Silence – A Christian Movie Review

If you are reading this you likely are interested in watching Silence, Martin Scorcese’s 2016 film about the persecution of Christians in Imperial Japan.  If you are Christian who loves Jesus, I have a suggestion what you should do instead.  Stomp on your own foot repeatedly until the urge goes away.  Though this will surely hurt, it will ultimately be less painful, frustrating and discouraging than watching Scorcese’s theological mess of a movie.  It will likely be just about as personally fruitful.

Silence is a movie that twists the message of Jesus in so many ways, large and small that it is really hard to even sift through.  It hides the deception in an emotional veneer of faithfulness under persecution that makes it hard to detect.  It is like Scorcese learned from The Last Temptation of Christ that explicit blasphemy would put people off, so he chose to be much more subtle with this movie.  It has all the man focused theology and lack of understanding of Jesus but this time it goes down smoother.

Can you tell I am not a fan of this movie?

Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests from Portugal who set out for Imperial Japan during a time of intense persecution.  Christians in Japan are being brutally tortured and killed in the tens or hundreds of thousands by the ruling warlords of the time.  The movie omits there had been a violent and bloody civil war in the region prior to the persecutions where the Roman Catholic population supported the losing side and was partially paying the price for this rebellion.

From the beginning in Portugal, we see the subtle corruption and enticement that is presented in the movie.  Christians love missionary stories.  We love tales of fearless men and women throughout history who have given their lives for Jesus.  Initially, it seems like the bravery and desire to sacrifice of the young Jesuits is from this same motivation.  The fact that they then are met in Japan with intense horrific persecution seems to confirm the claimed nobility of their cause.  As a Christian, it is tempting to get sucked in and think it must be God’s work to go to Japan, as one of the characters says in the movie.  They are risking their lives to bring Jesus to Japan, why are they suffering so much is the question that the movie is designed to elicit.

Yet, the priests, played by Kylo Ren and Desmond Doss (Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield), are not venturing into the great mission field of Japan for Jesus specifically, to spread the Gospel or to minister to the saints. No, they are setting out to find one guy from their order who may or may not have disclaimed Jesus.  They are undertaking great danger to find Liam Neeson, a Jesuit missionary who was their teacher and who is rumored to have apostatized. Talk about zeal without wisdom.

Their stated intention is to find Neeson’s character, Ferreira.  They have a relationship with him and want to prove that he did not desert God.  During the movie, they even put the Japanese Christians they come into contact with in great danger because they really, really want to find Ferreira.

They ask for strength from God to carry out their mission out, but there is no indication that God is actually leading the charge into Japan.  If He were, one would think that the fate of the thousands of Christians who need ministering to and millions of Japanese who need to hear the Gospel would be a higher priority than one Portuguese priest.

Neeson’s character is based on a Portuguese priest, Christovao Ferreira who did indeed go to Japan and recant his faith in Jesus under persecution.  In the truth is way worse than fiction category, a mission was sent into Japan after Ferreira by the Jesuits with two Jesuits sent to find Ferreira and see if he did renounce his faith.  Shockingly, two Jesuits were also sent to volunteer to be killed by the Japanese authorities to make up for Ferriera’s failings.  These actions reflect a very strange view of God.  Evidently, His honor requires defending and some of His people are worth more to Him.

The strange view of Christianity is further revealed when the priests arrive in Japan and meet the impoverished, miserable and persecuted church of the small Japanese coastal villages around Nagasaki.  Their lives are depicted as nasty, brutish and short and Christianity is expressed as the reason for this terrible life.  When the local warlord comes upon the villages and kills a number of the Christians in tortuous ways, the priests are wracked with guilt over what they have done to the peasants by bringing the faith to them.  Paul couldn’t decide which was better, to stay with the church to serve or immediately die and go to Jesus, yet death is seen as the worst possible outcome by the priests.   “How could we possibly have brought them the message of victory over death to these poor people?” seems to be the priests lament.

Much attention is given to the suffering involved in ferreting out the Christians, forcing them to renounce their faith and then killing them.  The people are depicted as ignorant and dirty with rotting teeth in contrast to the well manicured, civilized and smiling soldiers and Japanese leaders.   The movie’s message appears to be the Christian life is all suffering, poverty, and death for these people and it would be better had they never heard of Jesus.  Even the strongest eventually understand it is wiser to give up faith then continue suffering, cause suffering to others or die.

Unless, of course, the Christian message is true.  Then you have an eternity of joy, peace and God’s presence that more than deal with a short time of great pain.  Then they have brought the people living under horrible, unjust wicked leaders the only message that could actually help them.

Scorcese creates a bizarro world where the blame for horrifically torturing and killing people does not fall on the ones who are doing the acts, but on the ones who brought the Christian faith to Japan.  He crafts a strange Christianity where the only question is how far your strength will last under persecution before denying the faith.  Even those who die for their Lord Jesus in the film are painted as if they died for very little.  An eternity in glory with their Creator is treated like an afterthought to the ever-present now.   There is no real God in Scorcese’s faith, just icons and pain.

