The 2016 Martin Scorcese “Silence” movie, a beautiful depiction of the early missionary work (and persecution) of Japanese Catholics, unfortunately got tangled up in polemics about whether it promoted apostasy as a justifiable choice in the face of persecution. I have to side with critical sources who claim it justifies an intrinsically evil act like apostasy (and therefore, cannot be endorsed on those grounds,) but I also think the movie can teach us very important lessons that got overshadowed by these polemics (which account for only about 15 seconds of the movie.)
In fact, this movie had a profound effect on me. It impressed me so much that it filled my thoughts for over a week (something a movie rarely does.) And it made me feel an urge to be a better Catholic. Just because of this, we can see that reality is really nuanced and complex: this movie can actually help someone grow in the faith, if we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Namely, this movie made me ponder on the Catholic concepts of strength and weakness. In this article, I purport to talk about the conclusions I have arrived by watching it, and which should help us better understand our religion, namely some aspects of Pope Francis’ Magisterium that may scandalize some of our fellow Catholics.
Disclaimer: I must say that I have only watched the movie, not read the original novel by Shūsaku Endō, so my commentary will be directed at Scorcese’s movie alone. Also, be warned that there will be spoilers from now on.
The movie’s background is 17th century Japan. At the time, the Shogun, wanting to unify Japan under one nation and culture, free from external influences, persecuted Christianity in the country, which at the time was flourishing under the preaching of Jesuit missionaries. In this context, rumors start to flood the streets that Father Cristovão Ferreira, a Portuguese Jesuit priest, known for his iron strong faith, would have apostatized.
Not believing those rumors, two young disciples of his are sent to Japan with the task of attesting the veracity of these rumors: Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe. The former is the protagonist of the movie.
In their journey, the two priests find several clandestine Japanese communities and they witness their vibrant faith (sometimes, to the point of martyrdom.) The Japanese authorities try to force those Christians, through violence, to apostatize by stepping on an image of Christ. Eventually, Fr. Rodrigues is captured and tortured, both physically and psychologically, in order to be convinced to apostatize (and, therefore, become a poster boy to demoralize and denigrate Christianity’s image in the country.) During his captivity, Rodrigues learns that Ferreira has indeed apostatized and is now collaborating with Japanese authorities to eradicate Christianity from Japan. Eventually, Ferreira himself is called by the authorities to convince Rodrigues to apostatize.
After many ordeals, Rodrigues succumbs. He is told that if he steps in the image of Christ, he will save the lives of some Christians who are being tortured, hanging upside down on a pit, slowly bleeding to death… and he gives in. After his apostasy, Rodrigues is forced to adopt Japanese customs, marry a Japanese wife, and employed as a censor in order to stop contraband of Christian items into Japan. When he dies, he is given a Buddhist burial… but in the end, we see a small cross in his hands, which he was able to keep for all these years.
One of the things I have noticed, is that the movie works through binomials. These binomials serve to contrast different characters, so as to highlight the virtues of one against the flaws of the other. This is a very common practice in good movies and art, and “Silence” executes it very nicely.
In this case, the binomials represent “strength” versus “weakness.” I have taken the liberty of schematizing them in the following table:
|Fr. Sebastião Rodrigues||Fr. Francisco Garupe|
|Fr. Cristovão Ferreira||Fr. Sebastião Rodrigues|
Strength underneath illusionary weakness
Of the two young priests sent on this mission, Fr. Rodrigues seems to be the strongest willed. When they are called by their superior and told about the rumors of Fr. Ferreira’s apostasy, Rodrigues keeps his composure, unlike Garupe. Throughout the first half of the movie, Rodrigues seems to be the one who keeps his faith and serenity, unlike the temperamental Garupe. He is the strong anchor who maintains them focused on their path, while Garupe is the weakest link.
When they arrive in Japan, the only safe place that can be given them is an isolated, abandoned cottage, all crammed up and full of leaks. The rain falls on their heads and doesn’t allow them any comfort whatsoever. Fr. Garupe keeps complaining about their situation. Fr. Rodrigues, on the other hand, tries to reassure him and redirect him to the Ignatian spiritual exercises. Garupe eventually tells his companion he would like to have the same peace of mind as he does, while Rodrigues ends up joking (in a way later revealed tragic): “You’re a bad Jesuit.” It’s an ominous forecast of what’s to come… people should not throw around those labels so lightly, for they may very well become what they flippantly mock.
