"Silence" (2016) movie review

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Two women for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration suggested that I should watch Silence (2016). So I did.

Vorgriffe (Preconceptions)

I put some "preapprehensions" on the record before I took the time to watch "Silence" this afternoon.

From what I have read or heard or fantasize about the movie, I expected that it would:

- be pretentious;
- distort the real history of the Japanese martyrs;
- emphasize classic Japanese Shinto-Buddhist spirituality;
- downplay the necessity of preaching Jesus as the Savior of all of God's children;
- justify apostasy as the highest form of love for God and neighbor--the greatest evil is death of the innocent, and therefore the greatest good is to save the innocent by repudiating the gospel;
- silently recommend that Christians should be silent in today's culture wars because preaching Jesus does more harm than good;
- cultivate indifferentism: if God is love, and loves all of His children whole-heartedly at all times and in all places, then why should missionaries go out to all the world?

"Can anything good come out of Scorsese?"

I'm not saying that I'm being fair to the movie. Obviously, a good man would WATCH it with an open mind before judging it. I am not a good man, but I would love to have a good conversation with these two women of faith, and so I am going to do my level best to set these prejudices aside and see what I can see in the movie itself. But it would be dishonest to pretend that I don't have prejudices. One of the morals of the story about tacit knowing is that we do make up our minds very rapidly, "in the blink of an eye," on very limited information.[1]

I have never watched Mel Gibson's Apocalypto.

I would never have gone to see "The Passion of the Christ" if a good friend had not forced me to. We nearly had a fistfight talking about the movie afterward.

I avoided the Dan Brown books until students' questions forced me to slog through them.

I am avoiding most of the evangelical movies (e.g., God is not Dead, I & II).

OK. Done with the first part of it. I will try to pick up the movie some time this afternoon because you are my friends and because I love talking about things with you. Please forgive me my vorgriffe. That's life with me! :-O

Postgriffe (Hindsights)

I worked my way through the movie through the course of an afternoon. I took several breaks, especially a nap after the first 41 minutes. With 15 minutes to go, I got a peanut butter sandwich and some decaf. That helped.

