Warning: Spoilers ahead for Martin Scorcese’s movie Silence (2016).
“All our progress has ended in new
persecution, new repression, new
suffering.” Father Ferreira
Rabbi Alan Lew wrote “In order for Yom Kippur to effect atonement for us, we have to become aware of our moral and spiritual condition; we have to become aware that we are not operating in a spiritual vacuum, that there is, in fact, a transcendent consciousness out there watching us with unbearable compassion as we blunder through the world. Moreover, we have to become aware of the precise nature of our blunders …” (from This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared)
Martin Scorcese and Jay Cocks wrote a screenplay for the movie Silence after the book written by Shûsaku Endô, taking us on a conversion of heart journey toward the unbearable compassion Rabbi Lew speaks of. This historical film invites us into the great mysteries underlying Lent, the Days of Awe, and Zen Buddhist self-emptying practices.
Silence takes place in the 17th century and is based on the true story about two Portuguese missionaries, Rodrigues and Garupe, who are both seeking the “truth” in Japan while believing they are delivering “The Universal Truth” of God’s love and forgiveness. Caught in the mystery of their missing beloved teacher and the desire to “save” him from damnation, in haste they blindly walk into foreign territory, soon realizing how naked and vulnerable they are inside….inside this land, inside themselves, and inside what they believe is God’s plan for them. They do not know the land, they do not know the culture, they do not know the language and they arrive with their escort, the only Japanese person in China who has clearly been drowning himself in alcohol for years.
The two missionaries arrive on the ocean shore of Japan in the dark of night. They are brought into the lairs of suffering unimagined and their agony is met with the seeming silence of God. They “did their exercises” and “asked God for this,” cries out Rodriguez to quiet Garupe’s emotional storm filled with anger, doubt and blame. Despair, nevertheless, sweeps them both up and they begin their descent into fear, finding reprieve only in opportunities to love, teach, pray, and nurture the peasants in captivity with them. Their capacity to stand inside the Universal Truth, to love and forgive like Jesus did, to love those who betray us, to “love those who scorn us”, and to love the “wretched” are….the REAL TESTS where comfort is all but elusive inside the heavy weight of terror and our true relationship with suffering is revealed.
Scorcese’s portrayal leaves enough ambiguity throughout the movie to challenge the audience in their belief and unbelief. He weaves the truths common to both religions throughout the script, inviting the viewer to identify with and project two psychological reactions to suffering, isolation, and confusion. If one takes Scorcese’s invitation one is likely to feel discomfort….the discomfort of the paradox of holding and surrendering….of belief and unbelief….of light and darkness.
Throughout the film the dialogue between enemies calls us into reflective discernment of knowing paradox through the lens of the intellect and knowing paradox through the lens of the intellect and heart together. Two different experiences with two different outcomes. How many of us are capable of the latter? Ultimately, the capacity to arrive at equanimity amidst the paradox and alongside the horrors of crucifying the innocent….. is left as a question. Our capacity to discern if the “fallen priests” arrive at the apex of equanimity or whether they become slaves to a master is also a question.
In the story the missionaries identify with their teacher, the Church, and Jesus. Kichijiro, the Judas of the story, identifies with the missionaries. Like a mirror. Everyone is facing an identification with someone or some story, like a room of mirrors, perhaps reflecting the “illusions” reflected in the attachment to the teaching or the teacher that Buddhist practice strives to overcome. “You cling to your illusions and call them faith,” the interpreter proclaims to Rodrigues. An anguished Rodrigues screams in reply, “You use the Truth like poison!” When we hold these two mirrors up to face one another there is another dimension to be revealed inside of them….perhaps, the real enemy that cannot be seen in the reflection of a single mirror.
In the beginning, the priests are quick to judge Kichijiro, the Judas character, when they are unaware of his history. Their minds change minimally when they are told. One might say their empathy was limited by the constraints of their convictions about faith or their knowledge of alcoholism. Another possibility is that they are repelled by Kichijiro who is the shadow of their faith. As the story unfolds, Kichijiro asks Rodrigues for absolution again and again and again, for publicly surrendering his faith rather than facing certain death in defense of it….. for being “weak”. He seemingly trades his soul to evade certain and horrific death (Luke 9. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?).
The first time Kichijiro asked for absolution was for renouncing his faith eight years before instead of being burned alive. Rodrigues absolves him and becomes intoxicated by the power and glory of forgiveness in taking part in restoring Kichijiro’s soul. Later, when Kichijiro approaches him yet again for absolution, for renouncing his faith, Rodrigues prays:
“‘What you will do, do quickly.’ Your son’s words to Judas at the last supper. Was he angry when he said them or did they come from love?’”
He proceeds to absolve Kichijiro, acknowledging being between anger and love. Later, Kichijiro asks for absolution again — this time, for betraying Rodriguez himself by turning him in to the Inquisitor to face the very situation Kichijiro faced and was judged. Specifically, Rodrigues must face the Inquisitor and decide whether he would renounce his faith….from inside the ring of terror. As he sits in captivity, Kichijiro approaches him yet again for absolution. This time, unlike the times before, he is risking the loss of the world to save his soul. This perplexes Rodrigues who asks, “Do you know what absolution is?” Rodrigues then prays,
“Father, how could Jesus love a wretch like this? There is evil all around in this place. I sense its’ strength, even its’ beauty. But there is none of that in this man. He is not worthy to be called evil. I fear. Jesus forgive me, I may not be worthy of you.”
His prayer brings us into the heart of Rodrigues as he grants Kichijiro absolution yet again.
From where do we judge Kichijiro? This is a question for Rodrigues and for ourselves. As we take this question on Father Fereira reminds us, “Only the Lord can know your heart.”
In the end, the psychological manipulation twists Rodrigues’ anguished mind to the point that they seem to convince him that he, in fact, is the executioner. They shame him into submission, for lacking in mercy, and he is encouraged by his teacher who implores,
“There is something more important than the judgment of the Church. You are now going to fulfill the most painful act of love that has ever been performed.”
Rodrigues publicly surrenders his faith, his self, his glory to save the lives of those the executioners were torturing. It is then that he hears the voice of Jesus who says,
“Come ahead now. It’s alright. Step on me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain. Your life is with me now. Step.”
It is here that Scorcese seems to insinuate that the two religions converge, an intersection where he abandons self, sees his nature, and enters an intimate relationship with God. Father Fereira states,
“There’s a saying here. Mountains and rivers can be moved, but man’s nature cannot be moved. It’s very wise, like so much here. We find our original nature in Japan, Rodrigues. Perhaps, it’s what’s meant by finding God.”
In the end, is the heart or nature of Buddhism and Christianity so different? Is the heart or nature of Rodrigues and Kichijiro so different?
In the last decades of his life, Rodrigues routinely walks the path of Kichijiro, willingly and quickly stepping on the face of Jesus and helping the Inquisitor rid the country of any and all Christian artifacts. When he finds an artifact, torture resumes against the beholders. In the end, he finds comfort in Kichijiro’s company, perhaps a signature of realizing his nature and, in doing so, realizing a deeper faith in God, reflected also in the wife who showed “no indication that she wept” when he passed….knowing he was in Paraiso. The last words we hear from him are inside his prayer to Jesus,
“Even if God had been silent my whole life, to this very day, everything everything I do, everything I’ve done…..speaks of Him. It was in the silence that I heard your voice.”