Even jokingly, Rodrigues is judging his companion based on his external behaviors. However, even we as spectators are invited to do the same. Garupe is not a very likable fellow, he is unpleasant and dull, he doesn’t elicit much empathy. However, Garupe will end up a martyr, while Rodrigues will end up an apostate.
The turn of events happens when some Japanese Christians ask both of them whether it is licit to commit a formal act of apostasty to save one’s own life. Fr. Rodrigues, moved by their plight and suffering, gives in and tells them it is okay for them to do that. It is Garupe who interrupts him and tells him: “What are you saying? They can’t do that!” This is when Rodrigues’ weak spot is revealed, a weak spot which will eventually be exploited by the Japanese authorities. But as Rodrigues walks the first step towards weakness, Garupe walks the first step towards strength.
In the end, Garupe dies as a martyr, trying to save the life of a tied up girl thrown to the sea while the authorities try to drown her. The “bad Jesuit” ends up giving up his life for the life of someone else. Judging his external behavior and demeanor was not enough to know the potential of his soul.
Others who demonstrates the illusionary nature of weakness are the Japanese Christians. These seem to be the weakest characters in the movie. They are simple, poor, illiterate folks, treated as sub-human by the authorities. And yet, these are the ones who demonstrate, in the end, to be the strongest of them all. High theological expertise would not save Ferreira or Rodrigues from apostatizing, but simple faith by simple folk would help the Japanese peasants become more Christians than them.
They are strong. Even under the threat of persecution, they cross mountainous roads to meet the priests, severely injuring their feet in the process. When the priests are received in their town, they immediately succumb to hunger and start eating from the food the peasants have prepared for them, only to be shamed by them, since the Japanese start praying before eating (something the priests, as their spiritual leaders, should’ve reminded of doing.) And the most moving and eloquent scenes of Christian martyrdom in this movie show the crucifixion of the town elders.
When Fr. Rodrigues is captured, he is imprisoned with other Japanese Christians. In a bout of weakness, Rodrigues freaks out: “How can you guys be so calm? Don’t you get it? Don’t you get it?! We’re all gonna die!” The converts look at him with amazement, until a young girl tells him: “Isn’t’ that good? If we die for our faith, won’t we go to Paradise?”
Who could’ve known these illiterate masses, sometimes unable to grasp complex abstract concepts, would be the paragons of greatest faith, even greater than the clerics who should set the example? And yet, isn’t this inversion between the wise and the foolish, between the rich and the poor, between the simple and the elites, the ultimate expression of Christian worldview, so scandalizing to many worldly people?
Strength found in community
Other important aspect of our faith, it’s its communal aspect. We are not saved alone, but by belonging to a community, an assembly, an ecclesia… in short, a Church.
I have told before that Fr. Rodrigues, who was strong, starts a slow path towards weakness, eventually ending up in apostasy. When does this path begin? It starts to downspiral really fast when Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garupe, in order to cover more missionary ground, decide to split up.
Until then, we would imagine that Fr. Garupe would be the one to wither away, since Rodrigues had shown to be the strongest of the pack. However, we later find it was not so. Rodrigues got some benefit from “weak” Garupe’s presence too, after all. The strong drew some invisible strength by being accompanied down the road, even if it was the company of someone deemed weak. The strong is not self-sufficient.
Right after the separation, Fr. Rodrigues starts to suffer from horrible visions due to his isolation. Whether those are hallucinations or temptations, is anyone’s guess… but still, we can see his mental and spiritual health deteriorating for being alone.
Later on, Rodrigues is captured and, after seeing several Christians being tortured, he apostatizes to save their life. In this context, it’s important to recall what happened right at the moment when Rodrigues separated from Garupe… the Japanese Christians who were saying their goodbyes to them, asked them both whether it would be licit to apostatize to save their lives. After all, such would be a mere formality, without any interior significance (the Japanese authorities themselves conceded as such.) This is the time when Rodrigues starts to balk, out of compassion… and this is the time Garupe shows his unrelenting faith. Rodrigues shows a sign of weakness that will be at the source of his apostasy. Maybe it could’ve been prevented if Garupe was standing by his side…
The accusatorial arrogance of the false strong
Fr. Cristovão Ferreira, the man the two young priests set on a quest to find and save from his alleged apostasy, is the paragon of weakness in the movie. Which is disappointing, given his personal fame of holiness and strong faith at the beginning of the plotline (so much so that, when the two young priests hear the rumors of his apostasy, they can’t believe it.) His fame is deceiving, his previous external behaviors are not enough to judge his soul or to make presumptions on his salvation. This is the weakest character of them all.
