Silence – A Christian Movie Review

A Secular View of Christian Persecution

You don’t have to be Christian to be part of a great Christian movie.  Many of the quality faith based movies include artists who don’t follow Jesus.  They are actors, directors, and other film professionals faithfully telling a compelling story.  Christians in every role are not required.  But, if you want to tell a Christian story in a Christian film, it must be told through a God honoring worldview.  Christian topics, themes, and setting mean nothing if the creators impose secular viewpoints on faith issues.  This is the fatal problem with Martin Scorcese’s film, Silence. It is a very well produced movie as could be expected from such an accomplished filmmaker.  It is not really a Christian movie, though.  Rather, it lays out a Christian themed story through the lens of a world weary post-modernist viewpoint.  The result is a spiritual disaster.  I don’t recommend watching Silence.

There is No God in Silence

Silence is a movie that twists the message of Jesus in many ways, large and small.  It is hard to sift through all of the issue.  It hides these problems behind a veneer of faithfulness in order to cast aspersions at the nature of God.  It seems like Martin Scorcese learned from his prior movie on faith, The Last Temptation of Christ.  Silence is no less man focused and lacking in understanding.  It is even blasphemous at times.  It just doesn’t rub it in your face like the prior movie.  It is more subtle and philosophical in its accusations.

I am not a fan of this movie.

Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests who set out for Imperial Japan during a time of intense persecution.  Christians in Japan are being brutally tortured and killed in the hundreds of thousands by the ruling warlords of the time.

The movie claims to be based on a true story.  Yet, it omits the important detail of a violent and bloody civil war in the region prior to the persecutions.  The Roman Catholic population supported the losing side in this terrible civil way and was being punished by the victors.  This does not minimize the suffering involved.  It does indicate there is much more going on at the time.  It seems this is strategically left out in order to point fingers at faith.

Not a Missionary Story

Christians love missionary stories.  We love tales of fearless men and women who have given their lives to bring Jesus to the world.  It seems, initially, like the young Jesuits of the movie are working from this holy motivation.  The horrific persecution they find in Japan on arrival seems to confirm the nobility of their cause.  It is tempting to get sucked into this narrative as presented by Silence. “It must be God’s work to go to Japan”, one of the Jesuits note in the movie.

This leads to the questions posed by the movie.

If the priests are risking their lives to bring Jesus to Japan, why are they suffering so much?  Isn’t that unfair? Is God being cruel?

Why doesn’t God Answer?

Yet, the priests in the story, played Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield, are not venturing into a great mission field.  They do not seek to spread the Gospel or to minister to the saints.  Rather, they set out to find one guy from their order who may or may not have disclaimed Jesus.  They face great danger to find a Jesuit who is rumored to have apostatized.  They show lots of zeal but very little wisdom.  They want to prove that he did not desert God.  They even put the Japanese Christian peasants  in danger to find him.

They ask for strength from God to carry out their mission.  Yet, there is no indication that God is actually leading the charge into Japan.  The thousands of Christians who need ministering to would hold a higher priority if God were leading.  The millions of Japanese who need to hear the Gospel would take precedence over one Portuguese priest.  This is not a missionary story as a result.  The two Jesuits are acting like the accountants from headquarters who come and audit the books periodically.  They may be necessary in some ways for a human organization, but they are not advancing God’s work.

A Secular View of Christianity

The film’s view of Christianity is further revealed when the priests arrive in Japan.  They meet the impoverished, miserable and persecuted church of the small Japanese coastal villages around Nagasaki.  The Japanese peasant’s lives are depicted as nasty, brutish and short.  Christianity is painted as the reason for this terrible life.

A warlord comes upon the villages and kills a number of the Christians in tortuous ways.  The priests respond by being wracked with guilt over what they have done.  It is the faith they brought that caused the deaths not evil or the warlord.  There is a sort of reverse Colonialism in the priest viewpoint.  These two men get to decide what is best for the poor benighted peasants.

Much attention is also given to the suffering involved.  The Christians are tortured, forced to renounce their faith and killed.  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 subtle message appears to be the Christian life is all suffering, poverty, and death for these people.  It would be better had they never heard of Jesus.  Even the strongest Christians in the movie eventually understands it is wiser and more loving to give up faith then continue the suffering.

