The Last Word on Silence

Mark Thomas

Silence, 2016, directed by Martin Scorsese

Silence, by Shusaku Endo, Peter Owen/Picador 1966

Silence, the Academy-Award-nominated film released in 2016 and directed by Martin Scorsese, is a long-awaited adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name. It tells the story of two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, Sebastian Rodriguez (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), who ask their superior to be allowed to go to Japan to seek the truth about their former mentor, Father Cristovao Ferreira (Liam Neeson). A report is circulating that Father Ferreira, himself responsible for tens of thousands of Japanese conversions to Christianity, has apostatized, has publicly renounced the Christian faith, under the pressure of the ruthless and brutal persecution that the Japanese government has begun conducting against its Christian population. It is a report that deeply troubles his former charges, and they are also afraid this report will scandalize all of Christian Europe. Their superior reluctantly gives them permission, and once in Japan the two friends are witness to the agony of the Christian people there—extreme poverty and hardship, no sacraments save baptism, and of course, the terror of the persecution, which eventually forces them to flee the Christian village to which they were ministering. Garrpe and Rodriguez end up separating, but they are determined to keep Christianity alive in Japan and to fulfill their mission. But for Rodriguez the road is long and the trials are many, and the most painful of all these is watching Christian peasants suffer and die at the hands of tormentors who promise Rodriguez that, if he will simply apostatize, the tortures and deaths will cease. Rodriguez calls out over and over to God for guidance, prays for mercy for the peasants and for himself—but God is silent. Until the moment when Rodriguez hears the voice of Christ coming from the fumi-e, the image of Christ he is being called upon to desecrate, a voice that gives Rodriguez permission to do just that—which he does—thereby setting himself and his fellow Christian captives free.

This film has caused a great deal of conversation, and not a little scandal, within Catholic circles. Why? Because in it a priest apostatizes? No, because this priest heard the voice of Jesus giving him permission to do so: in order to end his pain over the torture of Christians, which pain Christ said he understood, which pain he said was his divine mission was to understand. It has prompted some Catholics to wonder aloud whether compassion for the suffering might indeed be just cause for apostasy, and whether it might indeed be a supreme act of devotion to Christ to sacrifice one’s integrity for the sake of joining Christ in his mission of compassion. It has other Catholics asking: What sort of dangerous nonsense is this? Where is this all coming from? Who is this Endo guy? I hear people saying he was a Catholic? You mean the kind of Catholic who doesn’t believe in moral absolutes that can’t be willingly compromised, even for the sake of compassion? The kind of Catholic who isn’t really Catholic? Kind of like Scorsese, who while being interviewed about this film admitted he’s not a “regular churchgoer,” who’s been divorced and remarried multiple times, and who also once adapted a book called The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Jesus entertained thoughts of marriage to Mary Magdalene while earning a living making crosses for the Romans to hang Christians on?

First of all, it’s important that we all understand—as Scorsese arguably doesn’t—what Endo’s original novel was about, and where its Japanese author was coming from. Not only did Endo spend most of his formative years off the mainland, but within a year of returning there with his mother he was baptized a Catholic, making him something of a double-stranger in his own country. And he just kept getting stranger: He took an early interest in French Catholic literature, reading the works of Mauriac, Claudel, and Bernanos, culminating in his visit to the University of Lyons, from which he had to return due to illness.

So where, in truth, was Endo coming from? Rome. Endo was a Catholic. As such, he was not at home in Japan; he saw his native country through something like the eyes of a foreigner. In the introduction to Endo’s novel Wonderful Fool, Francis Mathy, S.J., writes that Endo identifies a “threefold insensitivity of the Japanese: insensitivity to God, death, and sin.” In Endo’s novella Yellow Man, the narrator, a lapsed Japanese Catholic, writes to the French missionary who educated him, “A yellow man like me has absolutely no experience of anything so profound and extreme as the consciousness of sin you white men have. All we experience is fatigue, a deep fatigue—a weariness murky as the color of my skin, dank, heavily submerged.” Which brings us back to Silence, in which Endo further develops this same cultural observation with his notion of “the Japanese swamp.”

