The film handles questions of sin, doctrine and mercy which are at the heart of today's controversies

Martin Scorsese’s new film Silence, like the original Shusaku Endo novel, is a mysterious and complex work of art. It repeatedly catches you off guard – not least in how directly it relates to today’s controversy over adultery and Communion. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, because Silence, like the controversy itself, touches on fundamental questions.

At the centre of the film (spoiler alert) is the temptation to apostasy. Rodrigues, a 17th-century Jesuit missionary to Japan, is captured by the violently anti-Christian authorities. He is told that if he abandons the faith – by trampling on an image of Christ – five Japanese prisoners will be released from their torture chamber. Rodrigues resists, agonises, resists, calls helplessly on God, resists, and then – capitulates. He tramples on his Saviour. The regime gives him a new Japanese name; he marries, and spends the rest of his life doing small jobs for the anti-Christian inquisition.

To the film’s more sceptical interpreters, Silence is far too indulgent towards Rodrigues’s inner struggle. Apostasy, they point out, is always wrong; whatever the circumstances, it is a tragedy to be pitied. The film’s presentation of the priest’s dilemma implies that it has no right answer – that apostasy might somehow be excused.

JD Flynn has hinted at an analogy with the question of adultery and Communion. The circumstances around adultery may be complex, often heartrendingly so. But it is always a sin which needs to be renounced – and any “process of discernment” which omits that point is unfaithful to the words of Jesus.

Now, Silence does invite such an analogy. The reasoning of Rodrigues’s captors mirrors the criticisms of the Church’s Communion discipline. The captors rebuke Rodrigues for letting the prisoners writhe in agony, when his apostasy would release them; doctrinal reformers argue that “rigid” Church discipline can be insensitive to suffering.

The captors tell Rodrigues that he clings to his beliefs at the expense of “mercy” – he could, like a previous apostate priest, be caring for the sick and writing useful books. Likewise, present-day reformers say that doctrines should not get in the way of accompanying divorced people.

In the end, Rodrigues tramples on Christ because he believes Christ is asking him to – a belief no less strange than that of some reformers, who think a sexual relationship outside a valid marriage could be God’s will.

But although Rodrigues decides to apostatise, and although Silence seems at least partly sympathetic to his decision, the film does not simply undermine Church teaching. For one thing, it offers several examples of heroic martyrdom. As Bishop Robert Barron writes, the martyrs’ courage makes Rodrigues look less like the hero of a private existential drama, and more like a “paid lackey”.

There is, moreover, a third type which the film presents – neither the martyr nor the apostate, but the sinner who knows the awfulness of his sin. This is Kichijiro, the fisherman who, in return for cash, first helps the Jesuits to reach Japan. The first time we see him, he is curled up in a drunken mess, his long hair matted, a repulsive sight. Almost the first words out of his mouth are a terrible lie – he denies he is a Christian. This first appearance sets the tone: Kichijiro repeatedly betrays the priests, his countrymen, and God. He is the Judas who gives the Jesuits away, literally for pieces of silver; he tramples on the Christ-image whenever the authorities demand it. And yet Kichijiro never stops asking for forgiveness. Even when the only priest he can find is Rodrigues, the apostate whom he has betrayed, Kichijiro comes to seek absolution.

In Scorsese’s film, even more than in Endo’s novel, we glimpse a fathomless beauty in the midst of Kichijiro’s wretchedness. He shows that being weak, pathetic, a traitor, even committing mortal sin after mortal sin, is not actually the worst state a human being can come to. The worst state is to finally turn one’s back on God – and Kichijiro, as far as we can see, never quite does that.

He has something to say, then, about present-day controversies. Would-be reformers of the sacraments argue that Confession and a resolution to amend (“…by the help of your grace, I will try not to sin again”) may not always be the best decision. A resolution to amend might “not be practicable”; it might be “a worse error”. And the sin might not be so serious anyway, we are told. Kichijiro, the drunken, lying Judas, knows better: he sees that our sins do not need to be explained away, because they are so much smaller than God’s mercy.

Graham Greene, to whom Shusaku Endo has been compared, was once asked by a disquieted priest why his characters had to be quite so unpleasant. Greene replied: “If we want God’s mercy to flash before the eyes of unbelievers, they must see that is granted to the most degraded of human beings.” The great saints and martyrs help our faith; but on some days, the most inspiring witness is the queue for the confessional.

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Jan 13 2016 cover