It can’t be true, the priests say. Father Ferreira? Their teacher? He would never deny his faith. Never.
Yes, persecutions in 17th-century Japan have been unspeakable, that new Christian martyrs are added to heaven’s logs there every day. Weaker souls surely would apostatize under such pressure and deny the living God as well as Jesus, His son. But Jesuits Rodrigues and Garrpe know that Father Ferreira never would. He knew the dangers there well. He accepted them, and he taught his pupils to accept them, too—even to embrace them. If threatened by the fires of hell itself, Ferreira would not recant.
Father Valignano is doubtful. The church has not heard from Ferreira for several years. And his last letter was filled with accounts of torture and death. Rumors reached the Catholic Church that Ferreira had indeed recanted: Moreover, he had taken a Japanese name, married a Japanese wife. Ferreira is lost to God, Valignano believes.
Still, Rodrigues and Garrpe protest. They cannot simply write off the holy man based on hearsay. They must find their teacher and see for themselves what has become of him. And if it is as they say, perhaps they can somehow save Ferreira. Rescue the priest’s eternal soul.
Valignano relents. If their hearts are filled with a longing to go to Japan, he says, “then I must trust God has put it there.”
And so they go, making their uneasy way with the uncertain help of a dirty, drunken Japanese guide named Kichijiro. They land on the island, knowing that simply being there might mean death—not just for them, but for anyone caught helping them. Christianity is illegal in Japan, punishable by death. Or worse.
But when they come to shore, they find … miracles. Miracles all around. In spite of these dangers, in the face of withering persecution, the Japanese church survives. If measured by the faith and devotion of its frightened, hungry adherents, it thrives. They welcome the priests into their tiny village almost as if they were gods themselves, not just representatives of the one true God. They clamor for the sacraments of confession and baptism so long denied them. They give the priests their food, offer everything they have. These people have found the Bread of Life, and they are starving for more.
Theirs is no passive religion—church on Sunday, potluck on Friday, no sacrifice, no pain. They live for their faith. They die for it, too. Many of their brethren already have.
Rodrigues and Garrpe will die for their faith too, if necessary—or so they believe. Every priest, every missionary must be prepared to give his life as Christ gave His, to sacrifice his all for others.
But there are worse things than death, perhaps. Yes, the Japanese Christians are willing to die for their faith, and willing to die to protect the lives of the visiting priests. But what are the priests willing to sacrifice for their flock?
What if they’re asked not just to lay down their lives, but their souls?
The grace and generosity we see from the Japanese Christians cannot be understated. They give priests their own food (even though they could clearly use it themselves), show them a gratifying level of hospitality and hide them at the risk of their own lives.
That last bit is not hyperbole. Authorities eventually do visit the village, having heard rumors of new priests in the country. They identify a Christian and capture him, then demand that three other villagers serve as “hostages” unless someone gives the head inquisitor information about the priests’ whereabouts. That evening, there’s no discussion of selling out the priests. Instead, the villagers select hostages from amongst themselves, even though they know it could mean death to them all. And indeed, when three of the four refuse to spit on a cross and call the Virgin Mary a “whore,” they are martyred.
It’s not the only time we see that level of courage from these Japanese Christians. Time and again, we see the importance of faith to these people, paired with their parallel loyalty to the priests in their company. They are the movie’s real heroes, though both Rodrigues and Garrpe have their moments of courage and mercy, as well.
And even though the priests may differ at times on points of theology or on what the next step should be in their mission, they clearly have deep regard for each other, loving one another as brothers.
Every minute of Silence is, on some level, deeply spiritual. That said, this is no Sunday sermon.
Renunciation of faith lies at Silence’s crux. Authorities for the Tokugawa shogunate are determined to stamp out Christianity throughout Japan. They’ve asked suspected Christians to stomp on Christian icons picturing Jesus, called fumie, to prove that they either weren’t followers of Christ or have since renounced the faith.
In Silence, Japan’s authorities often present the fumie as a formality: Stomp on this little picture, they suggest, and you’ll be allowed to go free. The country’s inquisitors aren’t primarily interested (it would seem) in stripping faith from a few (as they would see it) backwards peasants. Rather, they strive to strip Christianity of its influence and potential to upend the Japanese way of life.
But what actually happens is more complex. Many who have apparently apostatized are still be tortured and even killed. The government eventually scours paintings, dishes and even Buddhist idols for hidden Christian symbols. And for important former Christians who have apostatized, the head inquisitor demands regular demonstrations of their non-belief.
So even as Japan’s inquisitors insist that these fumie are merely pictures, and that stomping on them is merely a groveling formality, many Japanese believers refuse to desecrate the icons, choosing torture and death instead.
Rodrigues and Garrpe disagree about whether stepping on these Christian images is permissible. Garrpe argues the importance of being strong in the face of persecution and never faltering, no matter how withering the pressure to renounce their faith might be. Rodrigues, however, believes that given the choice between the fumie and death, the choice is clear. Rodrigues believes that what people believe is most critical, and that God will forgive what’s done outwardly because of persecution. “Trample,” he says. “It’s all right to trample.”
God, for His part, is silent as the priests prayerfully puzzle their way toward an answer for this vexing spiritual issue. Thus the inspiration for the film’s title. And wrestling with God’s seeming lack of an answer to that question increasingly fuels Rodrigues’ spiritual doubts.
[Spoiler Warning] When Rodrigues is eventually ordered to step on a fumie himself, the choice grows less obvious for Rodrigues. He understands that it’s a very different thing for a priest to trample on the image of Jesus: Indeed, the inquisitor’s strategy is to eliminate the risk of martyrdom and instead of shame the religion into submission; if a priest denies his faith, those who follow him will be more likely to do so, as well.
