll off my tongue. I stood at the head of a small community room with a few of my other nervous classmates, a worn-out hymnal in my hands, and watched as a room full of Japanese Christians smiled and moved their lips along to the beloved words. Makoto Fujimura’s book Silence and Beauty was weighing heavily on my mind and I could not help but see this tranquil scene through a lens of sadness for the “mud-swamp of Japan.”

This year I have been taught by a Japanese pastor and his wife who are trying to teach Japanese children about their heritage, both Christian and Asian. They also run free classes for high school students where they teach Japanese through the lens of the Bible. Much of our vocabulary has come from books full of hymns and Christmas carols. I am constantly amazed by this couple; their self-sacrifice for their community, their bravery, and their love for Christ are inspiring to say the least. Unlike many of their countrymen, they have accepted the gospel of grace, a gospel so difficult for their people, and internalized it. It is because of them that Martin Scorsese’s Silence (沈黙) affected me so deeply.

My friend and I sat in tearful shock as we watched the film. Expecting the normal credits and opening soundtrack, we were greeted with severed heads, Christians being tortured with boiling water, and absolute silence. A despairing priest, Father Ferreira, speaks into this awful scene, saying he has not abandoned the faith, but even as the words are spoken, he falls to his knees in the mountain ash with nothing more to say.

When word reaches Portugal that he has apostatized, renouncing God in public, his two students, dedicated Jesuit priests like himself, follow in his footsteps. They set out to bring the gospel to “the ends of the earth” and rescue their despairing mentor. With a desperate Japanese man named Kichijiro, who has renounced his faith to escape death and watched his family burn for their God, they enter Japan in secret to bring hope to those who continue their faith alone. They have no idea what awaits them.

The acting was unlike anything I have ever seen. I did not feel as though I was watching a movie or even a documentary. I kept tearing my eyes away from the screen and glancing around the darkened theater to convince myself that I wasn’t in Japan. Andrew Garfield’s performance left me speechless and spellbound for I was entirely convinced of his sincerity.

The movie was visually ingenious. It irrevocably convinced me of Scorsese’s brilliance. The beauty of the setting stands in stark contrast to the horror of the story. The screams of the burning, the drowning, and those whose blood soaks the earth are the only soundtrack, filling my mind as I watched. It felt as though I was watching a mental war. Because we had studied the language, my friend and I could understand every word the Japanese Christians were screaming, even the words that weren’t subtitled. Their desperate pain and faith tore at my heart, posing a thousand horrible questions. Is there salvation after you renounce your God? Can you still love Jesus and publically proclaim that he does not exist? How many times can you fail and betray what you love before forgiveness runs out.

This is not a film of pat answers and easy morals. It does not present heroes who have all the answers, only dedicated men who risk everything to enter a hostile Japan. It is difficult and straining, but that does not mean it is without hope. Father Rodrigues, the main character, commits his greatest sin during a frenzy of compassion, unable to endure the groans of his fellow Christians who are a bleeding and screaming in the service of a God they have already rejected. He is a kind man who rejects Christ to save the suffering. His guilt consumes him and his compassion is erased by despair as he is forced to do the work of his enemies, but his mission is not fully ended and the faithful of his past and future become a quiet mission. His companion, Father Garpe, may have been stronger and more fiercely dedicated, but his trials were not the same. Father Garpe’s body was assaulted and his limits were tested, but the Japanese set out to destroy Father Rodrigues’s mind and faith.

What would we do? The answer is unclear. In this dizzying movie the strong become weak and see their own frailty, while the weak find the strength to die for the faith that will not let them go. After the silence has been endured, when Rodrigues can hear the voice of God again, it seems that grace has not entirely forsaken the lost. It seems that his greatest moment of weakness is when he hears the voice of Christ most clearly.

Much like Japan’s culture, this movie is a swamp of symbolism, confusion, and unbreakable faith. Of the 200,000 Christians in Japan during the Edo period, at least a thousand were martyred and many of the rest died in hiding, persecuted and poverty stricken. They died for a symbol and no answers were given, but even in the silence there was light.

Perhaps it is true that Christianity cannot take root in Japan, but even in the last moments of the movie as the murmurs of the Buddhist monks filled the air, I felt a strange sense of surging hope for a country that may not remain as it is forever. The movie’s final image is burned into my mind because it is an image of faith in brokenness, worship after failure, and trust after denial. Perhaps Peter felt the same way on the night Jesus died. He had failed in his faith and denied his savior but even as the sound of the rooster’s crow echoed in the air, Peter became the cornerstone of a new and faithful church.

Perhaps, even in the “mud-swamp” of Japan, the gospel of Christ will someday take root. Even through failure and despair and human weakness, it will reach into this “Silent Night” at the very ends of the earth and bring light to a desperate people. I have seen Japanese people accept grace with my own eyes. I have seen their kindness and open bravery and, even in the silence and trauma of their past, I have watched them begin to sing.

Carly Anderson is a high school senior from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a historical fiction enthusiast, an obsessive writer, and an amateur musician. On the side, she quotes “The Princess Bride,” reads Japanese comic books, and makes amazing guacamole. 

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University) and film studies (Northwest University and Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's worked since 2001 as a film critic and columnist at Christianity Today, and he's been a regular contributor to Image, Paste, and Christ & Pop Culture. His writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. Want to invite him to teach or speak? Email joverstreet@gmail.com.