This is not the message of Christ!  This not the 2,000 year history of the Church.

The Apostle Paul couldn’t decide which was better, to stay with the church or immediately die and go to Jesus.  The Christian Bible teaches death is just the start of God’s glory for you.   There is an eternity of joy, peace and God’s presence  waiting that more than rewards those who live in great pain.

Scorcese creates a bizarro world where the blame for horrifically torturing and killing people does not fall on the murderers.  The ones who are doing the crimes are a side show.  It is the missionaries who brought the Christian faith to Japan who are to blame.  He crafts a 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 film, just icons and pain.

In short, Scorcese’s Christianity looks very little like the Christianity of the Bible.  It is nothing like 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.

A Gross Misunderstanding of Faith

Silence seeks to be profound and deeply theological.  It presents God as silent throughout the ordeals.  God only speaks after the persecution is successful and Andrew Garfield’s priest character steps on an image of Christ.  God is pictured as consoling him stating that He, God, was with the priest the whole time.  This priest then lives out the rest of his life opposing the work of Christians in Japan and repeatedly denying the name of Jesus.  His wife slips a small cross in his hand before his body is burned in a Buddhist ceremony at death.

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? Oh the questions!

My response is, frankly, does it really matter? Do you want to take that chance?  Do you want to waste your walk in Jesus?

God’s direction is very clear.  To deny Jesus is a very bad thing.  Heaven or hell is on the line.  Then our order directly from Jesus is to go forth and make disciples.  There is no limitation of that order from the King to confine it to when it is not dangerous or painful.  Jesus promises that the reward is so much greater than any suffering we will face. The only real questions for a Christian is whether we believe Jesus and follow in obedience.

Can a 16th Century Portuguese priest get to heaven after denying his faith while having secret faith get to heaven? That one is up to God to answer.  Jesus could have hidden His faith in His Father and not go to the Cross but chose not to.  It is not a good bet.  But it is not really the point.

God is not there to bail us out when we try to gut out life in our own strength and fail.  He is not the insurance policy who pulls us out of the fire after a life of waste and self preservation.  Life is not about us.  This is not much of a life in Christ.  Scorcese’s faith completely misses the real Biblical faith as a result.

Silence is an extremely frustrating movie as a Christian.  It presents a very troubled view of Christianity that is so focused on the flesh that it entirely misses the point of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit is entirely absent.  The hope for eternity and Christ’s defeat of death are almost viewed as foolish.  It is secular humanism in a Christian package.  It gets a big thumbs down from me.

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14 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.

  2. I think your problems with this movie stemmed from a misunderstanding of the story’s purpose. You assumed going in that it was a movie about successful missionary work when in fact it was about the opposite, what makes missionary work fail

    It’s very obvious that Rodrigues came to Japan out of pride and not love, you got a good bit right about his character. He harbors disdain for first his escort and later several of his short-lived flock. He held onto a false idea of Christ the entire way, one that fetishized suffering and desired his own humiliation and torture to prove his mettle. He was out there to glorify himself, as his predecessors were when its said what disdain they had for the culture they were trying to embed themselves in, and he paid for it.

    His journey was long and arduous and culminated in him having to sacrifice this pride, and that’s what ultimately allowed him to find peace and serve, if the situation he found himself in (again because of his own pride) tragically puts him against his own faith. But he learned his lesson.

    1. Hi there – thanks for your thoughtful reply. I would actually agree with you that the story line you set out would be helpful and God glorifying. There is a ton of pride in all sorts of work we try to do for the Lord – missionary work is not excluded. But I have a hard time getting that from the movie. Hopefully you are right and I am wrong as that is a way better movie.

  3. I just watched Silence last night, and I share your frustration. I kept waiting for God to “show up,” even in some mystical way that I wouldn’t embrace or encourage among my own church. Garfield’s character quotes the 22nd Psalm’s “Why have you forsaken me?” but fails to find comfort in the rest of the chapter the way David and, certainly Christ did.

    The film’s oppressive fixation on the temporal at the expense of the eternal left me feeling oppressed! I “liked” the movie, but could only recommend for already mature Christians.

    1. Hi Dave – glad to see I am not alone in feeling like there is something very wrong with the movie. Oppressive is a such great description of it as a whole as it really is an attack on the faith using the temporal while ignoring the eternal. The fact that it is well made makes it that much more challenging. Hope you are having a blessed day!

