“Silence” by Martin Scorsese, with Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson (2016)

It is not the journey, but the spiritual quest, not the words of the missionaries, but the silence of God around which develops the narrative of “Silence.” More than a film, it is a reflection on the very essence of the credo. It is a film which is not about the events therein, but a delicate process of inner transformation and how it is achieved. Through images, Scorsese engages in an exploration of meaning. This might sound abstract. To explain more fully, I must first reveal the storyline of the film.

Two young priests are granted permission to travel to Japan to rescue their mentor.

It is 1633. Missionaries have been attempting to spread their Christian doctrine to poor farmers but together with the newly converted were fiercely persecuted by an intolerant government. Believers were forced to stomp on the icon of the Virgin Mary and priests driven to tread upon the icon of the martyred Jesus.

Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play the two missionaries that journey to Macao to find a refugee who will accompany them to his home country Japan. Seas and forests, foggy nights, tormented farmers, and the constant threat of being discovered stresses the darkness surrounding the trip. After having hidden in a village and witnessing the cruelty of repression, the priests decide to go their separate ways. One priest will travel to other villages to bring Christian relief, the other will go in search of their mentor.

Finally, it is the young priest played by Garfield that has to prove the strength of his belief and its inner meaning. How much pain of the disciples can he endure witnessing? How can he help the imploring converts find eternal love? How can he best serve the Church? Will his death guide him to paradise or will his condescension to the repressors allow him to discover a new path to God? He ultimately meets Father Ferreira and together with him continues to abide by the Christian doctrine. Their work is only seemingly in service of the Japanese government. A subtle process of learning Japanese cultural differences ensues with the final result being the translation of Christian values to the interested converts.

The film goes much deeper than the surface of the storyline. It’s value as a historical text shedding light on a cultural moment we might liken to the Inquisition is interesting but not comprehensive of the film’s goals.

Scorsese’s film is about those deeper questions. What does it mean to believe? How to be true to what you believe in? How to relate your inner self to others? These questions resonate in the main character’s head. He is tormented by them. Everything surrounding him is the set for his inner thoughts.

I found some aspects of the film of particular interest in this respect. Father Ferreira’s sacrifice, the young Japanese exile’s apparent confusion, and the tablet representing the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ are the most meaningful symbols representing what it means to Believe.

Liam Neeson’s character Father Ferreira, even if the most absent from the screen, is the core of the story. He is the mentor (the impetus of the journey). He is the one who clearly explains the failure of the mission in terms of the teachings of the church (the new converts do not follow the Bible but rather the tellers of the story, the priests). He is the model that the survivors will follow (the surviving priest will emulate him). He is the new Christ: the one who pursues the mission of bringing the gospel to the Other. Given the language barrier, the Japanese will never completely understand Christianity as inculcated by the Church. Indeed, language is a system of words that refers to something undeniably tied to culturally-relative lived experiences.

The young Japanese refugee’s constant repentance is the most humorous representation of the fundamental misunderstanding and abuse of the Doctrine. The repentant-believer’s character hints on how it is simply opportunistic to repent out of fear and guilt more than catharsis.

The holy icons are the symbols of the religion, but religion must go deeper than a mere object. Defiling the icon does not signify the negation of spiritual identity with the Christian message. The teachings can be spread without the icon itself, which were in fact created by the church to achieve the subjugation of the believers, often illiterate peasants. On both occasions, the Japanese people and the Church missionaries both exert their power.

Scorsese reveals here a criticism of the Church as the barrier of true Christian values carried within the heart.

From this story we can find value in cultivating a deeper, internalized sense of spirituality which does not succumb to or rely on a dogmatic system of values dictated by an institution.

Ultimately, the Mission could succeed despite the Church, by way of education and understanding experienced across cultures.

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