"Thousands have died because of us."
No. Thousands died because of the animosity of those who murdered them.
Martyrdom is as old as Christianity itself. The pattern began with Jesus and has continued in an unbroken chain for 20 centuries. Jesus predicted His own suffering and death; he also predicted that His followers would suffer and die. Any 17th-century Jesuits who did not understand that following Jesus on the way of the Cross means real suffering and real death would be morons.
"I'm just a foreigner who brought disaster. That's what they think of me now."
Those who suffered were those who believed the message of the gospel. Those who thought that the missionaries brought only disaster would give up the faith immediately. The action of the faithful contradicts this counsel of despair.
The way Rodrigues celebrates Mass is "low Church"--no vestments at Mass, no candles.
This is how Protestants and contemporary modernists celebrate communion services, not Catholic priests of the 17th century.
Why does Rodrigues bless himself rather than the penitent?
This makes no sense to me whatsoever. The penitent says, "Bless me, father, for I have sinned." The appropriate gesture is to make the sign of the cross over the penitent, not to make it over oneself.
Sacramental theology and the use of sacramentals
Rosaries, crosses, scapulars, candles, holy water, icons, rings, incense, bells, vestments, and the like are material things that help us to remember spiritual realities.
In his interior monologue, Rodrigues says, "I worry, they value these poor signs of faith more than faith itself. But how can we deny them?" If he was anxious about their use of the blessed objects, he ought to have seized the moment to teach the people that when we pray, God looks at what is in our hearts, not at the things in our hands or on our walls or on our bookshelves. Rodrigues is as guilty of superstition as they are, breaking his rosary up into parts and treating the beads as holy objects with magical powers. The people could and did make rosaries and crosses themselves. A handmade crucifix is in the final scene of the movie--there was nothing more holy about the wooden crosses or rosary beads that he distributed.
I wanted to shout at Rodrigues what I heard a mother say to a cranky child: "Use your words!" The film makers believe that remaining silent about the nature of faith is the most loving thing to do. They don't think that the questions they raise have meaningful answers. They and Rodrigues think that the best thing to do in the face of ignorant superstition is to distribute more religious trinkets that will be used in a stupid and supertitious fashion. <dope slap!>
A child's faith will not get us through adult difficulties.
Rodrigues is a simpleton. I foresaw as I watched the first hours of the movie that he would be crushed when he discovered that his hero had committed apostasy and was living happily ever after. He thought that having faith means that God will answer all of our prayers and protect us from suffering and death. That is what children naturally and understandably and innocently believe. But Jesus did not say that faith would keep us from suffering in this lifetime--far from it! He said that if we had faith, we would suffer and die as He did.
Why does God allow innocent suffering?
Rodrigues asks, "Why do these people have to suffer? Why has God chosen them to suffer so much?"
The Tradition of the Old and New Testaments deal with this question. The Book of Job and the whole of the scriptures of the New Covenant grapple with this fact: God allows innocent people to suffer. The martyrdom of Christians in Japan in the 17th century was a horror, but it was not a novelty. Innocent Jews and Christians and human beings of all kinds have suffered horrors before and since then.
For me, the short answer to the question is, [[Bad Things Happen to Good People|"Because it is more fun this way."] A world in which there could be no innocent suffering is a world in which there could be no love. If there were no love, there would be no joy. Accepting innocent suffering as the price of freedom is part of the faith. Above all, God the Son, truly God and truly human, accepted His innocent suffering gladly and willingly, "for the sake of the joy that was set before Him" (Heb 12:2).
Movies are good at portraying torture, among other things that photograph well. They are not good at portraying the joys of eternal life because God has not allowed cameras into His courtroom. We can see the suffering; we have heard of the joys of Heaven.
When Rodrigues asked this question, as if it were unanswerable, it was obvious that he would be crushed and lose his faith in God but gain faith in men. An alternative twist would have been for him to kill the apostate, but that thought does not seem to have crossed the minds of the authors.
Is God deaf?
Rodrigues: "How can I explain His silence to these people? Surely God heard their prayers as they died. But did He hear their screams?"
This man has no faith whatsoever! He thinks that God is at his beck and call. Every time he prays, he expects God to dance to his tune. In his view, if God does not obey us when we speak to Him, then God is not listening or, if He is listening, He is unloving.
God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. He knows us better than we know ourselves. His attention to each one of us is unwavering. He never sleeps; we do. These are truths we can know from "natural theology." He knows the whole of our lives--all that He has done for us, all that He is doing for us, all that He will do for us. When He allows us to suffer, it is because that is what His love for us requires of Him.
God has not given us a "God-button" that will summon Him whenever we wish to meet with Him face-to-face. It is a great consolation when He does make His presence felt and a great desolation when He does not. God does not want to be "the opiate of the people." Heroin always does what heroin does, when you snort, smoke, or inject it. Electricity always obeys the laws of physics. It has no choice. If we make a correct circuit, power flows where we want it to. God is not like that. "No" is as much an answer to prayer as "yes." Rodrigues has no clue about God's sovereignty and freedom. His one thought is, "If You let them suffer, You are not answering their prayers." This mindset is a counterfeit of faith:
If there were a God, no one would suffer.
If there were a God, every time we prayed, we would hear Him respond to us.
If there were a God, we could summon Him to do our will whenever we wish.
These beliefs sound pious, but they are poisonous.
"You were silent even to Him."
I don't know how the authors pull this rabbit out of their hat. We have no idea of the inner life of Jesus or what kind of dialogue He had with the Father in His agony in the Garden. When He was finished praying, He encouraged His disciples to pray in a similar fashion: "Get up and pray that you may not enter into temptation." He does not complain that His prayers were not heard!
There is no agony in the Garden in the gospel of John:

