My husband created the tradition for himself of watching Martin Scorsese’s Silence every Good Friday.
I commend him for that. My Good Friday tradition, aside from church, is putting on the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Our traditions each involve a controversial piece of media, and that’s where the similarities end. But it is his choice I want to discuss today.
Two things make Silence a topic of controversy. The first is that Martin Scorsese directed The Last Temptation of Christ. And to that, I say so what. It has literally nothing to do with Portuguese Catholic priests in 17th century Japan.
The second topic is the ultimate outcome of the movie. The two surviving Portuguese priests apostatize (or renounce their faith) when their congregations are tortured in such a way that they remain alive. The old Japanese Inquisitor even says that when they first went after the Portuguese missionaries, they went about it the wrong way by killing the priests and brothers. Keeping them alive was the way to do it.
Critics and audiences fell all over themselves to decry the two padres. Which is really unfair. Nobody knows what they would do in the situation faced by the movie’s priests. People will say anything under torture, and even if they don’t break when it’s their own pain, being forced to watch someone they care about go through it is another matter altogether.
Everyone likes to think that when confronted by a doddering, bloodthirsty Inquisitor, they won’t break. But that’s probably armchair hubris. And armchair hubris is something a lot of American Christians have in excess.
Christianity in the United States is near the top of the social food chain. Depending on where you live, you might experience some form of prejudice for what you practice (being a Lutheran in the heart of the Bible Belt wasn’t easy), but you still enjoy the privileges it entails. And, at some level, people are bored by that. Or they feel inadequate, after hearing about early persecution, and they don’t like to see other religions (or the lack of religion) get rights, too. That’s why you have people who are falling all over themselves to be martyrs, claiming that Christianity is under attack (it isn’t), and throwing themselves at easy, pointless fights, like the color of a coffee cup. Or by watching PureFlix’s endless stream of schlock.
Wanting to be a martyr is not a good thing. And that problem is a prominent theme of Silence. Andrew Lincoln’s character, Rodrigues, wants this very much, and that arrogance and foolhardiness are a large part of why he goes to Japan in the first place. Which makes his mission rather flawed from the start.
And those flaws are what make Silence a genuinely good movie about faith. It’s hard to watch, and not just because the torture scenes are gruesome. If you can watch Casino, you can watch Silence, just based on the amount of blood spilled. Silence is uncomfortable for the audience because it offers no easy answers. The priests are flawed individuals, with arrogance and tempers. The Japanese characters aren’t written off as one-note sheep or monsters. And the movie addresses idolatry, both at the hands of the persecutors and the movie’s Christians, as they both try to flush out and hide from each other. But that’s another topic.
Faith is complicated, messy, and doesn’t come with easy questions or easy answers. It’s not always safe, and it needs a certain amount of flexibility.
And that’s something good to contemplate. When things are easy, and when they’re difficult. We need more movies to illustrate that.