Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence (2016) received some of the most mixed reviews of the director’s career. Adam Graham of The Detroit News called it “a slog,” while Calvin Williams of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it Scorsese’s “most impassioned” film. In the middle were reviews like the one from The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane, calling the movie “strained.”
The ratings on Rotten Tomatoes shows even more of a divide between critics and regular viewers. While the movie has a respectable 84% rating from critics, the audience member rating is much lower at 69%. One of the reasons for the divide may be that audience members were disappointed by the ending. [Warning: This post contains spoilers about the ending of Silence.]
I initially felt disappointment at the ending, but the movie stayed with me much longer than most recent movies. Many decent films like this summer’s Spider Man: Homecoming (2017) provide enjoyment during your viewing. And then you immediately stop thinking about the movie once it ends. But Silence lingered in my consciousness.
Silence is based upon 1966 novel Silence by Shūsaku Endō. Although the book is a novel, it is based on real-life persecution by Christians in Japan in the Seventeenth Century. The story is loosely inspired by the lives of Cristóvão Ferreira (1580-1650) and Italian Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Chiara (1610-1685).
For decades, Martin Scorsese wanted to bring the book to the screen, finally achieving that goal in a film he wrote with Jay Cocks. The movie stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano and Ciarán Hinds.
In the film, two Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Garfield) and Father Garrupe (Driver) leave Portugal in the 1640s to go to Japan to seek their teacher Father Ferreira (Neeson). Amidst word of persecution of Christians in Japan, they have heard that Father Ferreira has apostasized, i.e., forsaken his faith.
Thus begins their journey, which ultimately ends up focusing more on Father Rodrigues. With him, we see horrible acts done by the Japanese to get Christians to reject their faith by trampling (stepping upon) religious images.
The film is enthralling, for its illustration of some of the horrors of torture, both physical and mental. While much of the focus remains on Rodrigues, we are surprised by the intelligence of the Japanese characters trying to do what they think necessary to protect their country. Thus, even while the film focuses on a personal journey of faith, the movie also raises questions about colonialism, with the white priests going to a foreign country to impose their beliefs.
Without spoiling more of the movie than necessary for this discussion, the movie raises questions about faith. Does one maintain their faith if they believe they must surrender that faith to preserve the teachings of that faith?
Ultimately, we see some who have given up that faith to save other lives. There is no flicker of hope, except for a final scene of one of the characters, years in the future, dying and being cremated. At his cremation, hidden from the view of everyone, his hands hold a small cross that his wife put there (Scorsese added this scene, which was not in the book).
Why the Ending is Unsatisfying to Many of Us
We are not used to seeing movies featuring a main character who is so utterly defeated. The American Biblical scholar Walter Wink wrote about how movies and TV shows follow a traditional trajectory to teach us to embrace violence. Generally, we see the “hero” beaten repeatedly to the point where we root for the hero to rise and use violence against the enemy. When the hero does, we feel satisfaction in the Myth of Redemptive Violence. (For more on Wink’s argument, see our posts on redemptive violence in Westerns.)
Having been conditioned by movies about retribution, a viewer watching Silence and the horrors it portrays expects that one of the characters will fine a way to defeat his tormentors. We expect a heroic act to solve the dilemma. Instead, we only see a failed heroic act by another character.
So, we wait for something. Even after the main character has apostasized, we wait for some resolution, at least an escape from a life without one’s core beliefs. But it does not come. We only get a flicker of rebellion after death, and that flicker is far from satisfying.
Why the Ending is Perfect
Yet, it is that unsatisfying ending that is perfect. Had the story ended with a happy victory, we might forget the underlying questions the film asks.
Like the characters in the film, we are asked to struggle with the definition of faith in an unwinnable situation. Is it better to be a martyr (or to make others become martyrs in your place) or to surrender? It is like Star Trek‘s Kobayashi Maru no-win situation training exercise, but without a loophole for James T. Kirk to find.
Others have written more eloquently about the questions asked by the movie and novel. For example, Amy Welborn in The Catholic World Report notes that the story “is not only [about] the struggle to come to an understanding of faith and ourselves, but what happens after that. How do we live?”
The movie’s spiritual advisor Reverend James Martin has explained, “This isn’t the fake spirituality of ‘If you believe in God, everything turns out great.’ This movie says you can believe in God but bad things might still happen. And then it asks, what do you do with that faith?”
So ultimately, it is in the unsatisfactory ending that the movie gives us the gift of questions to ponder. If one of the main characters were a super hero who saved everyone and themselves, the movie would spend less time in our consciousness than the popcorn stays in our stomach. So, we continue to ponder the questions Scorsese wants us to consider. Why was God silent? What would I have done? How do you make such choices?
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(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)