by Maggie Gallagher
At last night’s Academy Awards, Martin Scorsese’s Silence was passed over by Hollywood, which refused even to nominate his astonishing film about Jesuit missionaries in Japan for an Oscar, other than one lone nomination for cinematography.
Perhaps more surprisingly, Scorsese’s Silence was also overlooked — nay, even scorned and denounced — by much of the Catholic and Christian community.
Brad Miner, formerly National Review’s literary editor, thundered: “Scorsese’s Silence is not a Christian film by a Catholic filmmaker, but a justification of faithlessness.” The Christian Post review called it “deeply disturbing — and potentially hazardous to one’s spiritual health.” Church Militant said the film “pushes apostasy.” “Martyrs Know Apostasy Cannot Be Justified,” rebuked the Crisis reviewer.
Many saw the film through the lens of the Amoris Laetitia controversy over adultery and communion, as the Catholic Herald pointed out. And John Anderson probably didn’t help in this regard when he wrote in regarding Silence for the Jesuit’s magazine America, “Is it really apostasy if you’re saving another’s life? In a kind of twisted version of the theological debate over faith and works, the film asks if abominable actions are sinful if they are done with the best intentions, and the faith remains inviolate in one’s heart.”
When I proposed getting together to see the film on a listserv of conservative women journalists in Washington, D.C., the conversation immediately went to this point: Is it ever licit to apostatize? Many underscored Bishop Barron’s ambivalent take in which he suspects the film of endorsing a Catholicism that is “utterly privatized, hidden away, harmless.” As the Catholic Herald’s Tim Stanley wrote, “I suspect these people were watching the movie with their culture war specs on.”
To me, I have trouble even processing that as the point of this film. Yes, the main character, the Jesuit missionary Rodrigues, steps on the face of Christ after weeks of psychological torture, when his captors tell him people will continue to be tortured and killed, even if they apostatize, unless he apostatizes. Yes, Rodrigues hears a voice in his head, that might or might not be the voice of Jesus, telling him, “Go ahead, step on me. I was born in this world to share your pain.”
The moment he does so, however, the cock crows three times.
Silence is to me the most Catholic movie ever made. The Passion of the Christ, A Man for All Seasons, and Les Misérables are perhaps a close second — and, no, The Bells of St. Mary’s is not even close.
If one thinks of a work of art as a second-rate sermon or natural law essay, then perhaps I can understand how one might process Silence, cannibalizing it for pieces of arguments and then judging the arguments one constructs from it. But is this what art does? Is it an essay manqué?
I am having trouble imagining the human being whose faith could be sabotaged by Silence. Because I sat through it and wept watching it for the inadequacy of my faith.
At the simplest level, watching the Japanese peasants die for their faith — even given the ugliness of their life conditions — could I do that?
“What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What will I do for Christ?” The film achieves an intensely liturgical quality with scenes often echoing the life of Christ.
The sacramentalism of Catholicism is on intense and beautiful display, not as an argument but as a reality. “I imagine your son nailed to the Cross. My mouth tastes like vinegar.” The priest disassembles his rosary: “They are desperate for tangible signs of faith. Finally I had to part with my Rosary.”
The intensity with which the hidden Christian Japanese peasants hunger for the Eucharist is like nothing I have ever seen portrayed on the screen.
But above all, Scorsese is once again playing with and contemplating what it means for a priest to be in the person of Christ, which is to say once again what it means for Christ to be both man and God and what it means for a priest who is not God to try to stand in his place. In the pivotal scene just before Rodrigues is betrayed — for 300 pieces of silver — he looks at his own face reflected in a river, sees Christ, and laughs hysterically. How can this be? How can this man, this fallible man, stand in the place of Christ?
“I thirst,” the man Rodrigues says to his betrayer. “Our Lord said that,” he responds.
The Japanese peasants who die for Christ — everyone praises them. But even here Silence twists the narrative. These peasants were willing to step on the fumie — on Christ’s face. But when the inquisitor asked them to spit on the Cross and to call Mary a whore, that they could not do. The abstraction of apostasy they could stomach, but their love for God could not countenance a physical degradation.
They died expecting paradise. Mokichi, the last of them after four days, with the surf pounding, sang his faith — the Tantum Ergo.
Scorsese’s Silence was marketed first as an art film, a passion project by a great director, and only secondarily did they try (and fail) to tap into The Passion of the Christ Christian blockbuster market. Between these two stools, it tanked miserably at the box office, garnering just over $7 million in America by February 22. It is still playing in art houses in major metropolitan areas, including New York and Washington. If you haven’t seen it yet, go while you can.