“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) tells the magistrate and grand inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata) in Martin Scorsese’s shattering adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s Silence.

Rodrigues is quoting, of course, the famous boast of the early Christian writer Tertullian, which epitomizes the Christian idealization of martyrdom, so near the center of Christian self-understanding.

This sensibility — often blending piety and defiance, inspiration and bravado, even self-sacrificing devotion and self-promoting PR — was rooted in pre-Christian Jewish memory as well as Christian experience of persecution, first under Jewish authorities and especially under pagan Rome. Above all, of course, it was rooted in the passion and crucifixion of Jesus.

The Christian cultus of martyrdom served Christianity well, not only during the sporadic persecutions of the early centuries, but throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern age. Stories of the early martyrs’ heroic example were both a source of comfort and hope for medieval Catholics and Orthodox living under Islamic rule and a point of pride for the faithful in Christendom.

Then Christianity went to Japan — and in Japan it encountered something new, for which even the rigors of the Diocletian persecution were no true preparation. When 17th-century Japanese authorities in the time of the Tokugawa shogunate found it necessary to send the colonial powers of Europe packing and their European Jesus with them, they didn’t just shatter the missionaries’ bodies. They shattered their narrative.

Endo, one of Japan’s greatest novelists and a Catholic (he has been called a “Japanese Graham Greene,” which is about as useful, and as inexact, as most such analogies), explored this painful history in his 1966 novel Silence, generally regarded as his masterpiece. Scorsese read the book in Japan over a quarter century ago, shortly after finishing The Last Temptation of Christ, and wanted to film it ever since.

While I am (to put it mildly) no fan of Last Temptation, I did note, writing about it 15 years ago, that it was a film I could only imagine a Catholic director making. Now Scorsese has made another intensely Catholic film — one that I find almost as difficult as Last Temptation, but which draws me in as powerfully as Last Temptation repels me.

In a way it draws me in like a sore tooth one can’t stop probing with one’s tongue, like a painful memory that rises unbidden in one’s mind, stubbornly unresolved. Like Of Gods and Men, but much more so, Silence tells no one exactly what they want to hear, except those who can hear nothing else.

It poses a challenge for viewers of any faith or of none, or of any culture or ethnicity, even if the challenge is not the same for everyone. A friend who is an atheist has said that Silence made him want to believe in God. For my part, Silence presses my Christian ethos to the breaking point.

It’s worth remembering that Silence has outraged many Japanese Catholics with its empathic portrayal of persecuted Christians who avoided martyrdom by trampling on fumi‑e (literally “stepping-on picture”) — images of Christ or the Blessed Virgin that suspected Christians were required to step on to express apostasy or repudiation of Christ. Over time the images are worn smooth by countless feet: mute testimony to each believer put to the test of countless past failures. How much difference would one more failure make?

For the Jesuits, the Church’s “shock troops” or special forces, such failure is not an option. When word reaches Father Rodrigues and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) in Portugal that their mentor in Japan, Father Christovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has apostatized under torture, they find it inconceivable and set out for Japan to learn the truth.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto paints Japan as a world shrouded in mist and shadow, overgrown with dense forests. The score by husband-and-wife composers Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge is a daring ambient skein of breaking waves, insect and bird songs and other natural sounds blended with subtle instrumental effects.

More than once Japan is described as a “swamp,” an environment inhospitable to Roman Catholicism — a plant native to European soil that cannot be successfully transplanted to Japan, where its roots rot.

Rodrigues contests this: Christianity in Japan flourished for generations, he says, before the soil was poisoned by persecution. But what does Rodrigues know about Japanese Christianity? Silence hangs us on the horns of an unsettling dilemma: On the one hand, can a Christianity that is culturally European have meaning in Japan? On the other, if Christianity has changed in Japan, is it still the same faith proclaimed by the missionaries?

The missionaries teach, an interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) dismissively remarks, but will not learn. Their attitude — exemplified by Rodrigues — is that they have the Truth, and the Truth applies everywhere. Rodrigues doesn’t appreciate (as did St. Francis Xavier, who was deeply impressed with Japanese culture) that only a culture not one’s own can teach one to appreciate how profoundly one’s apprehension of truth is shaped and colored by culture, and thus to begin to fathom how differently the same truth would be appropriated by another culture.

Do the Japanese Kirishitans worship the Christian God? How would Rodrigues know? His zeal and piety are earnest and admirable, but his vision is clouded by complacency and arrogance. Perhaps Silence is a true tragedy in the classical sense, in which a virtuous man is undone by a fatal flaw.

