Silence and the End of Christendom

Martin Scorsese’s Silence is the culmination of his nearly thirty-year journey to bring to the screen Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name.  It is a dreary but profound book, accessible to English readers in William Johnston’s well flowing translation.  A Japanese Catholic, Endo could trace his faith to the missionary work of the Basque Jesuit, Francis Xavier, who first brought the gospel to the shores of Japan in 1549.  During what has been called Japan’s “Christian century,” the faith flourished in the country and was held in esteem by the powerful.  At last, growing suspicion of Japan’s rulers toward Western influence ignited the 17th-century persecution during which Silence takes place.  It would last for over two hundred years.

Father Sebastião Rodrigues is portrayed by Andrew Garfield, fresh off his role as Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge and continuing his streak playing a conscience-stricken Christian trapped in the spiritually dismal swamp of Japan.  He and his fellow Portuguese padre, Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), make their way from sunny European Christendom to the dark, mist-shrouded shores of the Far East in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson).  Ferreira is rumored to have apostatized, renouncing his faith under pain of torture, and leaving the exhausted Japanese church without a padre to guide them.

Silence is not a feel-good film, the sort to which church groups will carpool by the busload.  Offered instead by Scorsese is a nuanced reflection upon the messy complexity of faith in a fallen world, laden with doubt, disappointment, and failure.  Likewise, it is not the picturesque Japan of quaint pagodas and peaceful Shinto gardens to which Rodrigues and Garupe are called, but rather the miserable huts of mud-caked peasants, who rot alive in grinding poverty.  The priests minister for some time among the smattering of believers left in the ramshackle village of Tomogi.  They live in constant terror of the samurai, led by Inoue (Issei Ogata), who compel Christians to trample upon an image of Christ or face a torturous death.  One cannot but be moved with pity when the priests explain to an unlearned peasant couple that baptism secures for their child Paradise only after he has lived out his unhappy life on earth.

The fathers are led to Tomogi by the slovenly drunkard Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), an apostate who wanders in and out of faith, abhorring his weakness and groveling repeatedly in confession before Rodrigues.  Even when Rodrigues parts ways with Garupe, Kichijiro lingers throughout the rest of the story.  In the end, Rodrigues fails to plant a heavenly kingdom in the rocky soil of Japan.  But through his own suffering and failure, Rodrigues is led to love in a different way the most wretched of characters, like Kichijiro.  The novel makes this profound truth much clearer than the film, and that Scorsese dispenses so unceremoniously with the tortured Kichijiro is perhaps his greatest blunder.

Scorsese nevertheless deserves admiration for having translated to the screen what is largely a book of the inner life.  Some critics have complained of the film’s nearly three-hour runtime, yet even that is not enough to convey fully the novel’s sense of devastating, interminable solitude.  For pages, Rodrigues stumbles amid the mountains of a forgotten land at the edge of the world, utterly alone but for the agony of his doubting thoughts.  Unable to trust anyone, he finds at length that he cannot even trust himself.  At the root of his desire to convert Japan, and his visions of martyred glory, he discerns a pride that fizzles when he is brought to the end of himself, like a denying Peter.  Though not in the novel, the final image of the film is not inaccurate, given the lasting rumors regarding Giuseppe Chiara, the historical figure on which Rodrigues is based.  It changes the tone of all that goes before and sounds a poignant note that rings true in a time when increasingly more suffer and maintain their faith in silence.

Christianity in the Far East never experienced that mixed blessing that fell upon the Western church during the reign of Constantine in the fourth century.  The Roman emperor’s conversion and ensuing edicts not only secured for Christians relief from persecution, but also established Christendom by uniting the faith with the pomp and glory of worldly power.  It is the seeming impossibility of achieving this in Japan that drives the priests of Silence nearly to despair.  In his prescient 1978 lecture “The End of Christendom,” late British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge foresaw a day when the political and cultural influence of Christianity in the West would be utterly spent: “Christendom has dreamed up its own dissolution in the minds of its intellectual elite[.] … The whole social structure is tumbling down, dethroning its God, undermining its own certainties.”

Into the vacuum, migrant hordes are already spilling across Western Europe, committing unspeakable acts of conquest in the shadows of its great cathedrals.  Is it unthinkable that the faithful in historically Christian lands might suddenly see their fortunes changed, like those in Japan four hundred years ago?  Might some future Father Rodrigues find himself ministering to martyrs in a post-Christian West and wrestling with the silence of Job’s God, who answers from the whirlwind of our own suffering and weakness to silence us?  In the words of Muggeridge, “it is precisely when every earthly hope has been explored and found wanting ... and in the gathering darkness every glimmer of light has finally flickered out, it’s then that Christ’s hand reaches out sure and firm.”