Thoughts on Martin Scorsese’s “Silence”

It bombed at the box office, which didn’t surprise me. I saw it a couple of weeks ago at the tail-end of its theatre run, and have thought for a while about what I want to say about it. It is not your usual Hollywood fare, far too serious at a time when America is desperately looking to escape itself.

It took director Martin Scorsese years to put together all the pieces to get this film made.  What he produced was a multi-faceted examination of faith, love and the message of Christianity. If he’d stuck with faith and love, the film would have perhaps been more commercially successful.

Silence is the story of Christian missionaries in 17th century Japan, a tale of men wrestling with belief and culture and their own inadequacies. It is not an easy movie to watch, as the Japanese leaders were determined to wipe out Christianity in their country, for reasons never fully articulated.

Or maybe they were. Christians upset the social order, not deliberately but just by their existence. The Roman Empire of the first century A.D. felt threatened by this new faith, so too I am sure did the Japanese more than a millennium later.

Thirty years ago I saw another film, The Mission, about Jesuits in South America. It may have been a beautiful movie, but I disliked it immensely. I didn’t like the portrayal of Christianity. Silence explores similar themes, and the characters wrestle with some of the same issues as those in The Mission, but somehow I find myself more comfortable with the struggle. Maybe it is age on my part, a better understanding of where we humans find ourselves.

Well written, superbly acted, profoundly disturbing, Silence is a timeless film in a way. The movie leaves you with so much to ponder. “How does one really express and live real Christian life?”

Deeply rooted in 17th century Japan, yet eerily current. When the Japanese Christians were being tortured for their faith and dying because they refused to renounce Christ, my mind shifted at the scene. It was as if we were no longer watching an execution on a beach near Nagasaki, Japan, but were instead transported to a beach on the shores of the Mediterranean, to a row of kneeling men wearing orange jumpsuits, seeing behind them the executioners with their swords. The men on that beach too would have lived if they had renounced their faith, if they had chosen to become Muslims. They refused to deny the Truth, and ISIS executed them.

That is one of the reasons films like this are so disturbing. They are a reminder, framed in popular cultural terms, that Christianity is more than a religion. It is life, and people are willing to die for it. The powers that be keep trying, from Nero on through the centuries, but the movement keeps growing. Truth has a way of winning out, even in our post-truth world.

Listening to Scorsese talk about the film and his work (see the clip below) makes me want to go and check out some of his other films that I had previously passed on.

This is definitely a film to be seen, to be contemplated. If you haven’t seen it yet, I think you should.

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