A Christian’s Perspective on Scorsese’s “Silence”

1200

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.

4 responses to “A Christian’s Perspective on Scorsese’s “Silence”

  1. That’s an interesting question Garrett. I grew up in a Presbyterian household, though I consider myself to be an atheist or agnostic when it comes to religion. Yet I’ve admired plenty of religious films, and directors like Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick have provided stirring and thoughtful pondering on Christianity. Silence addresses the meaning behind God’s absence in a meditative manner that avoids coming across as crass. I think it may be Scorsese’s most personal film since Temptation.

    • Scorsese and Malick have made some of the most thought-provoking films about Christianity and religion as of late. I really love The Tree of Life and To the Wonder because they really have things to say and show about faith that are insightful.
      What I love about Silence is that it dives into so many nuances of Christianity that are rarely addressed in the movies and honestly, even in the church.
      I’ve been really curious to see what those who don’t share those beliefs get out of the film, so thanks for commenting! Did you like the film?
      One of the most moving moments of the film to me was when the film clarifies toward the climax that God has not been absent, but silent. It’s a rare move for a Hollywood film, to pretty much confirm that God does exist (in the world of the film) and cares about human suffering. Even though the situation brings up a lot of questions that couldn’t all be addressed within the movie (Like why is God silent? Why is he letting this happen?, etc.). The fact that those questions aren’t addressed might alienate some from the film, I’m not sure.
      I honestly have yet to see The Last Temptation, but Silence has definitely made me even more interested in seeing it.

      • I did love Silence and ended up putting it fourth on my list of the 10 best pictures of 2016. Admittedly, the one part of the movie I didn’t think quite worked out well was that narration at the end. I would have preferred if Scorsese had ditched that voiceover to make God’s existence seem more ambiguous; it would suggest Rodrigues’ own internal debate about his devotion without directly addressing viewers. That being said, Silence’s pondering on God’s absence is stirring, and that Scorsese manages to achieve this balance throughout much of the movie without resorting to bombast is commendable.

        The Last Temptation is a great film and one of Scorsese’s finest in my view. It’s earned much controversy over its portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion and relationship with Mary Magdalene, but it humanizes him in such a way that really made me reinterpret the figure and symbolism of Christianity.

  2. Pingback: My Top Films of 2016 | Cinema Train·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s