If you haven’t yet seen the 2016 film Silence directed by Martin Scorcese, please don’t read on until you do. I highly recommend that all Christians watch this heart-breaking but important drama.
The film Silence tells a fascinating story of two Jesuit priests from Portugal, Father Rodrigues and Father Garrupe, who travel to Japan in 1640 in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira, who has disappeared and is rumored to have apostatized, or renounced his Christian faith. Rodrigues and Garrupe are immediately plunged into Japan’s brutal persecution of villagers who have rejected Buddhism to follow Jesus Christ.
This film raises many important questions. For example, if apostasy is coerced, it is truly apostasy? Is God ever silent while His people suffer? In a society that seeks to eradicate Christianity, is secret worship as acceptable to God as public proclamation of faith is? I may have to explore these questions in subsequent postings. In this posting, however, I’ll confine myself to explaining the emotional impact that Father Rodrigues’ story had on me.
At the end of this film, I burst into tears. My husband, who watched it with me, wanted to know why I was so upset. I couldn’t answer his question, though, until the next day, after I’d had some time to think about it. This movie didn’t merely tug at my heartstrings; it packed an emotional wallop at a much deeper level.
Upon reflection, I realized that I became so upset because I had just watched the saddest, most tragic love story I’d ever seen. Film critic Richard Brody believes that Silence is the closest thing to a Western that Martin Scorcese ever made. I disagree. It’s a love story. The phrase “tragic love story” probably calls to mind couples such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere of the Arthurian legends, Tristan and Isolde from medieval legend, Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, Rose and Jack in Titanic. They’re all tales of soulmates who fall in love but are then prevented from being together by forces beyond their control.
To me, Father Rodrigues’ love story is far more tragic than any of these.
Remember that a priest’s true love is God’s Church. Father Rodrigues is forced to give up that love. He makes that choice so that the faithful to whom he ministers will no longer suffer, but his moment of apostasy is absolutely gut-wrenching to watch. After being required to witness Christians being imprisoned, tortured, drowned, burned alive, and beheaded by Japanese rulers, Father Rodrigues finally accepts that the only way to end this persecution is to accept that he himself must trample an image of Jesus Christ as a sign of his own disavowal of his faith. Merely placing his foot on that image causes him not only mental and emotional agony but also obvious physical pain. He collapses to the ground, crying out and clearly suffering as much as a man would suffer if he were forced to sentence his own wife to death.
His anguish is more awful to watch than that of other star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliet because he is a man separating himself from God. If I were to lose a human soulmate, I would experience profound grief, but that grief would likely fade over time and perhaps even allow (someday) for new love. If I were forced to give up my relationship with God, however, there could be no abatement of that relentless and endless agony. Time would not heal it. Nothing could replace it.
The last scene of the film suggests that Father Rodrigues continued to love and worship God privately in his mind, heart, and soul for the rest of his life. Still, though, he was severed from his Church, from his ability to proclaim the Gospel, from his ministry to the many Japanese Christians who needed him. Imagine the cruelty of being made to abandon Christian worship, symbolism, and expression of belief. These things are essentials embedded into the core of my being.
They were for Father Rodrigues, too. When he must disavow his faith, his physical appearance undergoes a dramatic change. His face, once expressive and fervent, becomes a blank mask with dead eyes. He looks like a man not truly alive but just going through the motions with no feeling. Of course he does. Tragically, he has been forced apart from the greatest Love of all.
May we all be spared such a tragic state of death-in-life and, instead, spend all of our days in grateful expression of our devotion to our Lord.