Ferreira apostatizes to save his own skin, for he cannot bear the torture he has endured. Later on, he will be used by Japanese authorities to censor the entrance of religious items to Japan, to write anti-apologetics books to debunk Christianity and to apostatize repeatedly and publicly in order to demoralize the Christian impetus in the country.
He is also called to help convince Rodrigues to apostatize. At first, he tries to do so through a cordial debate. In this debate, we see that Scorcese did his homework: Ferreira takes the relativist position, while Rodrigues takes the orthodox view. Both arguments are very well represented in this dispute. And the orthodox position wins the debate!
Two things of note come out of this discussion between them. One: The relativists do not have a sound foundation for their philosophy and they defend it only to avoid facing their own weakness and their acts… And in fact, that’s exactly what transpires here! Ferreira’s demeanor is heavy with feelings of shame, fear, guilt and rage. His gaze is one like of a caged animal. We notice that he is being forced by the Japanese to perform these stunts.
Second: Ferreira tries to convince Rodrigues that Christian missionary work is useless, because the Japanese simply do not have the cultural framework to process abstract Christian concepts. For example, he uses philosophically complex arguments to claim that the Japanese peasants aren’t actually worshipping God, but rather a sun-god, because the word they use to denote God is the same as the Sun.
Of course, we know this is a lie… as I said, the Japanese converts show a greater love for God than anyone else in the movie. They also show a clear grasp of what God is, even if they do not understand Him completely (and who can understand God completely?) It is ironic that the weakest character in the movie tries to accuse the strongest ones!
And yet, this is exactly what comes to pass. Fr. Ferreira becomes an accuser. Yes, at first Ferreira does this because he is being forced by the Japanese authorities. But, having been defeated in the arena of reasonable debate, his attitude changes. Later on, he becomes motivated to make Rodrigues apostatize, like if it were a challenge he had willingly chosen.
He is a man with high self-preservation instincts… he apostatized to save his own life, because he couldn’t face his physical death. But now we see he can’t face the inner mortification needed to assume he erred, either. This is why he needs to make Rodrigues apostatize. He can’t bear to see someone else be stronger willed than he is.
Later on, when the authorities try to make Rodrigues apostatize by confronting him with the tortures of the Japanese Christians, saying that they will only stop if he apostatizes, Ferreira assumes a satanic role: the role of the Great Accuser. It is a dark night, everything reminisces the garden of Gethsemani and the night Christ was arrested to be crucified. Ferreira’s dark silhouette is like one of a devil, a tempter, the most evil presence in the movie.
As Ferreira tempts him, Rodrigues accuses him of trying to justify himself. He’s right. Because that’s what Ferreira signifies: weakness that doesn’t assume itself as such. When we are weak and don’t assume it as our fault, we begin to rationalize in order to justify ourselves, eventually relativizing the moral precepts we break. And when we are faced with people who fulfill those precepts, we see them as a threat… and we try to challenge them and make them fall, in order to make ourselves feel good about it.
But there is another, diametrically opposed way to deal with our weakness… that’s what happens with the second weakest character in the movie.
The gradual strength acquired through perseverance
The second paradigm of weakness in the movie is a Japanese convert named Kichijiro. Just like Fr. Garupe, Kichijiro is a character built in order not to elicit any empathy. When I saw this character the first time, half naked, hunched, drunk, dirty, pale, uncouth, speaking through simple-structured sentences with a guttural, nasaled voice, I could not help but think of Sméagol/Gollum from Peter Jackson’s Hobbit / Lord of the Rings trilogy. Both are extremely similar, except in the final outcome.
Kichijiro is a Japanese Christian who apostatized, while his whole family was martyred. Later on, he’s hired by Rodrigues and Garupe as a guide. They are suspicious of his loyalty from the beginning… when he vanishes the first time, leaving the priests alone in a craggy cave, Rodrigues whispers Christ’s words to Judas: “What you need to do, do it quickly.” It would be unfair at the time: Kichijiro had just gone to try to find the peasants who would give them shelter. However, this too would be a forecast of what was to come…
Eventually, Kichijiro asks Rodrigues if he may receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He confesses his shameful past and the remorse which has consumed him during all of those years. He yells: “I’m weak, Father.” When he receives absolution, he is utterly relieved: after all, even he may get to Paradise.