  4. We’re reading this for my Japanese Literature class and I watched the movie, then got curious about other’s thoughts. Frankly, I think the book makes a lot of things clearer – poverty and a huge wealth gap already existed in Japan even before the shogunate decided to implement that as a deliberate punishment on suspected Christian areas, for instance – but the main theme of the book is glory and how people seek it. And as the movie did not convey this well to you, I would like to try to explain it, if I may be so bold.

    You see, Ferreira is glorified for his wildly successful missionary work in Japan, to the point where he’s referred to with a capitalized He (rendered as his name getting the suffix -sama in the Japanese version, showing he’s respected more than other priests doing the same work by Rodrigues, Garupe and most other characters) and him leaving that glorious status as savior of Japan (note how he’s being referred to as if *he* is the savior at work here, not Jesus) is Earth-shattering for people. Confirming this isn’t the case is vital, because if it is true, then fledgling missionary efforts in Japan could very well fail. It would show that the shogunate and specifically Inoue, a samurai and lord skilled at breaking people down until they turn their back on the faith, are stronger than even this most devoted lifelong man of God. That’s not a message you want sent to a whole region if you plan to one day lead them to Christ. This is not a flaw of the book, this is what happens when one man is treated like the only hope for a region and has his importance inflated to the point where the phrase ‘savior of Japan’ can be uttered in all seriousness and no one pauses to realize how that sounds.

    Rodrigues mentions in the book having looked up to Ferreira for a long time, the majority of his life, even. He sees him as an older brother figure and spiritual role model. This makes his determination to find Ferreira make more sense, and the novel draws a lot of parallels between them. They’re cut from the same cloth. They both have cut off ties with their family to devote themselves to the faith, both have their Latin memorized inside and out (it’s Catholicism in the 1500’s, it was common at the time) and both have always wanted to do ‘something great for the Church’. The divergence is that when Ferreira was in Japan as a missionary, Christians were still welcome to preach freely there. He dined with lords and ladies, was given silk robes in every color, and ate fine food every night. Rodrigues eats sweet potatoes local Christians dig up for him, has to hide or risk death, has one outfit for most of the book and lives in a hut. Ferreira turned quickly when he realized Inoue would give him a title, a wife, a wonderful house, a new name and a lifelong supply of income if he turned hard enough and was hateful enough towards Christianity. Rodrigues holds out, and he holds out hope, but the main source of his hope during his initial tortures isn’t God, it’s Ferreira. He thinks of how Ferreira would never have given into these people, so he won’t, either. At the same time, he’s envious of the way earlier missionaries got the luxury treatment, while also imagining his suffering as noble and righteous.

    One of your complaints is that Rodrigues is more absorbed in his suffering than tending to his flock and, while I hope this doesn’t sound rude, that’s the point. He is so concerned about the glory of suffering and the optics of what him conceding would look like that he’s willing to let people die for it and he’s so glorified the idea of Ferreira he has in his head that he prioritizes him above other people. That’s why it’s such a devastating psychological blow for Rodrigues when not only does Ferreira confirm he’s anti-Christian now, he’s been rewarded incredibly for it. Ferreira, someone Rodrigues has looked up to for at least fifteen years (going off a line in the second chapter) thinks Rodrigues is self-righteous, self-centered and sees himself as akin to Jesus because of how noble he sees his suffering as. And Rodrigues doesn’t refute that. He doesn’t have a comeback. Because he *has* been romanticizing his suffering, he *has* been thinking of how this will all look to people later/people back home, he *has* been thinking more of himself than anyone else present, and that’s the problem. That’s how they got into this mess. Ferreira is also only thinking of himself, but at least he’s not making any pretenses about it. He’s not comparing himself to Jesus in his internal monologue. Rodrigues is.

    Only when Rodrigues stops thinking of the glory he could gain posthumously as a beloved martyr does God speak to him. Only when he stops being willing to let Inoue kill, imprison, torture and starve innocent people rather than renounce his faith does he get spoken to by God because until this breakthrough moment for him, he was a priest who didn’t serve God or the people but himself and his own ego and pride. In order to be close to God, he has to prioritize God and other people over himself. And so Jesus reminds him that He, too, prioritized God and others over Himself, and He is with Rodrigues in this moment.

