Note: this post contains spoilers
For a film that is so visually beautiful and rich in period detail, an atmosphere of quintessentially 20th century totalitarianism hangs around Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence.
This film – an exhaustingly tense and penetrating treatment of moral and spiritual pain – is about a series of specific events at a specific time in a specific place, but it is also about something much bigger. As is so often the case, the universal is accessed through the particular. Silence centres on how a Jesuit priest caught up in the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan deals with the challenge that physical pain – both his own and that of his flock – poses to his faithfulness to God – and the challenge that God’s silence poses to him.
But – and here comes the spoiler – he fails. He avoids the martyrdom that he envisaged and the blood that he says is the seed of the church, and he does so by denying Christ and trampling on a carved image of the cross.
In its central figure (though not, it should be stressed, in all its figures) the film shows how pain triumphs over piety, the body over the mind, and how our greatest fear wins out against our greatest love.
Moreover, it does not try to soften this by an appeal to heaven making it all okay in the end. The idea of ‘paradise’ plays an important role in the film, but it is certainly not redemptive, let alone salvific.
What lifts it from unremitting bleakness, however, is the idea that hangs like an ungraspable mist in the background: our betrayal is not the final word because Christ did not betray. The priest’s denial is not ultimate because, before him, Christ, in whom we can somehow live, underwent the same trial to the end. In short, it is precisely the cross that permits the priest to deny the cross.
Silence never denies the weakness and failure that haunts and breaks human life. It refuses any cheap consolation or redemption. Indeed, it hardly offers any expensive redemption. But it does pose the question, asked by one of the film’s more obviously flawed characters, “Where is the place of a weak man in a world like this?” And it implies that the final answer to the question lies less in overcoming our weakness than in acknowledging it.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos. A longer version of this article first appeared here.