It is common for a movie to send a message. This is almost the universal goal of every movie. The filmmakers have an idea that they want to get across and they use their characters and actions and plot to further this idea, whatever it may be.
But what happens when a movie isn’t really trying to tell you anything? What if its goal is to raise questions for the viewer to think about and process so that they can decide for themselves what they think about certain topics? A movie like this still has themes and ideas that it brings up and presents to the audience, but they aren’t the focal point. They aren’t what the filmmaker wants you to take away from the film. In this situation, as previously mentioned, the filmmaker wants you to think for yourself about the topics at hand.
To move away from the abstract and hypothetical, this method is employed in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which is a film about two Jesuit priests who go to Japan to find their mentor in the 17th Century. This mentor is thought to have committed apostasy and abandoned his religious faith. The film follows their journey, which is full of many questions, few clear-cut answers, and spiritual growth. (Spoilers ahead)
The film opens on a group of men tied to poles outdoors having boiling hot water dripped on them until they basically disavow God. As this is happening, one of the men says, “Praise Jesus Christ.” And right from that moment, the viewer begins to wonder a few different things: how can anyone torture someone else because of a personal belief they hold? How can a person’s faith be so strong that even in the face of almost unknowable pain, they are still praising their God? Is it really as important as these people seem to think it is to profess with your words and actions that you are a follower of God? In other words, is it acceptable to apostatize but still have a relationship with God in your heart? Are human lives worth less than an ideology that a single person holds?
This final question is what the film mostly focuses on. It even offers part of an answer to the question, but more on that later. There are many instances of voiceover from Father Rodrigues, one of the two priests, throughout the movie. When he and fellow priest, Father Garupe, make it to the first small village of oppressed Christians in Japan, Rodrigues’ voiceover asks, “Why do they have to suffer so much? Why did God choose them to bear such a burden?”
The audience is left wondering the exact same thing. These people have not done anything to harm anyone else. They are simply suffering for a belief that they hold. Yet they are being faithful to that very belief.
Further on in the movie, we find that these people are starved and “desperate for tangible signs of faith.” So they begin to latch on to the priests and items like crucifixes to help themselves feel like they are getting something for their faithfulness. But Rodrigues begins to “worry they value these signs more than faith itself.” The people seem to put the priests up on a pedestal and almost see them as God Himself, more than vessels for His messages.
Some of these people are eventually crucified because they are discovered as Christians, and that is when perhaps the most hard-hitting line of narration is said. Rodrigues wonders, “Surely God heard their prayers as they died. But did he hear their screams?” At this point, even he is wondering whether God is watching over these people that so desperately need it. He begins to think of himself as “a foreigner who brought disaster.”
The focus for the rest of the movie comes from this train of thought. These people almost seem to be followers of only Rodrigues, and not followers of the Gospel that he is bringing to them. Because of this, he is at risk of building up his own image and having a higher view of himself instead of furthering his powerful faith.
Rodrigues implores these people to apostatize in public to save their own lives. Some do and some just can’t bring themselves to do it. Rodrigues is one of the people who can’t bring himself to do it – for most of the movie. In the end, he apostatizes and renounces God to save the lives of about eight dying people.
What is interesting about this action is that it is not explicitly shown to be the right or wrong decision. Obviously, as an audience, we want the lives of innocent people to be saved. But we have also seen the strength of Rodrigues’ faith and the good that it has brought. So when he is in the situation where he has to decide what to do, we want the movie to present us with the right answer. We want to be told what the right thing for him to do was.
But it doesn’t.
It shows the after effects of his actions, but they are still rather ambiguous. He is forced to apostatize over and over to further prove his loyalty to Japan and their religion and culture. But at the end of his life, the audience is presented with the image of him holding a small crucifix. It is implied that even with his repeated apostatizing, he still followed Christ in his heart.
Whether if this decision is right is up to the viewer to decide. Again, the movie gives no clear answers. The whole point is for us to think deeply and to go back and watch again. A movie such as this needs to be viewed multiple times because of the sheer amount of questions and themes that are brought up. To a Christian audience, they are incredibly important to think about and to have a personal stance on. It strongly challenges the notion of a safe Christianity. For non-Christian audiences, the actions performed by the characters in this movie inform on Christian beliefs and practices. For all audiences, no matter their religion, it brings up questions and ideas about human nature. They are important questions that need to be thought about from an important movie that needs to be watched.