Notably, Rodrigues seems initially stronger and more disciplined in his faith than Garupe (Garrpe in the novel), who struggles more with misgivings and failings. “You’re a bad Jesuit,” Rodrigues chides Garupe with a smile. Sometimes, though, weakness proves stronger than strength.

The themes of weakness and betrayal are embodied in the figure of Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), an unhappy wretch whom the priests hire as a guide en route to Japan. A drunk, a coward, a quisling, Kichijiro earns the priests’ mistrust from the outset; he evokes both Judas and Graham Greene’s mestizo in The Power and the Glory, though, unlike both, he repents over and over again.

In time Rodrigues comes to be haunted by Kichijiro’s plight: Had he been born to a Japanese Christian community prior to the current persecution, Kichijiro might have lived out his life a happy, decent Christian. Is it his fault that he was born too late, in an era of unprecedented persecution?

Tertullian’s boast about the blood of martyrs was penned in an era of bread and circuses, in which believers willing to suffer and die for the faith could show the crowds what they were made of. In Japan, by contrast, authorities quickly learned that trying to make dramatic public examples of individual believers backfired. Now they made them suffer ignominiously, away from the public gaze.

“Smite the shepherd,” wrote the prophet Zechariah, “and the sheep will be scattered.” Not only have the Japanese inquisitors learned this lesson, they’ve also learned an insidious inverse principle: To break the shepherd, smite the sheep.

Some are willing to trample the fumi-e to live. Painful as it is, their neighbors understand, and even the authorities seem at times to regard the whole business lightly, as a mere “formality.” But what if trampling the fumi-e is not enough? Rodrigues might be willing to suffer any torture for his faith, but what happens when the cost of his fidelity is the suffering of others?

The climactic moment is much debated, and rightly so. Is it an act of betrayal? An act of self-abnegating love? Both at the same time? Less debatable is what follows. In the end, the question is not whether one has betrayed God, but whether in doing so one has abandoned him entirely, or whether there is still hope of forgiveness.

Like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, the title suggests the silence of heaven in the face of suffering and evil. This is an important theme, though it’s worth noting that Silence was not Endo’s preferred title, and he later regretted agreeing to the publisher’s suggestion on this point.

What makes the cross-examination of West and East vital onscreen is the depth and complexity of the performances on both sides.

Garfield and Driver both underwent substantial preparation in Ignatian spirituality under the direction of Jesuit Father James Martin, including making a silent retreat, and it pays off. Garfield channels his aura of wholesome sincerity in a direction quite different from his last long-suffering man of faith, Hacksaw Ridge’s Desmond Doss: intellectual, reflective, sophisticated enough not to realize his limitations.

Next to him, Driver is an ascetic presence (he lost 50 pounds for the role), his sepulchral voice conveying authority and long discipline. Neeson makes the most of what is almost a glorified cameo, particularly in the unbearable reunion scene.

The Japanese actors are possibly even better. As the inquisitor Inoue, Ogata (a comedian as well as an actor) is unnervingly mercurial, a mask of courtliness giving way at times to unexpectedly humorous flamboyance and menacing contempt. Asano’s translator is a friendly, even jovial, sadist. (He’s a less familiar face to Americans than Ken Watanabe, whom he replaced thanks to what now appears to be a happy conflict.)

One of the most haunting scenes belongs to Shinya Tsukamoto as Mokichi, one of the villagers to whom the priests minister in the tense but edifying early going.

Humbled by the villagers’ devotion in extremis, Rodrigues tells Mokichi that their faith gives him strength. “My love for God is strong,” Mokichi haltingly replies. “Could that be the same as faith?” Yes, Rodrigues replies thoughtfully, it must be.

Not long after, Mokichi refuses an apostasy test and is sentenced to a ghastly crucifixion in the surf, slowly overwhelmed by the incoming tide. Toward the end, as villagers and executioners keep a mute vigil, Mokichi raises his voice and sings a plaintive Tantum Ergo (the last two verses of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Eucharistic hymn Pange Lingua).

In a story of a long defeat, here is a privileged moment of grace. Here, for all with ears to hear, God is not silent.

See also
Apostasy and Ambiguity: Silence Asks Hard Questions About Faith and Persecution

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Follow him on Twitter.

Caveat Spectator: Intense scenes of torture and menace, including graphic violence; ambiguous religious themes. Might be fine for mature teens.