Martin Scorsese’s Silence is not the kind of film that aspires to popularity.
Partly this is because, as a viewing experience, it feels at times like an inventory of increasingly horrifying ways to die. Words like “harrowing”, “grim” and “punishing” pepper the reviews.
Partly as well, I suspect, it’s because the internal logic of the story – the logic, to put it baldly, of martyrdom – is so alien to us.
The film is a retelling of the 1966 Shusaku Endo novel of the same name, which follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests to seventeenth-century Japan, where they risk torture and death alongside native Christians at the hands of a hostile shogunate.
Much of the film narrows down to one urgent question: to trample, or not to trample, on the fumie, the image of Jesus or Mary used by the Japanese religious authorities to flush out Christians – who would typically refuse to step on the likeness of their beloved Lord or his revered mother.
As the stakes mount, the weight bearing down on this one tiny act makes the decision seem more and more arbitrary. Can it really matter? Can it matter more than someone’s life? What could matter more than avoiding pain like this – at least for others, if not for oneself? What does it mean, after all, to die “in vain”, or “not in vain”, as we are so fond of saying?
It is tempting, from our padded cinema seats, to write off the anguish and intelligence poured into this question – to trample, or not to trample – as so much sound and fury, signifying very little when all’s said and done. This is not only because the threat of terrorism in our own time has given religious zeal of this intensity a bad name. Might it also be that we just don’t talk anymore in terms that would make Father Rodrigues’ (Andrew Garfield’s) situation intelligible to us?
The exotic organism at the heart of Silence, simultaneously fascinating and repelling us moderns, is that old botherer, conscience.
It’s a bit player at best in the daily scenes of middle-class life – though more often, perhaps, because we haven’t done the intellectual and imaginative work necessary to connect up the dots, than because there’s no room for its exercise in the midst of school drop-offs and KPIs and evenings at the pub.
One of the most compelling – and troubling – characters in Silence is the Japanese Christian Kichijiro, who acts as a guide for the Portuguese Jesuits. In this nightmare world of blood and burnings, courage and cruelty, Kichijiro finds that his faith is not, after all, the stuff martyrs are made of.
In one especially poignant scene, he protests that in another time – the years before the persecution came – he could have died in his bed, an old man, a good Christian. “It’s so unfair!” he cries. The comfortable Western believer shifts uncomfortably in her seat; that’s me, I think. Can I imagine showing any more courage or consistency than Kichijiro in his place?
I think of Brunhilde Pomsel, who died in January this year at the age of 106. She was one of Joseph Goebbels’ secretaries at his propaganda ministry. And though she was sentenced to five years in prison by the Soviets after the war for her role in the Nazi regime, she doesn’t really think she did anything wrong.
“Those people nowadays who say they would have stood up against the Nazis”, she said in an interview last year, “I believe they are sincere in meaning that, but believe me, most of them wouldn’t have.”
Right and wrong, courage and conviction, are so much easier in retrospect. We have no doubts that slavery is a great evil; we have no doubts that the Nazis were the bad guys. From there, we identify with the William Wilberforces and the Dietrich Bonhoeffers of history – of course we would have been abolitionists, of course we would have opposed the Holocaust, even at risk to our reputations, our jobs, our lives. We drastically underestimate the costs involved – and, probably, our own inertia.
And yet a seemingly minor act of conscience can “change the world”, after all. I think of Martin Luther, who spoke what he saw, and when the weight of the established church was brought to bear on him, famously (if apocryphally) said: “Here I stand, I can do no other”. He certainly did say – with the fear of exile and death hanging over him – that “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe”. His resistance, wobbles included, set off the seismic shift in Western culture known as the Reformation.
And I can’t help but think of Frodo Baggins, crushed under a burden self-evidently too large for him, saying to Gandalf, “I wish it need not have happened in my time”. “So do I,” Gandalf says. “And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Acts of conscience, large and small, can seem arbitrary, even absurd, from the outside – not least the religious obstinacy on display in Silence. The film’s many deaths strike the viewer as not only appalling but futile, wasteful (“in vain”). But that does not make the question of whether or not to step on the fumie meaningless.
In an interview last year with the Centre for Public Christianity, Peter Hitchens described religious belief as “the only thing which ultimately stands against total tyrannical power”. Once that power has swept away the rule of law, the independent courts, freedom of speech and of the press, and so on, he explains:
Only the individual can stand against it in things which are small in scale but often tremendous in nature. These individual acts of conscience in which the person involved gives his whole attention not to the demands of the temporal absolute power but to the higher power of good are the moments at which ultimately Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong have no way of influencing.
If a man stands before you who doesn’t fear you and does fear God, then your power is at an end. That is the limit of the power, and it is one of the reasons why all totalitarian utopian systems are so hostile to the religious ideal.
At a time when religious persecution around the world is at least as intense as it’s ever been, the question of what happens when conscience collides with power is more significant than we might expect – certainly more significant than the individual compelled by their conscience (I can do no other) tends to expect.
And at a time of “alternative facts” and bullying pulpits, the question of where we draw the line – arbitrary as it may look to others – is rapidly becoming an everyone question. Perhaps the internal logic of Silence is not so foreign after all.
Natasha Moore is Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge and is the editor of 10 Tips for Atheists .. and other conversations in faith and culture.
Illustration: Paramount Pictures/YouTube.
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