One of my great frustrations is not having yet seen the movie Silence, Martin Scorcese’s film about Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan based on Shusaku Endo’s great novel by the same name. Up until its release, the film was much ballyhooed, even being called the greatest religious film and the like, but then flopped at the box office. I still want very badly to see the movie, convinced that the film is far better than the reception it got. Scorcese, one of the great filmmakers of the past century, worked on it for some 25 years and held it close to his heart as his life’s work.
I also want to see the film in order to compare it with some of the commentary that touted it. (An excellent review of this commentary is written by my friend Margaret McCarthy, who is on the faculty of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C.) One of the themes of the commentary was that the film is about how difficult it is to plant a “European” faith in non-European soil. In the novel, one of the Japanese officials says as much to one of the Jesuits. This is rather suspicious. In fact, the missionaries arrive in a Japan where there had once been Christian communities in the hundreds of thousands. Now Christians are hiding in small enclaves, where they crave the sacraments. The reason for this has nothing to do with the difficulty of cultural adaption, though. The reason is that the Christian community has been and is being brutally persecuted by the government. The novel tells of Christians who died the death of martyrs rather than renounce their faith. It is in this context that the main plot unfolds, where one of the missionaries, Fr. Sebastian, is brought to apostatize under questioning.
I’m interested in this story, too, on the basis of the ongoing project on persecution that I co-direct, Under Caesar’s Sword, which is precisely about how Christians respond to persecution.
Sounding the note of persecution just right is a review of the film by Thomas Hibbs, an homme de lettres at Baylor University, where he is Dean of the Honors College.
“The commentary has tended to ignore a more striking issue and perhaps one more relevant to our own time: namely, what happens to religious faith in a totalitarian political environment that actively and violently repudiates any religion that is not perfectly consonant with the dictates of the political regime,” Hibbs writes. He describes the persecution thus:
Sixteenth-century Jesuit missionaries to Japan were for a time welcomed and had enormous success. Political changes in the country led to growing suspicion of foreign influences and to a fear that the allegiance of the Japanese people would be ssplit between nationalism and the new religion. The governmental response was ruthless and systematic. By the use of bribery and threats, it set ordinary citizens against one another and especially against any priests remaining in the country. The centerpiece of the elimination project was a very public form of repudiation of the faith: the so-called fumi-e (literally, “to step on a picture”), the stepping, and in some cases spitting, on an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary.
What sort of religion can survive in this setting, where religious liberty is systematically denied? If anything endures, it is minimalist and completely privatized; indeed, what remains is so private that it cannot emerge from the interior of the soul. In everything external to one’s thoughts and feelings, there must be complete conformity to the dictates of the state. Nothing less than public complicity with and docility toward the state is acceptable. If the film raises questions about the silence of God, it draws our attention equally to the silencing of religious speech and action. In the service of a totalitarian ideal, government agents exhibit a kind of enlightenment rationalism. They are meticulous, patient, thorough, articulate, and confident in their control and ultimate victory. One of the more instructive characteristics of Japanese rule in the film is that it is not just a regime of terror, desecration, and destruction. The surrealist nightmare of isolation, torture, and death that it constructs for believers stands in contrast to the world enjoyed by apostates, to whom, the officials offer comfort, work, community, and the esteem of both the elites and the common people. The strategy is smartly designed to suppress memories of, and longing for, any higher calling, any end beyond the scope of the state.
The Japanese rulers in the film were pioneers of a craft perfected in the twentieth century.