There are two kinds of movies: those that confirm what the audience believes and those that require the audience to test their beliefs. Traditionally, Christians tend to make and buy tickets to see movies in the former category. A market for faith-based films has been apparent since Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” made its impression at the international box-office as the highest earning R-rated movie of all-time. That market has also been exploited by Hollywood as biblical stories have been turned into action-adventure epics. Occasionally, these adaptations provoke a storm of controversy: in recent memory, Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” was poorly received by many believers for the liberties it seemed to take with the biblical story.
During this recent influx of biblically-inspired blockbusters (which are notably not made by Christian filmmakers), Christians have sought to create their own independent faith-based cinema. Films like “God’s Not Dead,” “Heaven is For Real,” and “Courageous” have attempted to package Christian messages into polished entertainment.
Well-intentioned and much more widely embraced by churches, these movies are the cinematic equivalent of tracts. They are produced to reach the lost and inspire believers. Unfortunately, even though churches flock to experience theological content in theaters, non-believers have largely found little reason to join each new faith-based film’s wave of enthusiasm.
This is the narrative which “Silence,” veteran director Martin Scorsese’s decades-in-the-making passion project, entered when released into theaters in December. The story, based on Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name, follows two Portuguese Jesuit priests in 1633, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), as they search for their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a leader of the outlawed Christian movement in Japan. Hearing rumors that Father Ferreira renounced his faith prior to the gruesome torture that the Japanese government imposes on discovered Christians, Rodrigues and Garrpe embark for Japan to dispel the rumors.
What follows for the two young priests is a tediously secretive journey and an arduous test of faith. As the priests encounter believers and brutal opposition in the beautiful, untamed Japanese countryside, the film becomes more and more ripe for spiritual reflection. This is, along with Terrence Malick’s lesser known “The Tree of Life,” the rare Hollywood film that does justice to the Christian perspective, but it does so in uncommon ways. The voice-over narration from Father Rodrigues is full of prayerful and beautiful prose about showing the love of Christ: “Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful. The hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.”
There has never been a film about Christianity like “Silence.” It is a major Hollywood film created by a well-known Hollywood filmmaker in which characters defend themselves with biblical truth for over 150 minutes. Rodrigues and Garrpe are not faultless. They struggle with doubt, but they remember the truth that defines their lives.
What makes the film nothing less than essential for Christian moviegoers is that Scorsese’s film, like Endo’s book, respectfully challenges us to dig deeper into the Christian faith. How do we act like Christ in the face of overwhelming opposition? To what extent can believers follow the example of Christ? How many of our beliefs are biblical doctrine and how many are Westernized assumptions about the truth? How does our Western perception of Christianity translate to cultures that have trouble grasping our theology?
“Silence” avoids easy answers and stereotypical depiction. The events which inspired the film are brutal, but the film’s approach is humane. Scorsese has taken extreme care to avoid making his characters into Christ figures. There are martyrs who sacrifice their lives for their faith, but there are many more believers who fall short of the example of their Savior. Even the Japanese persecutors are given time to explain their side.
More than “God’s Not Dead” or “Courageous,” “Silence” is a film which the church should urgently engage. Go see it. Talk about it. Read about it. Pray about it. This is the kind of faith-based film that Christians deserve: the kind that sends us back to Scripture rather than substituting for it.
What did you think of Silence? I’m writing about the film from a very personal perspective, so I’d like to hear from those who may or may not share my point of view.