Sunday, January 22, 2017

Silence (the Movie)

The Augustinian Fathers who staffed my home parish and taught me in high school were part of a province which included a mission in Japan. So at a fairly early age I learned about the terrible persecution of Japanese Catholics that began with the 26 Martyrs of Nagasaki in 1597 and the amazing story of the Christians who somehow secretly maintained the faith in clandestine communities without priests (and hence without any sacraments except Baptism and Matrimony) until the re-opening of Japan to foreigners in the late 19th century. The "miraculous" (as it seemed to Blessed Pope Pius IX at the time) survival of this underground Catholicism for some 250 years amazed the world.

The Japanese persecution of the Church and the moral dilemmas it created form the historical background for Martin Scorsese's new film Silence, based on Shusaku Endo's 1966 Tanizaki prize winning novel of that name. A Japanese Catholic, Endo seems to have been acutely conscious of Catholicism's marginal status as an imported Western religion in Japan, a theme which emerges as central in the film. The title, of course, refers to God's silence in the face of human suffering, a popular mid-20th-century theme in literature and film. (I think back, for example, to Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's many religiously themed films.)

The story starts in Macau when the Portuguese Jesuit superior there learns that Father Cristovao Ferreira has committed apostasy in Japan. Unwilling to believe this, two of Fr. Ferreira's former students, Fathers Sebastiao Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver) set out for Japan to find him. Once there (guided by a Japanese Christian who repeatedly lapses and then repents), they are sheltered by and minster to a grateful community of Japanese Christians, but their presence brings the government persecutors closer. Several native Christians are tortured and killed. The two priests separate, but they are themselves eventually captured, and more Japanese Christians are tortured and killed. Fr. Garrpe dies a martyr, but Fr. Rodrigues is targeted by the authorities to follow Ferreira in publicly abandoning the faith, which he eventually does. Having first called Ferreira a disgrace, Rodrigues finally follows him in repeated apostasy and an apparently frustratingly empty life as a married Japanese Buddhist.

The movie takes a long time (too long?) telling its story, and Endo's theme that Japan is a "swamp" in which Christianity cannot easily take root is reflected physically in the apparent dreariness of the setting.

The story seems to want us to focus on how Rodrigues should respond to the tragedy unfolding around him, whether apostasy represented a morally legitimate response on his part, whether what purports to be Christ speaking to him at a critical moment is an authentic inspiration or rather a temptation from Satan. But these questions can be asked and answered only against the background of the martyrdom of the lay Japanese Catholics. In keeping with Endo's anxiety about whether a Western religion can really take root in Japan, the missionaries are invited to analyze and question how authentic the faith of the Japanese really is. Yet the Japanese converts' faithfulness to what they have been taught, their reverence for the priests, their evident love and desire for the sacraments, and finally their silent but heroic witness as martyrs speak volumes about their actual faith, however unsophisticated they may be in their appropriation of it. Whether intended or not, the film sets up a contrast between the simple faithful who accept martyrdom - certainly not joyfully, but certainly faithfully - and the more sophisticated priests, whose theological and cultural sophistication fails them and who in the end fail in fidelity. Paradoxically, the story suggests that the imported Western faith may have been able to plant deeper roots among the Japanese converts than among some of the Jesuits themselves!

Of course, not everyone is a hero. Not everyone is ready to accept martyrdom in any age. Our modern sensibility makes us uncomfortable judging those who choose an alternative when faced with difficulties we ourselves do not have to face. The tragic/comic figure of Kichijiro, the Christian who lapses and betrays Rodrigues and who constantly comes back to confess may represent one such, perhaps not atypical alternative. And as long as Rodrigues remains Christian, he accepts Kichijiro's repeated repentance and absolves him, but then he no longer does so after his own apostasy. 

Rodrigues' contemporaries would no doubt have been horrified by his apostasy, as he himself was initially by Ferreira's. Only our sentimental age which would reduce religion to therapy can comfortably re-interpret it as a process of discernment. But even the film negatively presents Rodrigues' post-Christian life in Japan, portraying it as meaningless and vacuous and anything but heroic or admirable.

Our modern sensibility seeks a more satisfying ending, which is presumably the point of Rodrigues' wife sneaking a cross into her dead husband's hand in his coffin, leaving us to hope that perhaps he persevered in the faith at least at some level.

What we can know, however, what history tells us, is that the Catholic faith did survive in the "swamp" of Japan through the perseverance of silent generations of lay men and women, and that, however marginal a Western import it may still appear, it does still survive as a faithful witness there now.

No comments:

Post a Comment