Silence, Martin Scorsese’s film from the novel by Shûsaku Endô, is about two young Jesuit priests, searching 17th century Japan in hopes of finding their mentor who, it is rumored, was tortured for his faith. Beneath this surface, it is about the question of finding meaning in life, and showing mercy on that path - to each other, to ourselves; the evolution of religion - as an oppressive power or a way of understanding the nature of life and the common good; and about the possibility of being transformed from within by love, even amid a swirl of noise and aggression that aims to terrorize all dissent. Scorsese was first made aware of the novel when promoting another film based on a story by a challenging spiritual seeker, The Last Temptation of Christ. That movie, released in 1988, was met with protest by folk whose experience of Christianity skewed toward repressing doubt, lest the recognition that someone else might think differently somehow pollute your own faith. But not all Christians felt that way - a helpful bishop, pronouncing The Last Temptation “Christologically correct" sent Scorsese a copy of Silence; for nearly thirty years now, he’s been trying to make it a movie. It’s an astonishing work, fully alive, a portrait of faith and love, willing to confront rage and terror, refusing anything other than the most disciplined path, taking seriously the question of just what life is. I imagine I will never forget it.
You might say making this film is an act of faith, because audiences need to be sought out for Silence; there are no explosions, most of the picture is quiet conversation, there is much suffering. The spectacle is within. Most obviously within Father Rodrigues, played with immersive breath by Andrew Garfield, tender, afraid, alive; and his brother priest Father Garupe, who Adam Driver invests with zeal, strength, compassionate rigidity. These men are willing to search, and to serve, and to suffer. They have been captivated by a light worth dying for, but they are not fundamentalists in the sense we might apply the term today: their work is for the common good, and when an Inquisitor shows up (Issei Ogata, measured menace), the conversation is about wholeness, not conversion.
The Japanese Christians are played by an cast of extraordinary range. Taught by earlier missionaries that the core truth of Christianity elevates human beings to “a little lower than the angels”, they yet must live their faith in secret. If caught, they are coerced to step on an image of Christ, to publicly deny their faith, or die. Civil authorities cannot abide the kind of revolutionary teaching that might lead people to stop believing in the myths on which such power rests. Rodrigues and Garrupe are overwhelmed when they first meet them - people willing to risk their lives for a story, in hopes that it might be true. Of course the embodiment of that story in community is part of what makes it so, whatever the literal value of its source; but when these folk offer confession, it’s a reminder of how healthy religious practice needs to find a place to safely hold the tendency of human beings toward neurosis; to teach perfection is to invite despair. It’s here where Silence may be most heartbreaking, most inviting of a response. One character, Kichijiro, played with profound empathy by Yôsuke Kubozuka, who helps the priests, then betrays them, then repents, before repeating the cycle, got a few laughs at the two screenings I’ve attended. But he’s not a figure of fun - what the film reveals about his history, and his need, could be the new definition of why it’s necessary to acknowledge that most of us are only one piece of information away from empathy with even our worst enemies. More than that, he represents a step in religion’s evolution - the mid-point between belief in a punitive sky monster and the kind of consciousness of cosmic love that can include everyone, even ourselves.
Given that there is so much fear and uncertainty in the air, in the U.S. and elsewhere, some may feel we are currently living in a Silence moment. But suggesting that the US is living through its worst days ignores the history of slavery, or the Trail of Tears; however, at a time when rhetorical power is used to bully or even just to slice through another’s dearly held views, Silence is a balm. It’s an invitation to ponder what it might be like to allow the story of love with which all healthy religion dances to permeate daily life, rather than merely provide catharsis in our hardest - or happiest - moments. Looking back at how human beings have been willing to open to the other, and to no longer tolerate one generation’s dehumanization in the next, Silence invites the reflection that the meaning we call God might most be experienced as One who enters into our suffering, enduring with us. That’s a religious teaching, but Silence isn’t just a gift for religious viewers. It’s an exquisite, humane, passionate work; made by a man who has been exploring masculinity, violence, and the possibility of redemption ever since he left seminary nearly sixty years ago. He says cinemas are cathedrals - I think he means that movies can help us lament or heal, teach us what we’re for, show us that we’re not alone.
The contemporary Jesuit teacher Steven Sundborg says that spirituality is your lived relationship with mystery; and my friend Brian McLaren tells me that ritual is a way of bonding meaning with the body. Silence is a spiritual experience, and if you can find a cinema that knows how to treat the watching of films as the ritual it deserves, please, take your time.