Critics have reduced Silence to a missile in the culture wars. It's so much more than that

I cried three times when watching Silence at the Covent Garden Odeon. Which is surprising because it’s the least sentimental, most masculine movie you could imagine. It’s a model for the Church. This is how we should be.

It begins with Jesuit Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe landing in 17th-century Japan like our boys on D-Day. They’ve come to find Fr Cristóvão Ferreira, a priest who is rumoured to have apostasised in the face of the ruling elite’s war on Christianity. For decades the Japanese peasants have been practising their faith in secret; Rodrigues and Garrpe are exhilarated by the passion they find. But they also discover that leadership in a time of oppression carries awesome responsibilities. The Japanese inquisitors kidnap the Christian peasants and force them to recant and betray the priests. Many refuse and are martyred. But Rodrigues is eventually caught and is posed an awful choice: renounce his faith or the killing will continue. (Spoiler alert.)

Rodrigues chooses life. By telling you that I’m not really giving away the ending – because his choice is hardly a surprising one (who wouldn’t want to save others?) and it is unclear that it’s final. You’ll have to see the movie to the bittersweet end to see what I mean. Nevertheless, an unlikely coalition of conservatives and liberals seem to think that Silence mocks martyrdom and the folly of blind faith, that it celebrates – in the words of Bishop Barron of Los Angeles – a contemporary Catholicism that is “utterly privatised, hidden away, harmless”. I suspect these people were watching the movie with their culture war specs on. They tend to make everything on the screen look like a comment on the present.

Silence is not set in America in 2017; it’s set in Japan in the 1600s. The choices facing Rodrigues do not compare to, say, a baker facing a fine for refusing to make a gay cake – they are a matter of life or death. And it’s not his own life he is invited to save, but those of his flock. At the critical moment of the movie, Rodrigues stands with his foot over an icon, poised to trample the face of his Saviour. His emotional pain is so intense that it has become physical. The dilemma is a crown of thorns. In the darkness, you could hear half the cinema willing him to stamp; the other half praying for strength. Suddenly, he hears the voice of Christ. It says: “Go ahead, step on me. I am here with you.” Jesus took nails and death on our behalf – he can suffer one more foot. In an act of faith, Rodrigues steps on the icon.

What would you have done? Me, I don’t know. Crucially, the film is full of people who do choose death. These scenes are among the most beautiful. We witness three Japanese peasants crucified at sea and left to drown. One of them survives for days. He sings Tantum Ergo.

What’s so striking about a movie that explores doubt is these extraordinary, straightforward displays of faith. A slight change in tone and Silence could either have been a satire on religion or a movie so desperately sincere that it would invite parody. Martin Scorsese, the director, uses naturalism instead. There are, as in most of our lives, no choruses of angels or divine interventions. Just silence. A silence from which the characters elicit confusion, fear, and eventually strength.

I’m surprised that the film hasn’t been accused of racism, for the Japanese authorities don’t come off well. On the other hand, they are the voice of realism. The inquisitor calls apostasy “a formality”; he’s sympathetic to his victims, he understands their difficulties. Interestingly, he doesn’t want martyrs. He has discovered that if you kill one Christian, a dozen more pop up in their place. It is more efficacious to discredit them than to slaughter them.

Silence portrays a Church in the midst of persecution which, dare I say it, seems so much more alive than our own. It is full of the “urgency of the Gospels”. Scorsese’s priests are not therapists here to make us feel better about ourselves. They are here to help save our souls. Fathers to the people, brothers to each other; but just men, not gods, full of terror and doubt. This is what I take Pope Francis to mean when he said he wanted a Church that was “bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets”. I understand his frustration that we are sometimes too proper, even too silent. It’s a testament to our collective failures that one of the most profound pieces of Catholic art produced in recent years comes not from the Church but from our old enemy – Hollywood.

This article first appeared in the January 13 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.

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