“Silence” by Martin Scorsese and the silence of Holy Saturday

The film adaptation of the 1966 novel “Silence” by Shūsaku Endō has been out for a really long time, but I missed it in the cinema and I then didn’t really know whether to watch it because of the reactions to it. As I had 3 hours to fill on Holy Saturday, and my husband had not seen it either, we decided to go ahead. It seemed like a fitting subject for a day that, liturgically, is about the silence of God when in the tomb. Contrary to Twitter’s opinion that I have a celebrity crush on Adam Driver, I had no idea he was in it. I knew Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield were, and in fact, I was more than aware of what the latter was saying at the time about the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. It was the first time I felt like I should do them (I still haven’t). This post contains spoilers of the story, so go ahead at your risk. 
I haven’t read the book, which I intend to, so this reflection is just about the film. One of the controversies surrounding it is the seemingly positive attitude of the filmmaker (who was raised Catholic but I don’t know what is his relationship with the faith is at present) towards apostasy (which I don’t know whether it reflects the attitude of the author of the book, who was a practicing Catholic). I have to say, I don’t really see the positivity. In an interview at the time of the release, Scorsese said:

That’s what was so compelling about telling this story. Because how could you support that? Or how could you champion his choice, his decision? Then you say: “You put yourself in that place. Think about the weakness of the human spirit. The weakness of humanity.” And I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it over the years myself too. I’ve experienced it with people making the same mistakes over and over again, and there are only certain people around them going to help them or be with them. It’s a test. The problem is like in “Mean Streets,” the character Charlie chooses his own penance. You can’t do that. [Laughs.]

This, to me, hints that I may be right. We are supposed to sympathise with the choice made by the missionaries from our own weakness, knowing that they can rationalise their sin however they like (don’t we do that in our own lives all the time too?) but it still remains the wrong choice and we have to live with it. The open ending raises a question, was it a secret sign the fire had never truly extinguished, or just a reminder of one’s mistakes because he couldn’t forgive himself? Or something else entirely? That’s the beauty of great cinematography, it speaks to us of ourselves and forces us to ask questions about ourselves. We experience catharsis and growth. My husband and I had some of the deepest conversations we have ever had in the 3 years we’ve known each other when discussing this film. 

The juxtaposition of such a gloomy film with the Easter Vigil and its theme of fire, light, water, and song was really powerful. The truth is, I wish I was like the Japanese martyrs, but the reality is that I am more like Fr Garupe. I can sympathise with the struggle of wanting to save people. I don’t think the death of Fr Garupe is truly heroic, it comes across as slightly tinged with desperation: were they trying to imply he didn’t trust that he could be martyred if he faced the choice like his companion, and so took it on his hands not to have to face it?

Perhaps I’m reading something into it that wasn’t there, but I still think he did the right thing and what I think I would do in the situation. I am the kind of person who wouldn’t kill the one man to stop the trolley from killing the five, and I have a tendency to not want to play God, but the reality is that this is all in abstraction. While there were real historical people behind the romanticised characters, I never faced the same choice and, please God, never will (to an extent, I never could because I’m not and could never be a priest). Still, I could one day have to face the reality that I am, in fact, Kichijirō.

We may have different sins but it’s not like we aren’t all hitting the confessional time and again, often with the same habitual sin we really want to face but can’t (incidentally, before watching the film my virtual retreat’s small group had lectio divina on Romans 7:14-24 following a talk on virtue and vice which really complemented the film perfectly). In the end, both Kichijirō and Rodrigues scare me as a possible side of myself. The latter, in particular, is an example of why the virtues are always in the middle: while on the surface Rodrigues’ choice is altruistic, in the end, it wasn’t. More souls than just his were endangered by his desire to save the lives of a few. What would have been a good and godly character trait became the very weapon that brought down his downfall.

I don’t think he was hiding the fear of being martyred behind a concern for others: the film was very deliberate in stressing how the idea that the shepherd should save his sheep was what twisted him away from what he knew, which is that the shepherd should lay his life down for his flock (John 10:11). His ambition to be a good shepherd, when lies had replaced the truth of the Gospel, was his main weakness. In a way, death would have been a sweet release for a man like that. A long life of living with the consequences of that would seem more like a fitting punishment. That’s something else I can sympathise with, as I have a tendency to mull over my mistakes even if I know my sins are forgiven. 

Finally, one thing that I find significant is the alleged hearing from God that the apostasy was fine. Various commentators have seen it differently, from the voice of the Enemy to a delusion created by Rodrigues himself. Perhaps it was meant as a test that he failed, who knows. I don’t think it was necessarily meant to approve of his choice because Scorsese’s films always live in the tension and I have no reason to think he would pick this story for any other reason than how it opens up our humanity. Either way, it opens a question about forgiveness. In the Easter story, we have Judas and Peter, both betraying Jesus but then ending up in completely different places. The ending leaves us with the question of which path he followed. Perhaps it was a death bed re-conversion.

Whatever it was, it’s not a position I want to find myself in. Luckily for me, within an hour from that ending, I had the Paschal bonfire in which to burn my old self, the light of Christ to guide me in the darkness, the water of baptism to renew me in Grace as I remade the promises taken for me 31 years ago almost to the day, and the song of praise in the joy of the Resurrection that was promised to me, which ended the longest Lent for generations. 

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