23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

In Christian theology, the death of Jesus on the Cross is a victory, not a defeat!
Jesus was "lifted up" on the Cross.
Jesus was "lifted up" in the Resurrection.
Jesus was "lifted up" in the Ascension.
Being lifted up on the Cross is what leads to His being lifted up in glory.
The movie's view is an incredible distortion of the gospels! In all four gospels, Jesus predicted His suffering, death, and resurrection and ascension into glory. The horizon of the movie is, "Suffering is bad." There is no resurrection, no hope for eternal life, no trust in the judgment and mercy of God which promises to make all things well again.
Yes, Jesus suffered. But suffering does not have the last word. The last word is JOY.
The power and weakness of Baptism
The question raised by the parents is a good one. Instead of looking like a deer caught in the headlights, Rodrigues should have said, "You know well that we adults sin. That is why we have Confession and the Eucharist. Baptism saves us and sanctifies us, but when your child is old enough to make her own choices, she will have to decide for herself--just as you do!--whether she will live for love. At the moment, she is innocent and full of grace, like Mary. If she dies before she can make her own choice, she will enter Heaven. If she lives long enough to have the power to love, as we do, then she will be judged on the quality of her choices, as we all are.
This kind of reflection on the nature of baptism should have taken place during the years of formation that all Jesuits received. As with the question about innocent suffering, it is strange that the movie makes it seem that the two Jesuits have never thought about the issue of "once saved, always saved" until they had landed in Japan and started baptizing babies.
Missionaries are human; the message is divine.
"All the time Fr. Cabral was here, he taught, but he would not learn. He despised our language, our food, and our customs."
If true, then Fr. Cabral was a jerk. Let us condemn his narcissism and stupidity in no uncertain terms. But let us also be merciful toward him as we want others to be merciful to us. People make mistakes. The preachers of the gospel are people, and they make mistakes. There is a difference between the personal defects of character and the quality of the gospel message. We should reject the shortcomings of the missionaries because we understand the fullness of the message they carry.
The movie is on the side of the torturers
The movie is manipulative. It attributes all of the evil to the desire of the missionaries to tell the good news to the whole world: "These people are suffering because of your dream of a Christian Japan." The inhuman enmity of the torturers and sadists is given a pass. Their part in the suffering of the faithful is treated as a force of nature. The only people who are condemned are the evangelists.
Ferreira: We were taught to love those who scorned us.
Rodrigues: I feel nothing for them.
Loving people for whom we feel love is a great consolation; loving enemies is a different case entirely. Love, like sin, is in the will, not in the feelings. "Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you" (Mt 5:44) is a command for us to overcome our natural inclinations of resentment, recrimination, and revenge by an act of faith in the mercy of God. Those who cannot feel antipathy toward others cannot fulfill this law of love.
Ferreira: "Do you have the right to make them suffer? I heard the cries of suffering in this same cell. And I acted."
Rodrigues is not causing the suffering of his brothers and sisters; the inquisitor is. Ferreira is siding with the torturers.
The one who betrays Jesus is the one who serves Jesus best.
The movie raises the question of whether Jesus was happy and pleased with the betrayal by Judas: "What you must do, do quickly" (Jn 13:27). The thought that Judas was obeying God's command, that he was forced to hand Jesus over to death, is an ancient garbling of the gospel. Ferreira and the moviemakers believe that it is a great act of love for Jesus to betray Him, and not just Him, but everyone who has laid down their lives in imitation of Him.
Ferreira: "You are about to perform the most painful act of love."
Ferreira: "If Jesus were here, what would He do?"
"All religions are the same. There is no difference between Buddhism and Christianity."
Interpreter: "The path of mercy. That means only that you abandon self. No one should interfere with another man's spirit. To help others is the way of the Buddha and your way, too. The two religions are the same in this. It is not necessary to win anyone over to one side or another when there is so much to share."
Buddhism is a religion that originated in India and came to Japan by way of China. The exaltation of Buddhism in the movie repudiates the thought that the Japanese are locked into a culture that excludes all other cultures. If Buddha can be preached in Japan, why not Jesus? If there is no difference between Buddhism and Christianity, why persecute Christians and endorse Buddhism?
Ferreira claims that the Japanese do not worship the same God as Christians because St. Francis Xavier chose the wrong word to translate the Judeo-Christian concept into Japanese.