Not for long… During the course of the movie, Kichijiro betrays two Christian villages, by denouncing them to the authorities. The Judas shadow has come to haunt him once more. He ends up being captured and forced to apostatize once more to save his life. His confession is worthless now, he is back to square one. He relapses in his previous sin, while the others in the villages are martyred.
Ultimately, he ends up betraying Rodrigues himself, selling him to the soldiers who were searching for him. As the soldiers take the priest away, they throw a bag of silver coins at Kichijiro’s feet, evoking Judas once more. Kichijiro does not accept the coins, however. On the contrary, he yells at the recently imprisoned priest that he didn’t sell him on purpose, but only to save his own life.
Kichijiro pursues poor Fr. Rodrigues, even to the prison entrance. He falls on remorse once more and yearns for the Sacrament of Reconciliation again. From now on, this character is stuck in a vicious circle: the remorse for his apostasy makes him enter into the lion’s den to obtain Reconciliation from Rodrigues, where he is captured and forced to apostatize, which leads to remorse once again.
At a certain point in the movie, Kichijiro is already bothersome. He disgusts us. There are people suffering and dying in there (some because of his fault) and we have to endure his new attempt to receive Reconciliation once more, when we know it’s useless: will relapse again and again! Sheesh! Rodrigues himself asks him: “Why do you want to be forgiven, if you’re going to sin again?”
But Kichijiro can only reply again and again, as if people aren’t listening or understanding a very important fact: “I have told you! I am weak! I am weak!” And in fact, Rodrigues seems unable to understand… he prays to himself: “My God, how is it possible that You love this creature?”
However, as disgusting as Kichijiro looks to him, Rodrigues never withholds his forgiveness from him.
Suddenly, after his apostasy, all of Rodrigues’ disgust disappears. Kichijiro becomes his companion. His apostate’s past makes him empathetic towards the recently fallen priest. Kichijiro knows the nature of mercy and, therefore, is generous in giving it to someone in need of it too. Who is he to judge?
Kichijiro’s story is not finished here, however. In the penultimate scene, the authorities find a Christian icon hidden in Kichijiro’s attire. He is then taken away by soldiers and is heard of no more. Why did he have a Christian icon with him, when he knew it was a capital offense? Why would someone so cowardly commit such imprudent act? Also, the authorities do not force him to apostatize… not anymore. He was already a professional at apostatizing! Why make him do it once more, if he would just relapse in his “Christian inclination”? It seems like the World was less patient and forgiving than God…
Though it is not shown, it is heavily implied that Kichijiro finally followed the path he so feared… he became a martyr for the Christian faith. Also, he never accused anyone. How could he have gotten hold of a Christian icon, when its importation was forbidden? Surely it had been Fr. Rodrigues, the censor, who had appropriated one of the confiscated icons and given it to his companion. But this time, Kichijiro does not betray his friend, like he did before. There’s a clear evolution on his character.
Repeated contrition and perseverant frequency of the Sacraments have finally bore fruit, even in the face of a despairing relapse in sin, even in the face of the priest’s impatience (which is the impatience of the audience, invited to judge him like the World does.) This is a very deep lesson, so atypical for a Hollywood movie. Let us not get discouraged in the face of our sins, but let us get up whenever we fall… that’s the true way to deal with one’s weakness.
Paradox: strength and weakness within the same person
You may have noticed that, of the three binomials, I have placed Fr. Rodrigues both on the “strength” side and on the “weakness” side.
Rodrigues comes out pretty strong at the beginning. But, as we have already seen, he falls into apostasy because he can’t stand seeing other people suffer. He has a weak spot, hidden in the start, but manifest as the plot develops.
One pivotal scene in the movie happens when the authorities get a hold of this weak spot. They notice that Fr. Rodrigues is much less preoccupied with his own life and safety than with the life and safety of the Japanese converts. The inquisitor sees this, and squints his eyes with a face of satisfaction: “So this is how we entrap you!” – we can imagine him thinking.
In this sense, Rodrigues is an archetype of weakness, especially when compared with Garupe or the Japanese martyrs, who preferred death to apostasy.
However, Rodrigues is an archetype of strength when compared with Fr. Ferreira. As I said before, Ferreira becomes a Great Accuser for his brother. When he sees his stoic resistance to apostasy, Ferreira tries at all costs to bring him down to his own level, for he can’t stand the sight of a disciple of his to persevere where he failed.
