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It has taken almost thirty years for Martin Scorsese to film Silence, Shūsaku Endō’s novel about Catholic missionaries in feudal Japan. But the director’s patience has paid off, for Silence is as well-crafted a movie as any he has made, and may well be his masterpiece.

Beautifully filmed and acted, Silence is as powerful as it is ambitious. Like the novel, it explores the nature and inscrutability of God; the passion of missionary endeavor; the depths of faith and despair; martyrdom and apostasy; sin and redemption; mercy and intolerance; and the clash of civilizations.

Silence brings to the screen the story of the brutal persecution of Christian missionaries and converts in seventeenth-century Japan. Endo was himself a Japanese Catholic convert, and cared deeply about the history of his people. Scorsese—who was raised Catholic and once aspired to become a missionary—yearned to tell their story. His film does full justice to Endō’s novel, and will likely surpass its cultural impact.

The movie begins with stark images of the anti-Christian persecutions, reminding us of the tragic situation Japanese Christianity had fallen into by the 1630s. The scene then quickly shifts back West, where word has reached Rome that one of the Church’s premier Jesuit missionaries, Father Cristovao Ferreira of Portugal (Liam Neeson), has “apostatized.”

A Jesuit superior, Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds), informs two young Portuguese Jesuits, Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), of what has happened to their former instructor. “Ferreira is lost to us,” says Valignano, sadly, with resignation in his voice. “He denounced God in public and surrendered the faith.”

“That’s not possible,” says Father Garrpe, shaking his head incredulously. “Father Ferreira risked his life to spread our faith all over Japan.” Rodrigues seconds this sentiment, and asserts, “It seems to me that our mission here is more urgent than ever. We must go and find Father Ferreira.”

After Valignano tries to talk Rodrigues and Garrpe out of their venture, they depart for Japan, determined to find Ferreira and bring him back to God, if necessary—but not before being told, “The moment you set foot in that country, you step into high danger.” Even with that warning, the two Jesuit priests are unprepared for what awaits them.

After making their way to Japan by way of China, they receive help from an exiled Japanese guide, Kichijiro, who the priests discover is actually a secret Christian—like many in Japan, living undercover, now seeking forgiveness for an act of apostasy that has caused him to leave his homeland.

The group eventually reaches Japan’s shores, and Kichijiro leads the Jesuits to an enclave of hidden Christians, overjoyed finally to have priests who can minister to their persecuted community. Rodrigues and Garrpe celebrate Mass, baptize infants, and hear confessions, all in secret. But the priests are soon discovered by the authorities, including a ruthless inquisitor named Inoue, who is determined to stamp out Christianity in Japan. Christians in the village are ordered to reveal themselves, and repudiate their faith by stepping on a fumie—an icon bearing the image of Christ—which many refuse to do, leading to their executions. Rodrigues and Garrpe, forced to witness this horror, become only more determined to find Ferreira, hoping that he hasn’t really apostatized and can somehow help.

The two priests decide to separate as they search for Ferreira, who is believed to be living near Nagasaki. The story then focuses on Father Rodrigues, and his trials and tribulations, which turn into a searing passion play. Betrayed by the fragile Kichijiro, just as Christ was sold out by Judas, Father Rodrigues is captured and jailed with a group of fellow Christians, who he is told will be tortured unless he, too, tramples upon the fumie and apostatizes. Evil thoughts now enter his mind: Rodrigues begins to question God, and why He is silent, with all this unspeakable suffering going on. Father Rodrigues is willing to die for Christianity, but to be forced to choose between upholding his faith and seeing fellow Christians tortured and killed becomes unbearable for him.

The climax of the movie comes when Ferreira is finally brought to Rodriguez’s cell and tries to talk him into abandoning his faith, just as Ferreira did, years before, under torture, to save other Christians from death. Ferreira argues that Christianity can never take root in the “swamp” of Japan, and that, besides, the converts in the country do not actually believe in the Son of God, but rather in a pagan sun god: The Christian missions there are all fruitless delusion.

