Liam Neeson has just the right kind of face for the concerned sincerity that you would expect the devil to have. He was well-cast in this Martin Scorcese movie. Silence is about two kinds of silence: the putative silence of God about His own existence, and then that silence requited by man’s.
In the early 1600’s two priests set out to gain a current report on a father Ferreira, their former mentor, who was years before sent to Japan to evangelize that nation. They have heard rumors of Ferreira’s apostasy, which they disbelieve, and of his continuing to live despite no longer having contact with his religious order. The two priests arrive in China, to prepare to travel to Japan, secretly because of the oppression of Christianity occurring in Japan. They meet their guide and set off.
What they find in Japan is a crushing oppression of local Christians. Much of the first half of the movie is their growing connection to these people, as they witness strong faith despite physical persecution, and compelling instances of bravery and conviction despite harrowing torture and death.
The two priests split up in order to try to mitigate the persecution of the local Christians in the village where they have landed. Most of the rest of the story is about one of them, Rodrigues. He travels to Goto Island, finding Ferreira’s former village there abandoned. Rodrigues begins to struggle with his role in the oppression that was visited upon him and the other priest in their former village. Specifically, the command was that the villagers recant their faith; that they apostasize, as Ferreira is said to have done. Rodrigues is shaken by the fact that his friends have been tortured and killed for their faith, and he, Rodrigues, could prevent it by himself recanting, thus removing the villagers’ motivation to continue to resist.
Rodrigues is captured and taken to Nagasaki. His inward struggles continue. On the one hand, God seems silent. It no longer seems enough to Rodrigues that God speaks through His creation, and that even suffering and death have redemptive qualities because of their defiance of the spirit of the world, and their temporariness in a reality of eternal consequences. Rodrigues begins to think in temporal, rather than eternal terms. While he believes himself to have the strength to withstand torture and death for the sake of the Name, he wavers because of the same fate visited upon the Japanese Christians of his flock.
The shogunate is not interested in just torturing Rodrigues. They know that it would encourage the growth of Christianity. So they continue their torture of Christians in order to induce Rodrigues to recant. Rodrigues and Ferreira have passionate exchanges in which we hear the arguments for and against apostasy. They’re not just talking about the question Rodrigues has been struggling with: whether it is right to recant in order to save lives. Ferreira persuasively argues that even the limited presence of Christianity they see in Japan is an illusion; that Japan is such a “swamp” that Christianity can never grow there. Liam Neeson’s character Ferreira tries to persuade Rodrigues that the Japanese version of ostensible Christianity is unreal. He argues that the Japanese are incapable of understanding a reality beyond the natural world.
I won’t go farther with how Rodrigues responds to all this. But the message to us seems to be that God’s silence to us (assuming of course silence is what we perceive) is rightly met by an internal subjugation of incipient faith within ourselves, so that it is not played out in any interaction with other people, nor impact on society, nor impact on our own daily comings and goings. Its impact on us should be: Silence.
Don’t like the message. Love the principled examination of ideas. And the movie was beautiful, artistic, compelling. Not a popcorn movie, but well worth setting aside the 2:40 running time to experience well-done, thoughtful cinema.