Eventually he succeeds, of course. But during their confrontation, Rodrigues assumes the role of strength in the face of temptation. They are not equal, even when both commit the same sin. Rodrigues apostatizes to save others… Ferreira apostatizes to save himself. That is the main reason why he needs Rodrigues to apostatize: to save face, to find self-justification, to self-delude himself that anyone is the same as he is. In so doing, he is no longer guilty of the sin of apostasy alone, but also of scandal.
No, Rodrigues’ apostasy and Ferreira apostasy are not the same, morally speaking, even if neither is morally justifiable. Just looking at the external act, without looking at the intentions behind it, or the circumstances, is no sensible way to look at reality. Also, Rodrigues shows one can have both strength and weakness inside… humans are paradoxical creatures.
Who am I to judge?
This movie is also brilliant, since it induces us to judge some of the characters, always to have us be completely deceived by our preconceived judgments. In this, we mirror the way the characters judge each other too.
Fr. Rodrigues judges Fr. Garupe, calling him a bad Jesuit. But in the end, Garupe is a martyr and Rodrigues an apostate. Also, Fr. Rodrigues judges Kichijiro: “My God, how can You love this creature?” A recidivist apostate? Well, Rodrigues becomes a recidivist apostate too, a poster boy of apostasy to be exhibited publicly and repeatedly by the Japanese authorities.
Did Rodrigues act wrongly? Yes. But only after he did so, was he able to understand the sinner he had before him. A sinner he could not understand previously (as Kichijiro’s desperate cries testify: “Haven’t I told you already? I am weak! I am weak!”)
From Rodrigues’ humiliation there sprung some good. This good does not justify the evil he committed… but only after falling did Rodrigues learn how to love. In his final confession to Kichijiro, many years after his apostasy, Rodrigues confesses him, not tediously anymore, but with a loving, luminous smile on his face.
However, a final question remains. The movie has presented us two ways to deal with weakness: Fr. Ferreira’s impenitent relativism and Kichijiro’s persistent contrition, But what about Rodrigues? Which of the two paths did he take? It is not known to us… From Rodrigues’ apostasy onward, the narrative voice shifts. It is not Rodrigues who is telling his own story anymore, but a Protestant Dutch merchant who tries to establish trade with the Japanese and sees Rodrigues censoring the religious items he brings on his ship. So we no longer have a privileged window to Rodrigues’ soul.
When Rodrigues dies and gets his Buddhist funeral, we see a cross on his hands as he is being cremated. We recognize that cross: it was a cross given to him by one of the Japanese martyrs in the first half of the film. This new fact is presented to us as the narrator tells us: “This is the story of the priest who has abandoned God. But in the end, only God can judge him.”
And that’s how the movie ends, with this sentence hovering in the air, and with the image of the cross in the hands of a dead apostate. Did he really abandon his faith? Did he renounce it freely, so that his grave, intrinsically evil sin, fulfills the criteria of mortal sin?
It’s a perfectly orthodox truth that, even if we may denounce the sins of others by what we see, we cannot judge the state of their soul. The Church doesn’t affirm any particular soul in Hell, not even Judas Iscariot. Likewise, we cannot know whether Rodrigues was lost or saved. And the cross in the corpse’s hands is just the visible sign of this uncertainty.
In fact, this salvation / perdition is uncertain even for the despicable Fr. Ferreira! The only time we see Ferreira invoking God’s name is, precisely, when he says: “Only God may judge me.” Of course, Ferreira is a relativist and many relativists like to exploit the “Do not judge” mantra to self-justify themselves, as Ferreira is so eager and prone to do. Nevertheless, this movie is more complex than that, as we have already seen… the “do not judge” here is applied to their eternal fates. We cannot know the state of the soul of Ferreira or Rodrigues, and that’s the point.
This movie invites us to ponder very deep questions which cannot, nor should they, be downplayed by myopic theological considerations. Rodrigues was a paladin of virtue. He judged Garupe and became worst than him. He judged Kichijiro and he fell on the same sin. He had all reason to judge them… and what did he benefit from it?
What about us? Us, the spectators? Are we going to judge Rodrigues? Are we seriously capable of handling that risk? Even after seeing where that may lead us?
No, let us not be too reckless in judging him or anyone else. On my end, I know I could not do so. Who knows what I may have done if I had been on his place? Or Ferreira’s place for that matter? I’m not ready to judge them… and that’s the greatest lesson I have taken from this movie. I think I’ve grown better because of it.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.