Rodrigues knows these arguments are false, since Christianity flourished in Japan after St. Francis Xavier entered the land in 1549, leading to 300,000 Christian converts. The faith diminished only because it was forcibly repressed; further, Rodrigues had seen with his own eyes the authenticity of Japan’s Christian faithful. But the crisis of conscience he undergoes because of the threats being made against them—with their lives contingent on him renouncing his faith—leads to a wrenching decision. The choice Rodrigues makes is heartbreaking, and will doubtless be seen as forsaking his Cross by some, while others will just as strongly consider it a supreme act of Christian love.

Garfield does an extraordinary job of conveying Rodrigues’s alternating states of idealism, shock, doubt, and anguish, as he struggles to maintain his beliefs. Driver is equally memorable in his supporting role—never more so than when he dives into the ocean, desperately trying to save a group of Christians who are being mercilessly thrown into the sea, bound tight with bamboo vests, for refusing to renounce Christ. And, doing some of his finest acting since Schindler’s List, Liam Neeson is amazing as the defeated Ferreira, a shadow of the man he used to be, even as he still exhibits signs that his apostasy may not fully have taken hold.

What makes Silence soar, however, is the excellence of the ensemble Japanese cast. Yosuke Kubozuka is haunting as the conflicted sinner Kichijiro, who keeps betraying his fellow Christians for greed, only to seek absolution repeatedly from Rodrigues. Issei Ogata is towering as the lead Japanese inquisitor, who torments Rodrigues with his verbal taunts as much as with his threats of violence. Tadanobu Asano is outstanding as the interpreter.

But if there are two characters who represent the heart of this film, and convey Christian martyrdom better than any, they are the converted village elders, Ichizo and Mokichi, played by Yoshi Oida and Shinya Tsukamato. The scene in which they are hung on a cross and staked in the ocean until waves gradually overwhelm them is unforgettable, especially because the younger of the two survives this agony for several days, singing beautiful songs of Christian hope and peace. It is in this scene, more than any other, that we realize the Christian martyrs of Japan didn’t die for some imaginary pagan sun god, but for their real, flesh-and-blood Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

As acclaimed as the film is, it has not been uncontroversial. Both secularists and believers have taken issue with it. Some of the former are upset that the film depicts Christians too sympathetically, and does not condemn Christianity enough for trying to impose its imperialistic designs on Japan. But this is to fall into a crude cultural relativism, which attacks both universal truth and the essence of Christianity.

From a different angle, certain Christians are equally upset that Endo and Scorsese emphasize the confusion and apostasy of some Christian missionaries, rather than the stoicism and heroism of the martyrs. But these criticisms ignore Catholic teaching on apostasy, and assume too much about the ultimate fate of these “apostates.”

In order for apostasy to be genuine, it must be voluntary and not announced under duress. Furthermore, Father Giuseppe Chiara, the missionary priest on whom Endo based Father Rodrigues, “died some forty years after his apostasy, stating that he was still a Christian,” as Father William Johnston notes in the preface to the new edition of Silence. There is compelling, if inconclusive, textual evidence that Ferreira likewise recovered his faith, ending his life “courageously for Christ.” All of which underscores C. R. Boxer’s important point, in The Christian Century in Japan: 1549-1650—namely, that “the majority, if not all of these spiritual outcasts, revoked their apostasy in the end and returned to the faith in the evening of their days.” Little wonder, then, that the Catholic Encyclopedia comments: “There is not in the whole history of the Church a single people who can offer the admiration of the Christian world annals as glorious, and a martyrology as lengthy, as those of the people of Japan.”

The final scene in Silence is as moving as anything that has gone before it. For the film makes clear that Japanese Christianity did not die in a lifeless “swamp,” but survived—against all odds, miraculously—holding on to its sacred beliefs, and preserving a radiant vision of eternal life.

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.

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