There are more—far more—spiritual elements to talk about here, but I’ll do so in a brief litany. We see priests and peasants pray; biblical stories are referenced; holy symbols are revered. Indeed, Rodrigues—parsing out beads of his rosary like icons—worries that these Christians may venerate such symbols to excess, losing sight of the more important spiritual ideas they represent. Rodrigues often recalls or has visions of a painting of Jesus. Rites of confession and baptism are performed.
We also see Buddhist priests, temples and symbols. The movie depicts that religion as the dominant spiritual influence in Japanese culture at the time. Elsewhere, many practicing Christians defend their Japanese bona fides, saying they pay their taxes and visit the Buddhist temple.
The lead inquisitor tells a priest a “parable” of sorts, about a Japanese lord who supported four squabbling concubines. (The inquisitor jokes about whether or not it’s appropriate to tell such a story to a celibate priest.) The story serves as an allegory, with the lord representing Japan and the concubines symbolizing the assortment of colonial European powers that, with the help of religion, he feels are tearing the country apart. The priest tells the inquisitor that perhaps the best solution in the story would be for the lord simply to choose one woman to love—not any European power, but the Christian Church. “What matters is love,” he argues. “Love and fidelity.”
Some men go nearly naked, wearing garments that cover their groin areas but leave most of their buttocks exposed. Fallen priests, after proving their loyalty, are awarded Japanese wives after the women’s first husbands die.
Martyrdom is not an abstract possibility for 17th-century Japanese Christians, but an everyday reality. Japanese authorities execute many believers, forcing their friends and family to watch. And we, too, are forced to witness their brutal, torturous executions.
Some believers are tied to crosses positioned on the rocks at low tide. As the tide comes in, the waters buffet the soon-to-be martyrs, breaking them more with each passing wave. We learn that it took one such martyr four days to die in that manner, and we see his body covered with many wounds. Other Christians are wrapped in woven mats or tied to stakes and set alight, and we see one screaming woman burst into flames. Still others are wrapped in similar mats and thrown off a boat, pushed underwater with long rods until they drown. A swordsman slices the head off a Christian who refuses to recant, with the man’s head rolling close to a cell where other Christians are being held. The body is subsequently dragged and placed in a shallow grave, a trail of blood marking its path.
And that’s not the end of the list when it comes to the ways Japanese officials put Christians to death. We see some believers led to hot springs, where boiling water is poured across their faces and bodies. Others are strung upside down over pits with an inch-long incision behind their ears, and the blood is allowed to slowly drain from their bodies a drop at a time, until they’re either dead or they recant. (We see someone’s hair matted with blood as it drips, and hear the cries and screams of others so tortured.)
Elsewhere, Rodrigues tumbles down a hillside. People are sometimes pushed or kicked.
Some martyrs are given the Japanese rice wine sake before their torments begin—an act that reminds Rodrigues of the Romans offering Jesus vinegar before His crucifixion. Kichijiro, the priest’s initial guide into Japan, is often said to be drunk.
There’s a significant betrayal. Rodrigues retches.
Silence is predicated on the actual Japanese persecutions of Christians in the early 1600s, when hundreds were martyred. Shūsaku Endō, an acclaimed Catholic Japanese novelist, originally published what’s now considered his masterpiece of the same name in 1966. Director Martin Scorsese discovered the book in 1989. From that moment on, he was determined to make a movie about it.
“Silence is the story of a man who learns—so painfully—that God’s love is more mysterious than he knows that He leaves much more to the ways of men than we realize, and that He is always present … even in His silence,” Scorsese writes in the foreword to a recent edition the book.
While Silence treats Christianity respectfully, it’s not easy to write a book or make a movie predicated on God’s apparent absence—especially during the searing season of persecution depicted here. Nor is it easy to read or watch such a story. Rodrigues expresses his own doubts in the midst of God’s silence, wondering if he prays to nothing. He struggles to discern God’s will amid pain and uncertainty, where every path leads to some form of death. He wonders about God’s role in it all. “Surely,” Rodrigues says, “God heard [Japanese Christians’] prayers as they died. But did He hear their screams?”
We Christians do like our triumphal endings. I think most people do. And if we’re going to sit through a film of such horror, we long to see unmitigated victory at its end. Silence does not give us that. Yes, Jesus eventually breaks His silence, and Rodrigues chooses a path. But that path may disappoint, perhaps even horrify some Christians, and it pushes the movie into a place of strange, even disorienting ambiguity.
But there was simply no way this movie could end in trumpets. We know where this Japanese Christian purge led: An estimated 300,000 Christians lived in Japan in the century before Rodrigues and Garrpe arrived. By the time their story comes to a close, there are virtually none.
Or, at least, none who would admit to it. In the wake of those seemingly soul-stripping persecutions, the faith endured. If you visit Japan today, you can see evidence of it: Himeji Castle hides a 17th-century Christian cross in its roof tiles. Depictions of the Virgin Mary are disguised as Buddhist idols.
In the film, Japan is sometimes referred to as a “swamp” in which Christianity cannot grow. And yet in the end, Silence shows that it survived. In spite of fire and flood and death all around, and stunted though it might’ve been, it still secretly lived on.
Perhaps that’s the final message of Silence: Even in a place and time when brutal forces mercilessly sought to silence the faithful, their voices could still be heard. In their prayers. In their screams. In their stubborn, resilient devotion.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.