Inoue (Issei Ogata), the magistrate of Nagasaki and the architect of the persecution, identifies “the swamp of Japan” as the root cause of the failure of Christianity to take root in Japan—at least not without suffering syncretic deformation, a “twisting and changing” of the teachings of Christianity that makes these teachings agreeable to the Japanese’ already-held beliefs (e.g., Buddhism, naturalism), with the result that Christianity as such no longer remains. The “threefold insensitivity of the Japanese” gives rise to the phenomenon of “the swamp”: the Japanese naturalist sensibility does not engage questions of transcendence, while the Japanese Buddhist sensibility, though it does engage such questions, also encourages absolute transcendence of the self, including and especially the will, without which matters of sin and virtue, guilt and absolution become irrelevant. In his stage adaptation of Silence (entitled The Golden Country), Endo has Inoue describe the “Japanese swamp” as something warm and comfortable that induces sleep. The “swamp,” then, for Endo, is a culturally-promulgated attitude that acts as an intellectual soporific, discouraging the “examined life,” suppressing conscience, and creating spiritual inertia. An inertia that resists change, change such as Christian missionaries might bring, so that rather than the Japanese being changed by Christianity, Christianity is more likely to suffer change in them.  

We should leave aside the question of whether Endo is dramatically overstating the problem. For example, it’s nearly impossible to accept, as Father Ferreira tries to convince Rodriguez, that St. Francis Xavier failed to note that the early Christian converts were mixing in sun-worship (after all, pagans being “slow to get it” has been a thing since St. Paul). Besides, history shows that there was at least one person in Japan who got Christianity enough to get Paul Claudel. But in fact, it doesn’t really matter, for the purposes of this analysis, whether the Japanese are significantly more impassible than any other people on earth. What is material here is Endo’s judgment on this impassibility and on the syncretism that results from it. And in Silence, Endo’s judgment on “the swamp” and what it does to the mind, specifically the mind’s capacity for receiving and retaining the Catholic faith, is clear. It’s bad. Really bad. Case in point: The apostasy of Rodriguez.

It is important to note that the voice of Christ that Rodriguez hears preaches a mercy that bears a disturbing resemblance to the mercy of the Buddha—not a mercy that forgives sin (even before it is committed!), but rather a mercy, to quote Inoue in his final controversy with Rodriguez, that forgives man’s “hopeless weakness.” (This controversy does not appear in the film. A lot of important stuff from the book doesn’t, and these omissions tell on Scorsese.) To paraphrase the “trample-me” Christ: “I get it. You’re in pain. So do what you’re going to do. It’s OK.” This is how you talk to somebody who you judge to be so broken that they can do nothing else but, say, take another drink. Or steal to get it. Because they’re weak. As in hopelessly so. Yes, many of us are this way. But I myself would like someone to tell me that I may have life and have it abundantly, rather than tell me: “For this I was born, for this I came into the world: To understand that you can’t even…”

In short, Rodriguez, in his moment of deepest agony, has a “swamp moment.” He hears Christ talking like the Buddha. The car that is his mind collides with, and wraps around, the tree that is Japan.

And then a cock crows.

Just in case the meaning of the trope Endo employs here isn’t as clear as Gabriel’s trumpet, let me underscore the thunderous significance of this moment. Up to this point in the novel Rodriguez has been repeatedly troubled, even scandalized, by what we might call the “absence of theophany”: Rather than the sky darkening or the heavens opening when a Christian martyr is beheaded, the chorus of cicadas sing on as though nothing of importance has happened; the flies buzz and pester God’s servants and God’s enemies alike. There is only one moment in the novel when nature breaks its silence to comment on the affairs of men: the crowing of a cock at the apostasy of Rodriguez. You want theophany? Here’s your earthquake. This “swamp moment” is what the novel is about. And it should be unmistakably clear that, for Endo, this moment is momentously awful.

But what is director Martin Scorsese’s attitude toward Shusaku Endo’s “swamp”? It is indeed referenced in the film, and Scorsese faithfully reproduces the telling cock crow, but he has apparently done so without understanding that the cock tells on him. Scorsese has said of himself, “I’m a lapsed Catholic, but I’m a Catholic.” This is in fact similar to how Rodriguez tries (without satisfaction) to describe himself to himself after he has become a denizen of “the swamp.” (This is also not in the film.) But while for Endo, Rodriguez’s new life as a swamp-creature is manifestly tragic, Scorsese seems quite comfortable with taking up a “swampy” position regarding Catholicism and religion generally. In his interview with La Civilta Cattolica, he says “There are many pathways to perceiving God… but I am most comfortable as a Catholic.”

