Review: Silence (2016)

At the start of Silence – the second film adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel – the Tokugawa Shogunate has closed Japan to Christianity (and the ‘West’ more generally). Word reaches Macao that Catholic missionaries are facing torture and death, and two young priests are shocked to hear their mentor Ferreira has recanted the faith and adopted Japanese ways. The priests would have been raised on stories of the heroic sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross; the suffering of the early saints at the hands of the Roman Empire; and Elijah cheekily defeating the priests of Baal. We know how the story ends: after temporary suffering comes eternal victory. So they go on a quest to find Ferreira and save his soul.

I read what happens thereafter as a variation on the Garden of Eden story. In Genesis, eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge brings suffering. In Silence, the introduction of Christianity to Japan forces missionaries and locals to define themselves in relation to it. Embracing or refuting the religion – publicly or privately – brings suffering.

Silence dramatizes reformers coming dramatically up against the limits, encountering a hostile environment that transforms from agentive forces to reactive ones. They start out trying to effect a change for the better; they end up trying to minimize harm. This ought to resonate with (and provide deep challenges for) anyone with plans to change the world, for whatever defensibly righteous reasons: the political protestor; the secular global ‘development’ worker; the PhD student – and not least of all myself, stuck between all these categories, seeking to provide design and policy recommendations based on research on refugees’ online privacy needs.

However we may regard the characters’ goals, the ethical dilemmas they experience seem analogous to what various international aid-type workers experience, as well as those my (mostly Lutheran) pastor friends have discussed with me: with what do you do when your congregation’s heartfelt beliefs are heretical? What do you do when your presence appears to be hurting more than helping? What do you do when your conscience conflicts with the institutional line? To what extent can you trust that God (or the system) is playing the long game effectively – in spite of immediate, visceral feedback to the contrary? How do you handle being co-opted by a variety of systems, playing your naiveté to their advantage? Is admitting powerlessness abdicating responsibility? Is pursuing your conscience mere narcissism?

In the movie, this plays out in debates between the priest Rodrigues and the local inquisitor, representative of the shogunate, concerning the cultural compatibility between their respective visions of Japan and Christianity. The specific options available to Rodrigues narrow until they become a series of singular choices among bad options. Visually, as the characters move from the expansive cityscapes of Macao to Japan, the cinematography eschews sweeping crane shots of dramatic landscape in favor of the compact, foggy and claustrophobic. The more I think about it, the more I see how the film embeds challenges to the narrowness of the characters’ worldviews. Both the inquisitor and Rodrigues are, of course, fighting losing battle on behalf of purity – syncretic mixes of local and external influences develop, as they always do.  Yet within the film, the precision of their wills is convincing in its immediacy.

Nonetheless, the film remains largely from the missionaries’ perspective, with ‘Japan’ (and the suffering Christians therein) considered in its relationship to them; the country is an operatic hell-scape that reflects their own failings back at them. This is reinforced by their limited ability to communicate with the local Japanese Catholics. While I think the film ultimately critiques this – the condescending ‘white savior complex’ mission/outreach model is an oft-critiqued, oft-resurgent bad idea – from our own contemporary moment, this certainly opens Silence to the criticism that it uses Japan as a prop for three white men’s spiritual crises. To this, I’m really interested to read how the movie has been received in Japan.

In a sense, missionaries have it easier than aid workers; the “not of this world” nature of Jesus’ kingdom allows wiggle room between apparent material circumstances and the spiritual kingdom that awaits at some later date. Artists’ ability to gauge their successes is somewhere in between. At a meta-level, Nick Ripatrozone at LitHub notes, “the apparent cross of Scorsese” is “trying to perfect an idea than wrangling with personal belief”. While the obvious comparison point for the (Catholic) director is the Last Temptation of Christ, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky  writes that Rodrigues is also a “typical Scorsese narrator in that he can’t stop voicing his admiration or disgust for other characters”. This attention to mediation – to the layers of perception at work – I see as an insightful engagement between Catholicism and artistry.

To go back to the above challenges to global do-goodery, however, Silence poses harsher critiques to those who would separate their piety from others’ material circumstances. Here, the refrain is “they’re suffering for you.”  This is especially pertinent to the American cultural landscape and its homegrown varieties of evangelical Christianity, recent ill-regarded cinema from which have tended to offer easy answers to many of the difficult questions posed (and left unanswered) in Silence. In this genre, characters often have their faith confirmed with little risk to their middle-class material security and social status. True to Max Weber’s protestant work ethic, the correct spiritual choice is often closely related to secular middle class success. A protagonist must, say, choose between worldly prestige or mere personal fulfillment and eternal life, a choice remarkably similar to the archetype of the mid-level management executive who must choose between the career-making presentation or his child’s soccer game.

That’s the American pulpit and cinema. We know how the story ends. The good guy wins. You are the good guy. You always win. Iron Man saves the day.

Silence received only one Oscar nomination, for Rodrigo Prieto’s aforementioned cinematography. At least three Best Picture nominees, by contrast, fit into the ‘triumph over adversity / following your dreams’ genre.

In the face of all those self-serving tales of comfort and affirmation, Silence offers a human story worthy of the spiritual one, a direct accusation to both the active and uninvolved, and a final act in which God and Man accuse each other, asking to what (human and divine) silence in the face of all these failures testify.

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