Thoughts on Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” -When to stand, when to bend, and when to break

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How do you tell the story of Christian faith? The difficulty, the crisis, of believing? How do you describe the struggle? There have been many great twentieth-century novelists drawn to the subject – Graham Greene, of course, and François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos and, from his own very particular perspective, Shusaku Endo.”

This was written by Martin Scorsese in the introduction to Shasaku Endo’s fascinating tale “Silence”, now a motion picture created by Scorsese.

The author Shusaku Endo was born on 27 March 1923 in Tokyo. The defining moment of his life was his baptism as a Catholic in 1934. He is considered, along with Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor, a preeminent Catholic writer who delved deeply into the problems posed by trying to live a life of faith in a complicated and increasingly secular world.

Scorsese goes on to write “He (Shasaku Endo) understood the conflict of faith, the necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience. The voice that always urges the faithful – the questioning faithful – to adapt their beliefs to the world they inhabit, their culture.”

Silence” is the story of two 17th century Catholic missionaries (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who face the ultimate test of faith when they travel to Japan in search of their missing mentor (Liam Neeson) – at a time when Catholicism was outlawed and their presence forbidden.

When Scorsese read Endo’s novel of Jesuit Missionary activity in Japan, and the story of the apparent apostasy of several of the chief missionaries, he was captivated by the idea of what it is to hold on to and let go of faith in dire circumstances, and what the forces that impact the ultimate decision. For twenty-five years Scorsese pondered how to bring this story to film, and he finally has.

Silence” asks troubling questions without providing answers—questions about one’s faith, one’s beliefs and one’s core values. The movie looks you in the eye and asks, in the grayness of right now, when the either/or and yes/no answers do not readily form, and when your life is on the line, how you would respond when those beliefs and core values are challenged.

It’s like asking how you would behave in a sudden life and death situation. Would you defend yourself, defend others, or capitulate to stay alive?

I was surprised at the level of discomfort I felt as I sat in the theatre and admitted to myself I can’t with certainty answer that.

I have been born in a day and time when my personal faith and beliefs are generally protected by the U.S. Constitution. I am free to believe what I want, to express it freely, and to work openly towards those beliefs. What if that were not the case? How then would I live?

The Question of Betrayal – this is the underlying theme that bubbles up during the course of this film. Not only the betrayal of others, but the betrayal of what are core values, beliefs I have organized my life around. Is capitulation to save others, or even to save myself, an act of betrayal? Or is it an act of wisdom, an act of survival so you can live to fight and hopefully win another day?

The movie suggested to me the two classic betrayals of Jesus: The betrayal of Peter, a momentary weakness under intense pressure later repented of with such vigor that he later gave up his life for his beliefs.

Then, there is the betrayal of Judas, never really forming a core value that could stand, and reversing his values, driven by the baser motivations of  self-preservation and ambition. This inner conflict ultimately leads to his suicide.

The questions posed in the movie “Silence” are framed in the context of Religious Faith. Yet, underneath, they speak to a person’s individual integrity and character, and how we exercise that integrity in a world that is complicated, multifaceted, and constantly changing.

Today, in the U.S., I am not faced with the either /or decision of losing my life for my values. Yet, I pause and ask myself how deeply I hold some of my beliefs—are they core values that I will die for, or are they merely opinions I would easily capitulate when they become uncomfortable and cost something?

Whether or not Martin Scorsese and the author Shusaku Endor ever meant the story to ask these particular questions, I don’t know. Art has a way of pouring outside the original boundaries of the artist. But these are the questions this movie left me pondering, and I think they are necessary today.

If nothing else, I am left looking at myself, what I believe, and if I am willing to lay my way of life down for it. Or, am I just full of changing opinions.


I welcome your response and comments