    That’s the conclusion of his character arc. That’s the major moment everything led up to – truly giving yourself over to serving God and helping others.

    I can see why some people don’t like this. The reality that a lot of people get into missionary work with a romantic view of suffering and how noble it is to suffer is not a fun reality to acknowledge. It’s not fun to admit to the fact that sometimes the Rodrigueses of the world idolize the Ferreiras of the world. It’s not pleasant to remember the Ferreiras of the world exist at all. But it is, in my opinion, a callout that some people need to hear. The Ferreira you look up to is a he, not a He. Suffering alone doesn’t make you Christlike, loving others and helping them does. Do you actually want to do work to help people, or do you just want to do it because you know people back home will think highly of you for it? That’s the core of this.

    The ending is very controversial among people who like the book, love it, hate it, dislike it and don’t think the book was anything other than mid-tier quality. I’m not here to tell you how to feel about that. I don’t know how I feel about the ending, personally. But what I am here to say is that Rodrigues’ flaws are not flaws on the part of the writer or the book, those flaws are part of the point and are key to the moral of the story coming across. He has to be a disaster of a character so he can learn the lesson of what Christianity and a life of service should actually be about.

    A character needs to be wrong for the book to be able to say what is right, and while the ending is left up to you to decide the rightness/wrongness of, the wrongness of Rodrigues is not a mistake, it’s the wrongness that happens when you look to the world for validation instead of to God.

    Or in other words, it is a perfectly real, human wrongness, the kind we’re supposed to be wary of and ask God for the wisdom to avoid.

    1. Hey Seth,
      Sorry for the delay in responding to your thoughtful summary of the point of the book. I appreciate you taking the time to write it and add to the discussion of the intent of the book and the movie. I have not read the book so I cannot comment on that, but can say that the impression from the movie about the motives involved seem very different, particularly without the additional information about the reception of Ferreira. I certainly do understand that point about glorifying missionaries etc, glorifying suffering, and seeking personal acclaim through them. That is certainly valuable. I see what you are saying about the value of seeing the wrongness of a character to understand the lesson, but i suppose that this is where the movie version seemed to me to not making that point. It seemed like its point missed the seeking personal glory part and simply jumped to Garfield’s character choosing avoidance of suffering for others as more noble than suffering for Christ. Perhaps it was my viewing or the movie missing the point, but you mention this point:

      Only when he stops being willing to let Inoue kill, imprison, torture and starve innocent people rather than renounce his faith does he get spoken to by God because until this breakthrough moment for him, he was a priest who didn’t serve God or the people but himself and his own ego and pride. In order to be close to God, he has to prioritize God and other people over himself. And so Jesus reminds him that He, too, prioritized God and others over Himself, and He is with Rodrigues in this moment.

      That’s the conclusion of his character arc. That’s the major moment everything led up to – truly giving yourself over to serving God and helping others.

      Again – agree on seeking self glory and people simplifying things within this very complicated world, but the point remains that you cannot prioritize God or the good of other people through rejecting God and encouraging others to do so as well. I see what you are saying about selfishness of the character, in concept, though it did not seem to be as obvious in the movie (or I missed it) but though I get that his pride is addressed, Jesus breaking silence to express seeming similarity misses the point of the Cross and aligns Jesus with someone who just denied Him.

      Thanks again for the context and I really appreciate the breakdown of religious pride as you laid out, but the movie still has a very troubling message, all in all.

  5. thank you so much for this review. i had purchased a copy of this hoping it was
    faith-based, but after reading just a few paragraphs of your review i can see that it is not. thank again, i wont waste my time and watch nor retain the movie.

    God bless you!

  6. Christians are by definition blinded by pride. The idea that *they* know the truth about the afterlife and the universe (things which cannot be known) to the exclusion of all others is exactly what this movie is about. The fact that true believers cannot understand that is predictable and sad.

    1. Hi Thomas – I don’t think your use of “by definition” there is quite accurate. In fact, if your assertion that Christians claiming to know the truth about the afterlife is “by definition” prideful, what does that make your claim that the same truth is unknowable? You are making a statement of absolute truth and using it to put down others – upon what basis do you make that very strong statement?

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