In short, Scorcese’s Christianity looks very little like the Christianity of the Bible or the faith the changed the world for Jesus.  Scorcese’s is self-centered, man-powered and small.  It is focused on the now rather than on eternity.  The faith of Paul, Peter, Perpetua, and the martyrs throughout history never suffered from these problems.  It is likely a reflection of one man’s tragically flawed view of faith under pressure.

I wanted to throw something at the TV screen as I watched the priests perform mass and pray for believers who are under unimaginable persecution in Latin, a language they don’t understand.  They are about to face torture and death for Jesus, so let’s pray to Jesus for deliverance in a language that Jesus did not speak and that the person can’t understand, that makes perfect sense.

Silence also pretends to be unknowingly profound and deeply theological.  It presents God as silent throughout the ordeal of Andrew Garfield’s character.  God only speaks after the persecution is successful and Garfield’s character steps on an image of Christ.  He consoles him stating that He, God, was with the priest the whole time.  The priest then lives out the rest of his life opposing the work of Christians in Japan and repeatedly denying the name of Jesus.  When he dies, his wife slips a small cross in his hand before his body is burned in a Buddhist ceremony.  Was he really a believer?  Will he go to heaven?  These questions are supposed to be haunting and the message has caused controversy among Christians.  Could God forgive him?

My response is, frankly, does it really matter for us as Christians?  God’s direction is very clear not to live like that.  He is very clear that to deny Him is a very bad thing, no matter the circumstances.  Our marching orders directly from Jesus are to go forth and make disciples.  There is no limitation of that order from the King to when it is not dangerous or painful.  Jesus promises that the reward is so much greater than any suffering we will face. Sure, the thief on the Cross makes it in at the very last second, but he is not our model, Jesus is.  A faith without any works is likely dead according to James.  But it is up to God.

So can a 16th Century Portuguese priest get to heaven after denying his faith in order to save others while having secret faith get to heaven? That one is up to God to answer and I am sure He will answer it perfectly.  He may be just that forgiving.  But if your God is just there to tell you it is ok after you have tried to gut out life in your own strength and failed, that is truly not much of a life in Christ.  It may be Martin Scorcese’s view of a life in Jesus but it certainly was never the Apostle Paul’s.

Silence is an extremely frustrating movie as a Christian.  It presents a very troubled view of faith that is so focused on the flesh that it entirely misses the point of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit is entirely absent. Though I found the movies well done cinematically, I would not waste my time with it.  Even free on Amazon Prime, it is preferable to distract yourself with a lesser immediate pain like stomping your own foot that goes away quickly then to endure it.

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3 thoughts on “Silence – A Christian Movie Review
  1. I read Silence in July. I haven’t watched the movie because I didn’t want to see the tremendous suffering and torture described in the book to be depicted on screen. The images I have in my mind from the descriptions in the book are bad enough. The movie would give me a second set of them. I can do without that.
    Nearly all of your statements about the movie can be said of the book. The book was written by Shusaku Endo in 1969 as a novel based on real events. The book attempts to piece together the evidence of the events after Francis Xavier stepped onto Japanese soil in 1549. The book has been problematic and controversial. I think Scorsese would have a tough time making the movie any more controversial than the book, although he has the ability to do it – I’m no fan.
    The translator’s introduction is vital in understanding the history, the story, and Endo himself. The movie doesn’t provide that. I don’t want this to be a long comment, so, in brief I’ll point out the following that may, or may not, have been clear in the movie:
    1. They were Catholic missionaries; therefore, the Latin makes perfect sense. The Mass was in Latin even when I was a boy. I didn’t understand any of it either.
    2. When the leader Hideyoshi heard from a Spanish pilot that the Portugese used missionaries to prepare the way for military invasion, the great persecution started and increased under his son, Ieyasu, and then Bakufu.
    3. The enforced poverty of the Christians was part of the overall strategy of persecution, recantment of faith or extermination.
    4. The dogged determination of the two missionaries to find Ferreira, determine his fate, and to verify whether or not he had committed apostasy, can be explained by understanding his importance. In short, from the Jesuit perspective, it would be the same as living in 1972 and hearing rumors that Billy Graham had converted to some other faith. If he had, it would undermine missionary zeal and potentially cause many to lose their faith.
    5. The intent of the book was to show how difficult it is for the Japanese/eastern culture/mindset to embrace Christianity. The low percentage of Christians in Japan’s population today may be a reflection, perhaps a better one than the movie, of this assumed inherent incompatibility.
    I don’t know if any other this helps, but there it is.

    Rob Oberto

    1. Hi Rob – thanks for the thoughtful comments and added perspective from the book. Historically, this is a fascinating time with a ton of different things going on that play a part in the persecution and cruelty that are frankly not covered in the movie. There are therefore many different ways that Scorcese could have handled the movie. He just chose to depict a very bleak, powerless, and self centered version of faith that was really unpleasant to watch. It seemed to be, in essence, an example of when someone doesn’t understand the Gospel and its message tries to make a religious movie.

      That said, Japan and its response to Christianity is also a fascinating subject. A society that comfortably committed all of the genocide and war crimes of the Nazi Germans without any moral objections and never really dealt with it has to have some serious issues. On an interesting note, one of the Doolitle bombers from WWII and one of the Pearl Harbor attack leaders teamed up after WWII and toured Japan preaching the Gospel, Jacob DeShazier and Mitsuo Fuchido.

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