Silence: Thoughts on the Film & Religion

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When I see a film by a respected filmmaker, I don’t worry much about craft or narrative. I may notice the photography, and take note of the storytelling choices, but more often I ask a simple question: “What is this filmmaker trying to do?” -- specifically when the intent isn’t very clear. Never has this question led to so many follow-up questions as Martin Scorsese’s Silence. The story follows two Jesuit priests into Japan on their quest to find Father Ferrerra, who is rumored to have apostatized -- abandoned his faith.
Going into the theater I asked the guy at the ticket counter if he’d seen the film, and if he liked it. He said it was “Good,” and “a quick 3 hours.” It was. Another woman, exiting the theater put her hand over her heart and sighed. She said it was beautiful. It was.
So, why didn’t I care about what I was watching? I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t moved.
One of the things I learned about myself after the viewing is I’m not nearly spiritual enough to follow stories of steadfast devotion with the same interest that I follow stories of tangible human qualities -- or even intangible human emotion. With Silence I grasp (or at least accept) the passion of the Jesuit priests, but once they cross the threshold of reason, wherein their devotion becomes damaging not only to themselves, but to the people that follow them, I found only one moral: religion begets madness, begets pain and suffering.
This moral came to me early in the film. Doubting this was Scorsese’s point, I tried to look past my personal views of religion and faith. What else could Scorsese have been saying?
I thought about the title, Silence, and how The Grand Inquisitor forced Padre Rodrigues to watch his followers be tortured. To end the suffering, all Rodrigues had to do was step on the face of Jesus Christ. The Japanese told him to step and their suffering would end. “It’s just a formality,” the Japanese guards repeated. What made it a formality? It would seem the answer is in the title. Devotion doesn’t have to be preached, so long as it’s in your heart. Believe what you want, and keep it quiet. Stop preaching to the people that don’t want it, need it, or understand it. Step on the face of Christ, just for a show, just to end the suffering. The inability of the Jesuit priests to at first undertake this formality has more to do with psychology than devotion.
Or, maybe the film is a commentary on religious missionary work. Maybe Scorsese is asking the ultra-devout to leave people alone, to practice religion personally, and to keep their trap shut about it. This interpretation maybe extends into the practice of mis-preaching doctrine, which leads to violent zealotry. Maybe he’s saying the oral history of religion has led to the violence we now know. Maybe if people were left to interpret on their own, the world would be less horrible. When Scorsese puts the camera high above the Jesuit priests as they embark on their journey, putting us at the perspective of God, is he asking us to judge? When, at this angle, and we cannot tell if the priests are climbing or descending a stairway, is he saying that their path is misguided -- or perhaps, their purpose an illusion?
At one point in the film the Jesuits speak of Truth. They know Truth to be a universal concept. They also know the Lord is Truth, and hence, if they preach the word of the Lord “how can it be anything but Truth?” This circular reasoning is impenetrable. It cannot be argued with for its defense it built into itself, and sadly, this reasoning still exists in the 21st Century. To be clear, Silence is set in the 1600s. Is it possible this is Scorsese's commentary on the ability to reason in the modern world?
Ultimately, my experience with the film echoes the model of religious pitfall -- the psychology around which the entire concept of religion is built: when searching for meaning, if we are determined to find something -- anything -- then something, anything, will be found. It would seem in trying to find meaning in Scorsese’s film, I found concepts, but not intention. I found answers to questions, but not Truth. In religion, Truth is fluid and abstract. There can be no single answer regarding God which leads to varying personal interpretations, dearly held belief, and fervent devotion -- sometimes violent defense. While in smaller groups religion can yield warm inclusivity, it is on the global level where religion paints its ugly boundaries. It’s here where religion tears people apart, divides friends and families, and damages the conceptual soul it postures to protect.
One Truth I found in viewing the film -- stemming from the oft forsaken concept of knowing one’s self in the absence of the supernatural -- is this: religion is not a framework I am willing to enter. I am unable to see the spiritual side of religion; I only see the inner-workings of its psychology. When we search for answers where none exists, we create answers that cannot be disproved (hence the circular reasoning of the Jesuit priests). While many find comfort in this, I do not. Nor do I find comfort in the mechanics of its rituals. I’m off-put by suffering for the abstract, perplexed by begging forgiveness only to be absolved with a few gestures and words, and repulsed by the solipsistic view that any individual, at any time, can invoke the kindness or wrath of a supernatural being. In other words: Martin Scorsese’s Silence, like religion, while important and comforting to many, complex and rich with history, is simply not for me. Afterword: The film ends on a more enlightened note. I feel the concept of religion and God is strengthened by the ending, because it stops being a mission and starts being a personal understanding of faith and spirituality. It could be argued that the title Silence refers to when the Jesuits question their faith because they stop hearing God's voice. Or, perhaps Silence is about the silence of personal practice. I like to think this is Scorsese’s ultimate point.

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