But could we say that Endo was tolerantly indifferent to Rodriguez’s “culturally comfortable” “alternate pathway”? When asked in his video interview with America to describe “the heart of the book,” Scorsese’s thoroughly modernist answer was: “It’s the struggle for the very essence of faith—[the] stripping away [of] everything else around it. The vehicle that one takes towards faith can be very helpful—the institution of the Church, the sacraments, this all can be very good—but ultimately [the vehicle] has to be yourself.” “Stripping away” the institutional Church and the sacraments and all other outward signs of Catholicism was indeed what the “ministers of the swamp” did in Rodriguez’s case; again, can we imagine that Endo would have celebrated such an itinerarium mentis ad Deum? Unlike Endo, Scorsese doesn’t seem to think the “way of the swamp” is such a bad way to go.  

You would expect that if Scorsese’s lack of understanding of Endo and his novel were so profound, his attempt at adapting Silence would therefore result in a dramatic mis-representation of the novel (to say nothing of its author). And you’d be right. Endo’s story is about a thoughtful young Jesuit who, though a dedicated servant of the Church and a highly able defender of the faith, is unprepared to be tested by “the swamp.” So when he believes he finally hears the voice he has for so long been straining to hear releasing him from his trial, he succumbs. But because (as Endo surely wishes us to conclude) this voice was not Christ’s but rather the result of Rodriguez’s mind and will collapsing under the swamp’s weight, his agony continues (he actually dreams of being pursued by the Holy Inquisition, “like the Last Judgment in the Apocalypse”). His need to justify himself to himself is unrelenting, even to the end, and the answers he gives himself (and that “the voice of Christ” gives him) are increasingly unsatisfying, as his person gradually sinks entirely from view. Endo’s narrative is, again, a tragedy.

Scorsese’s “Apostate Paul,” however, is not tortured. He is resigned. Sad, but resigned. Yes, there are moments in which his former identity flames forth. Yes, there is evidence of lingering (nostalgic?) attachment to the faith of his former years. But he has accepted his fate. He has made peace with himself and his situation. He is comfortable with being “a bad Catholic, but still a Catholic.” In other words, he is Scorsese. But such a resolution reveals Scorsese’s narrative to be something more like a coming-of-age story, in which a naïve kid learns the hard way that life is not like what he was taught in seminary (“Pray with your eyes open!” scolds Ferreira; yeah, that’s not in the book), who has put away the things of childhood and learned to live with disappointment and ambiguity. In other words, Scorsese’s Silence is an appropriation of Endo’s novel that serves as a justification for his own apostasy.

OK, but isn’t this all just book snobbery? A film doesn’t have be in lock-step with the source material to be a good film, right? No, of course not. But Scorsese’s total non-apprehension of the true drama of Endo’s novel has necessarily caused him to substitute that drama with a different one—and the substitute he has come up with is dramatically inferior. Scorsese said in the America interview: “Why did it take me so long to make the attempt to put [the book] on the screen? Understanding it from the inside out. It wasn’t the obvious story; it was deeper.” Unfortunately he has, in fact, told the “obvious story.” This is not a story of the weakening, pollution and persistence of a man’s conscience. Instead, Scorsese has merely told another story of violence. And I don’t mean the Japanese martyrdoms. I mean the two-hour, one-note beat-down of Andrew Garfield, who here submits himself to the wrath of a bitter Sicilian ex-seminarian and who, God bless him, gives this torture movie everything he’s got.

But I’m not nearly as concerned to demonstrate that Scorsese has made a bad movie out of a great book as I am to make clear that Shusaku Endo is a friend to orthodox Catholicism, and no syncretist. Why is it so important to unstop our ears to Endo?  Because his cautionary tale of the swamp is one to which we need to attend, for we here in the West are in a swamp of our own. We too are in a world that is unimpressed with the Christian proposal because it doesn’t think the questions about God, morality, death, and meaning are important. The God of the West, however, is not nature: it is control. Over nature. Over people. Over wealth. Over status. Over satisfaction. Of course not of all us here in the West are avid idol-worshippers. Some of us are just trying to survive poverty, abuse, dysfunction, depression. And often alone. And every last one of us is fatigued. Exhausted. Meanwhile, the Church in the West is in the swamp too: passive, confused and confusing, if not outright scandalous. Is it any wonder so many of us are failing? Cut off from God and from each other, we are, like Rodriguez, giving out, giving in, starving, collapsing. The West is Silence.  

Mark Thomas is a screenwriter, filmmaker and film critic.