Ferreira: "The Japanese are incapable of thinking of anything beyond nature. They have no concept of 'God.' The word Francis Xavier chose just means 'the sun.' It rises every day."
Christianity does not stand or fall on the meaning of one word. The creed is a complex unity of ideas. The understanding of God as one, supreme, all-good, all-present, all-knowing, all-loving, all-merciful, all-beautiful, all-truthful, pure spirit, not trapped in space and time as we are but the first cause and final judge of all that is, is woven into the whole of the tradition. The whole task of catechists, whether they work at home or in foreign missions, is to see that the full gospel message is transmitted.
"Xavier was welcomed by the Shingon monks since he used the word Dainichi for the Christian God; attempting to adapt the concept to local traditions. As Xavier learned more about the religious nuances of the word, he changed to Deusu from the Latin and Portuguese Deus. The monks later realised that Xavier was preaching a rival religion and grew more aggressive towards his attempts at conversion."[2]
Xavier was in Japan from 1549 until 1551. The historical apostate, Ferreira, renounced the faith in 1633 "after being tortured for five hours."[3] Xavier had already realized the limitations of "Dainichi" and coined a new word 80 years before the events of this movie take place.
All who have rejected the faith under torture have my deepest sympathy. I do not bear pain well, and I doubt very much that I could endure five hours of being suspended upside-down in a black pit without breaking down. When it comes to martyrdom, I am ready and able to cheer the martyrs on from a safe distance in time and space. It was not watching others suffer or desiring to end their suffering that caused the real Ferreira to throw in the towel; it was his time in the pit that changed his mind.
The native Japanese religion, like most native religions, has a huge pantheon of deities--supernatural forces that surround us at all times and can bless or curse us. The imported Buddhist religion is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that "worships" the Buddha as a kind of deity. It is patently false to say that "the Japanese are incapable of thinking beyond nature." What an insult to Japanese intelligence and culture! The movie accuses the Jesuits of not being willing to learn about Japan, but it suffers from that very defect.
When Japan allowed westerners to enter the country in the 19th century, tens of thousands of "hidden Christians" were found in the area near Nagasaki and in other rural areas. 40,000 Christians near Nagasaki were driven into exile. Most of the "hidden Christians" rejoined the Catholic Church when the ban on Christianity was lifted in 1873. Ferreira's claim that Christianity could not take root in Japan was false in the time of persecutions (17th century) and is false today.
"What is true in Europe is not true in Japan. Nobody has any business interfering with another person's culture."
This is European historicism and relativism placed in the mouth of the Japanese inquisitor. In fact, Japan was so dependent on Chinese religion and culture that Francis Xavier set out to convert China in order to make the conversion of Japan easier. He died on an island off the coast of mainland China on 3 December 1552.
The laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are the same for all human beings. It is not colonialism to teach the principles of modern science to anyone who wishes to learn them; it is an act of kindness. So, too, in the spiritual life. There are laws of the spiritual life that are common to all human beings. Jesus, who is truly God and truly human, commanded His disciples to bring the gospel to all of God's scattered children. It is not imperialism to preach that "God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son so that whosoever believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3:16). The good news belongs to everybody. It is not the private property of Europeans. It is the right of every child of God to hear how much God loves them.
The best way to preach the gospel is not to talk about it.
The movie treats Rodrigues as a convert to a new and better way of life: "But even if God had been silent my whole life, to this very day, everything I do, everything I've done ... speaks of Him."
Evangelists who do not evangelize are the ideal evangelists in the eyes of our modern culture. A fake quotation has been popularly attributed to Francis of Assisi since the 1990s: "Preach Jesus, and, if necessary, use words."
"But some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, 'Teacher, rebuke Your disciples!' 'I tell you, He answered, 'if they remain silent, the very stones will cry out'" (Lk 19:39-40).

To be continued ...

  • "Pray with your eyes open."
  • "They are too humble to compare themselves to Jesus."

For what it's worth, I've ordered the novel to see how it compares to the movie. It was written by a Japanese Catholic, and is considered a masterpiece.


  1. I am, of course, referring to Malcom Gladwell's book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which utterly ignores Michael Polanyi's reflections on the tacit dimension while at the same time providing lots of supporting material to help illustrate and substantiate Polanyi's epistemology.
  2. Wikipedia, "Francis Xavier.
  3. Wikipedia, "Cristóvão Ferreira."