Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
There’s a movie that came out in 2016 that I only just had the chance to see, and actually, I’m very glad that I wanted until the last weeks of Lent to enjoy it. If you’ve kept up at the Register, you’ve heard some of the reviews and ruckus elsewhere in the Catholic blogosphere that this movie has caused. I’m referring to Silence, the adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s book. Endo was a Japanese novelist, “whose work has been dominated by a single theme . . . belief in Christianity.” In Silence, too, there is a single theme: Christianity.
While the secular culture tosses ideas on the film’s intent back and forth there should be zero curiosity for the Christian that this movie is entirely imbued in the Faith. Specifically, it is a film that powerfully captures the most difficult nuances of suffering, compassion, temptation, betrayal, forgiveness, and fortitude. The emotionally charged movie by Martin Scorsese is a perfect addition to the perennial Christian classics that make for a fertile season of Lenten growth. Make whatever plans you must: see this move between now and Easter — Holy Week if you can.
Here’s the review by Steven Greydanus and here’s his “Reel Film” 60-second short about the movie:
I’m not going to give a full review because I don’t believe I’m that talented and don’t want to reinvent the literary wheel, either. But currently, I live in Japan, so this movie had a special effect on me. The opening words, “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ” was both pleasing and complicating because the viewer knows what is about to happen: over the course of the movie we see several Christians apostatize from the Faith.
If you don’t know yet, the movie is about the situation in the aftermath of the famous apostate Jesuit priest Cristovao Ferreira, wherein two more priests venture to remote parts of Honshu—the main island of Japan—in search of both confirming Ferreira’s decision through their own investigation, and to minister to any Christian faithful they might find. They find Christians, but are warned with great detail of their immediate danger and imminent capture. The Japanese inquisitor and other authorities tortured and bent these men and women until they would apostatize by placing their foot on a sacred image of the Faith, be it Jesus or Mary.
The story is sad and leaves the viewer with numerous questions, but somehow, is also inviting and full of answers. A supporting character, Kichijiro, apostatized a number of times throughout the movie, each time tracking down the Jesuit priest for reconciliation—his entire family was martyred because he would not trample the sacred image, and he eventually broke. He lives in a world of weakness, though, also rising after each denial of his Faith for contrite confession. In another scene, he is given ten times the silver given to Judas or giving up the priests to the inquisitor. Some saw Kichijiro as despicable, selling his faith, denying Christ repeatedly. But I saw St. Peter in this character, who willfully denied Christ three time as well. More than Peter, I saw myself. No, I’ve not trampled on sacred images and I’ve not publically apostatized for concern of my safety or that of others. But, sadly, my flesh seems much weaker. I’ve been afraid to tell others I’m a Christian, but I’ve never had my life directly threatened, and nobody has ever had to suffer for my faith. No, I sin for pleasures.
An extremely subtle but defining moment for me in the film was in the little hut of Kichijiro, when a lizard appeared on the floor. The camera panned to the lizard twice, before it finally bolted out of the hut. Where many might have seen a lizard in a straw hut, I saw the first mansion of St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. She says of this first mansion:
Souls without prayer are like people whose bodies or limbs are paralyzed: they possess feet and hands but they cannot control them. In the same way, there are souls so infirm and so accustomed to busying themselves with outside affairs that nothing can be done for them. . . So accustomed have they grown to living all the time with reptiles and other creatures to be found in the outer court of the castles that they have almost become like them.
Why did Teresa choose reptiles? I’ve given this a lot of thought. First, reptiles are low to the ground—as some people are attached the earth. Reptiles are also poisonous—as are the lures of sin. There’s many more examples to make the comparison, but snakes also fall into the reptile animal class, and we should all know that the snake is the Bible’s image of Satan—slithering with mystery, seething with lies, temping mankind to betray God. Kichijiro lives among these reptiles, and many Christians do.
In Kichijiro’s final scene, he is caught with a religious icon tucked away in a necklace sack, and tells that he did not know it was in there. Moments before, we see Kichijiro receive a final absolution from the Jesuit apostate, uttering the words “padre”—the first time the priest has been called so in nearly a decade, reminding him of his true identity in Christ for a cinematic moment. Kichijiro-san’s fate is sealed: he was finally executed for his faith.
This climax for the Japanese Christian and his continual desire to be reconciled reminded me of the final words Teresa gave for those who dwell in the first mansion:
From time to time, however, they shake their minds free of [preoccupations] and it is a great then that they should know themselves well enough to realize that they are not going the right way to reach the castle door. Eventually they enter the first rooms on the lowest floor, but so many reptiles get in with them that they are unable to appreciate the beauty of the castle or to find any peace within it. Still, they have done a good deal by entering at all.
“It’s only a formality,” the inquisitor and Japanese authorities said about the “trampling” but this is reptilian fiction: we must strive to give our entire lives to Christ, and to avoid temptations to deny him whether they are substantial or seem insignificant, because sin is not a formality.
Please take this advice: find a way, right now, to see Silence before Lent is through. Add it to your Lenten movie list each year, and remember to ponder the value of suffering, the consequences of your faith, and the potential penalties of sharing that faith with others. The inquisitor’s words are menacingly accurate: “Christianity is a dangerous religion.” Keep the faith, and finish Lent with a humble, contrite heart by removing your reptiles.