Lema Sabachthani: A Rough Review of Silence

Silence Promo Poster.jpegA couple months ago, I blogged about the movie Hacksaw Ridge, in which Andrew Garfield (whom you may also know from The Amazing Spider-Man or The Social Network) played a Christian and pacifist soldier/medic/actual historical figure named Desmond Doss during World War II. Coincidentally, he also happens to have the lead role in this next movie I’d like to review, Martin Scorsese’s historical-epic-drama Silence, which was released everywhere this weekend.

In this film (no major spoilers: just basic premise stuff), Garfield and Adam Driver (aka Kylo Ren from Star Wars: The Force Awakens) play Portuguese [Jesuit] priests in the 1630s who travel to Japan both to minister to the people and search for their old mentor, Father Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson). At this time, Christianity was outlawed in Japan, and many of those who refused to denounce their allegiance to Christ were brutally killed by the government leaders (and since it’s Martin Scorsese–the guy who brought us Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wallstreet–we get to see all the exciting ways in which they’re excecuted, too!).

It would be a vast understatement to call this film well-made, provocative, and–like any Catholic mass–rich in elaborate symbolism. Director Martin Scorsese, who is himself a Catholic, told Gold Morning America that he had worked for almost 30 years to try to get this film completed. Likewise, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver went through great lengths to mentally, physically, and, yes, even spiritually prepare for their roles. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Garfield mentioned that he had lost around 40 pounds for the role, while Adam Driver lost close to 50 (which becomes even more horrifying when you see how thin the two of them are already). Furthermore, Garfield spent a year studying under a Jesuit priest, and both he and Driver spent about a week together visiting a monastery and remaining completely… well, silent.

This movie fascinated me in a lot of ways, and appealed to me not only as a Christian, but as a missions major and a sucker for a good metaphor, analogy, and cinematography. To try to parse the entire three-hour movie, especially in just one blog post and after just one viewing, would be a ridiculous feat to pursue. That being said, this work of art did lead me to think about a number of different things that I would like to discuss here.

  • For one thing, symbols are powerful. Anyone who has ever attended a Catholic mass (or perhaps some other High Church service) will notice that everything done there, as well as everything in and not in the room at the time, means something, from the cross, to the clergy’s clothes, to the prayers, to the water. Some “symbols” in the Catholic tradition even go so far as to becoming far more than just symbols, as the bread and wine that is consumed during the Eucharist becomes not just a mere representation of the body and blood of Jesus (like it does in most Protestant traditions) but, rather it becomes his actual, literal, real life flesh and blood. And these symbols can often become an inseparable part of one’s faith, as is expressed deeply throughout the movie.
  • To go along with that, this movie is a testament to the fact that faith is dangerous.  Throughout the film, the priests are called arrogant and idiotic because they think that their faith is in some way better than the (I would say distorted form of) Buddhism that the Japanese government maintains. Garfield touches on this in his interview with Colbert by stating that faith, to him (he, himself, is agnostic, by the way), is more about doubt than it is about certainty; for “certainty starts war on behalf of ideologies”, and saying that “I am right and you are wrong” prevents us from moving forward in search of a greater Truth. Doubt, on the other hand, allows us to question that which we think we know, and actually, in fact, strengthens our faith, for certainty is faith in ourselves and our own knowledge or ideologies, while doubt creates space for faith in something greater than what any human being can conjure up alone.
  • To build off of that, this movie expresses the brokenness of humanity, and shows that anything created by human beings is doomed to shatter into a million pieces. While many religious-based movies like to portray spiritual leaders as the sort of moral compasses for the story, as the people who are always holy, upright, and are just short of having light radiate off of them, Silence takes a slightly different approach. Yes, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are still the moral compasses of the film, the ones who truly do their best to live out the example of Christ to the persecuted Christians they encounter, but they are far from being the Eric Camden-like figures we have grown accustomed to seeing in Christian shows and movies. Instead, our heroes are taken to deep, and often dark places–much like Jesus in the wilderness or at the Garden of Gethsemane–and they openly argued with themselves internally and with each other on how to properly respond to the threats that were being imposed upon them. Because we are all human, everything we do, say, think, and feel, is riddled with that one, prominent trait: our common imperfection. And this is what leads us to kill those who are not like us, to seek and worship that which is greater than us, and–to go with the ultimate theme of the film–to wail out to God, crying, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?“–even when all we seem to hear in response is silence.

It is hard for me to pick out anything specific to really criticize about the movie–certainly not from a cinematic perspective. From a justice perspective, it seemed to lean a little bit to the offensive side regarding the Japanese/Buddhists characters. Theirs was a corruption of Buddhism, rather than an accurate representation of what most Buddhists would claim to be their religion. But on the other hand, that is not to say this is an accurate representation of what the Japanese government was actually like in the 17th century (I’m not a historian). Furthermore, ISIS I would say that ISIS is a corruption of Islam and the Westboro Baptist Church is a corruption of Christianity.

Perhaps also in the future, we’ll live in a society that is okay with having actual Portuguese actors to play Portuguese characters rather than the British Garfield, American Driver, and Irishman Neeson. Though we are, unfortunately, not in that place at the time.

As a Bible/Missions student, I was thrilled to see a film that discussed some real, even dark, implications about being a missionary. It also hits me raw as someone who both finds value in missions and evangelism, but also appreciates the beauty found in other religions, and recently went on an interfaith retreat in order to build stronger relationships with people of other faiths. This, and honestly many other issues brought to light in this movie, will likely be continual struggles for me as I grow both in my faith and in my ministerial vocation.

Thank you for reading, if you did. I hope this helped you get interested in the movie if you had not been already. If you have seen the movie, I would love to hear any additional thoughts on it if you have any! I hope to also, in future posts, provide even more commentary on movies and books that I encounter, and look forward to any feedback y’all might have on those, as well. Until next time.

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