Monday, April 03, 2017
Silence: a theological film review
Monthly I write a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 120 plus films later, here is the review for April 2017.
A film review by Rev Dr Steve Taylor
Silence is recommended viewing in the season of Lent. The movie is an extended passion play, in which multiple characters follow Jesus to the cross. Two Jesuit missionaries (Andrew Garfield as Father Rodrigues and Adam Driver as Garupe) believe they are called by God to Japan. It is the seventeeth century and as they travel, they hear rumours of a persecution so brutal that their confessor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has committed apostasy. Silence thus becomes an absorbing, albeit bleak, meditation on the complexity of discipleship unto death.
The strong of faith will find in Silence there is room for doubt. There are the intellectual accusations and theological questions posed by the Japanese interrogator (Issey Ogata as Inoue Masashige). Is missionary religious zeal a commitment made at the expense of those the missionary professes to serve? How can belief in God be sustained in view of persistent failure? The verbal questions are sharpened by the multiple deeds of denial, as Japanese converts deny their faith and Father Ferreira turns to Buddhism. Silence poses to the strong in faith an unrelenting sequence of faith-denying words and deeds.
For the weak of faith, there is comfort in the character of Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubosuka). Unlike Judas, Kichijiro choses not to follow his denial by death. Instead his continual seeking of forgiveness becomes a test of the Christian commitment to forgiveness seventy times seven. Kichijiro’s enduring presence and repeated failures offer a strange comfort to all who doubt.
Silence: A Novel as a book was written by Shusako Endo, one of Japan’s foremost novelists. The movie rights were acquired by film director, Martin Scorsese over twenty five years ago. Scorsese claims a life long fascination with faith. He considers his movie-making an act of prayer, writing “I wanted to be a priest. My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else” (Detweiler and Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings: finding God in pop culture, 155). Silence allows Scorsese to apply all the learnings from a career spanning more than fifty years to the topic of religion.
Silence is a rich reminder of a director at the top of their game. At crucial times, the absence of sound amplifies the internal conflicts central to Silence. In silence – offering mass and considering apostasy – Rodrigues makes significant choices. Each choice drives the emotional register of the movie.
A further demonstration of directorial skill is the final scene, in which a dead hand holds an empty crucifix. The symbolism illustrates the unrelenting ambiguity of Silence. Is this a scene of hope, that one can hold onto faith unto death? Or is this suggesting the end of Christianity, as the Christian cross is reduced to ash in the Japanese funeral pyre?
Such are the questions Silence asks of each and every viewer. Keeping alive the questions of the cross is a central task of Christianity. Such is the gift of Silence to all who walk the Lenten journey.
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