SILENCE (Movie Review)

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**** out of ****
Rated R
(for some disturbing violent content)
Released:  December 23, 2016 limited; January 13, 2017 wide
Runtime: 161 minutes
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Issei Ogata, Yôsuke Kubozuka, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds

Available to rent through Amazon Video or buy on Blu-ray and DVD. Proceeds from purchases made through these links go to support this blog.

Ranked #1 on My Top 10 List For 2016

What have I done for Christ?
What am I doing for Christ?
What will I do for Christ?

Silence is the most important film about Christianity ever made, and it comes from the filmmaker who made one of the most blasphemous.

That other film, infamously, is The Last Temptation of Christ, also by director Martin Scorsese. How the two movies can be reconciled (if at all) is for another discussion and, more importantly, of no import to the specifics of this one. On its own merits, Silence declares the glory of the Lord.

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Based on the novel by Japanese author Shûsaku Endô, Silence has been a passion project of Scorsese’s (a devout if admittedly struggling Catholic) for nearly three decades. Set in the 1600s, it follows the quest of two Portuguese Jesuit priests, Fr.’s Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), who set out in search of their mentor Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson) after he goes missing in the hostile anti-Christian nation of Japan, where he was on mission.

That premise is not the driving plot but merely a springboard that brings the priests to this feudal era of Japan and its indigenous underground Christian church. It was a place and time in which Christianity was illegal, as were missionaries, and citizens had to register as Buddhists. This was enforced with the most brutal forms of persecution imaginable, from depravation to torture, ones depicted in disturbing fashion from the opening scene and throughout.

Suffice it to say, in 17th Century Japan many of the popular doctrines of modern American Evangelicalism had no relevance (let alone credibility) under such dire, violent trials.

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And yet there was a Church. Hiding, in secret, desperate for priests, for guidance, for confession, for communion, for being right with Christ. Or when found, they were willing to endure torture, at length, even unto death. Scorsese’s unflinching depiction becomes a meditation, not one that’s simply philosophical or contemplative but visceral. Yes, there are ideas, but the meditation rises from the horrors witnessed.

For the non-Christian this is a compelling experience that lacks proper words to describe, though it’s clearly due in great part to the artistry that Scorsese and his team wields, powerfully so, and that any viewer (regardless of faith or no faith) would be captivated by, and left shaken. A masterpiece, it’s as much an artistic achievement as a spiritual one.

For the Christian (I’m a confessing one), Silence confronts us with a meditation that we cannot escape, that we must not run from. It’s vital to not only face and contemplate such suffering but, more importantly, the willingness to suffer – even invite it – especially when violently coerced to deny Christ by word and debasing action.

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This meditation is in the context of the title: silence. Not simply the state of silence, but the very real experience of God’s silence. This is something we cannot answer but must wrestle with, and ultimately submit to, for it is a mystery. God does not provide a reasonable explanation. Instead, we can only grasp this mystery through His Son. Jesus Himself felt forsaken on His cross, and endured it too. Even He suffered in silence.

Here, we see Japanese Christians follow Christ’s example. As I took it all in and absorbed it, I couldn’t help but ask myself: am I worthy to call myself a Christ follower? Does my piety honor Christ? Does it honor the persecuted? The martyrs? Lord have mercy.

My Christianity cannot be about my salvation alone, nor can my salvation be alone. It must be willing to face any test, endure any suffering, and indeed share in all suffering.

Yes we are saved by Grace, but also by action and confession. It is in proclaiming Christ that we are in true relationship with Grace. Anything less than action and confession is a mockery of Grace.

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The persecution and torture here is all at the hands of an old, perversely ruthless tyrant called The Inquisitor (one of the most memorable villains to hit the screen in ages). He makes the case that a tree (Christianity) cannot take root in a swamp (Japan), and therefore it is both impractical and arrogant for the priests to not respect this. And yet this “reality” actually reveals a spiritual truth; Japan is not the swamp, the tyranny of the regime is.

The Inquistor’s path of mercy is a twisted, sadistic one. Some Christians he tortures never waiver. Others do. But how do I judge the weak of spirit? A Judas-like betrayer? What does that judgment say about me? Is it a judgment against me? “Remember this,” St. John Climacus wrote, “and you will no longer judge: Judas was an apostle, and the thief crucified at Christ’s right hand was a murderer.”

To the degree that a viewer thinks or considers that The Inquistor’s “swamp analogy” may have a point – even despite his indefensible, barbaric means – that is the very sign that we, as viewers, cannot judge the choices of those who waiver, ones without the luxury of weighing this perspective in the comfort of a theater recliner. Judgment is the Lord’s but, as this necessarily grueling parable makes clear, fidelity is ours.

Theologically, the grays of this film are in the situations, not the doctrine. Even so, there’s a key moment late in the movie that is very dependent upon one’s interpretation of it. Read one way, it’s definitely unorthodox. But read another (as I did), it’s not unorthodox at all, and even makes sense. It’s a bit of a Rorschach test, likely provoking a viewer’s instinctive core beliefs. Regardless, the moment could legitimately be read two ways, not strictly one, which opens it up to discussion.

The ending, too, creates conversation, not resolution. It doesn’t tell us how we should respond; it requires us to ask, and to examine ourselves. For the Christian, Silence stirs the sincere believer to truly work out his or her own salvation, but not merely in the academic or the abstract. Scorsese’s magnum opus provokes discipleship, allegience, and submission to Christ and His Church in the most profound, challenging way that any work of art ever could.

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