By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service (Movie Review)
ALBUQUERUQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – January 19, 2017) — I first heard about the movie Silence from artist Makoto Fujimura. As a faithful Tweeter, Fujimura has let folks that follow him on Twitter know that the movie was forthcoming. I was interested in what Fujimura was posting. Knowing a little about Shusaku Endo’s book, but not having read it, the Tweets were gentle reminders to do so.
Endo’s Silence is a historical novel based on two Portuguese missionaries in search of a former missionary to Japan. Along the way, they discover hundreds of Japanese Christians spread throughout various small towns. Many of these Christians became martyrs for Christ . The book is a marvelous study in faith, perseverance, truth, suffering, and religious persecution, as disquieting as it all may be. The only thing I can say is that Silence should be on the required reading list for all Christians.
Fujimura’s Tweets were fitting since he himself had written a book, Silence and Beauty, in 2016. Fujimura’s book bridges the gap between Endo’s work and modern Japan — or any culture for that matter — unpacking the key themes listed above and corresponding each to the Christian life . In short, Fujimura asks the question: Where is beauty to be found in suffering? As with Endo’s work, I highly recommend Fujimura’s book.
Fujimura and Endo aside, I was fascinated by Silence for three major reasons I list in the footnotes below, which mainly revolve around my connections to Portuguese and Japanese culture . Having both Japanese and Portuguese ties, my household made the viewing a family affair, a pilgrimage of sorts. But disappointment arose when we found that the release date of December 23, 2016, did not apply to all cities. We had to wait until Silence’s national release on January 11 . Together, all seven of us headed to the theater to take in the experience — and let me say, we were not disappointed. Many others have written on the profound nature of the movie , and to this day, I’m still processing it. For me, it poses as many questions as it provides answers. But as a quick summary on the impact of Silence, I provide an overview of the film using the word silence as an acronym (sort of corny, I know, but it turned out to work well as a matrix):
S — Story. The story is amazing. As mentioned above, Christians and literature buffs alike should read Endo’s work in earnest. But what makes Endo’s story so stunning is that the persecution he described did happen in Japan, and continues to happen around the world. The persecution of Christians has not ceased; it’s increased. According to the Catholic News Agency, the persecution of Christians has risen for four years straight . Numbing news. In a sense, the story wrought by Endo continues to this day, maybe not in Japan but in other parts of the world. The story Endo put on the page and Scorsese on film continues to be printed on the skin and bones of believers.
I — Interpretation. Martin Scorsese’s interpretation of the book is very noble, keeping true to the work and vision of Endo. A friend joined our family at the movie and told us how he and his wife were reading the book aloud while driving. He noted a few differences between the book and movie — some of which were clarifying (in the book, Rodrigues sees and hears Christ), and some of which were constraining (there wasn’t enough time in the film to include the entire impact of the book). But my friend agreed, as others have, that the movie was a close rendering of the book .
L — Lessons. There are too many to post. The obvious ones are faith, doubt, belief under the weight of persecution, apostasy, and truth. But there are also the sub-themes of tolerance, freedom of religion, and how a culture responds to new ideas and worldviews. And we need not forget violence. Violence is its own character in the film. This is fitting, since violence was a common companion of Christ during His life on earth. Yet I can’t leave off love. Love finds a voice in the lives and witness of the people, both a love for Christ and for one another. In the end, I found Silence to be a movie of grace, of how Christ grants grace in various ways to differing results. Like the apostle Paul discovered, Christ’s grace is sufficient in any situation (see 2 Corinthians 12:9).
E — Ethics. This is where the movie took on questioning components. The obvious ethical dilemma in the movie is violence. Violence done to the innocent or helpless — regardless of position — is always wrong. But other ethical aspects are not as cut and dry. What does a culture do with worldviews they deem invasive? Think on this exaggerated example: What would your government do if people from outer space began to teach something foreign, something deemed dangerous? How would you react and respond? The other ethical element in the movie was how Christians are to respond to people who’ve openly denied Christ (though maybe not in their heart). Do they receive forgiveness? Acceptance back into the church? It reminded me of the Donatists Controversy in the third century AD. Some Christians, under heated persecution by Emperor Diocletian, had renounced their faith. After the persecution subsided, some Christians confessed, but were denied re-admittance into the church and participation of the sacraments. In short, people were not allowed into full church life due to their outward conduct. Later, Augustine addressed the issue by noting that it was the role of the church — as presented through the priest — to offer grace and the sacraments, not based on personal character or a past sin. Augustine took a position of grace.
N — Noteworthy performances. As wonderful as Liam Neeson and Adam Driver are as actors, their roles were slight compared to Andrew Garfield, who pulled off an amazing performance as Padre Rodrigues. Yet in the midst of all these big stars, I was impressed by the various Japanese actors, including Issei Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Yosuke Kubozuka, and Tadanobu Asano, to name just a few. Their presence on the screen gave the movie girth and grit, showing the humanity of people on both sides, Christian and traditional Japanese. I believe the real strength of the acting came from the confluence between the two worlds — East meets West, a convergence of ideals and institutions. More than any one acting performance, it was the combination, the family of actors that provided the substance to the scenes, the — dare I say — sacrament to the screen.
C — Cinematography. From the opening steam-filled frame to various artistic shots throughout, what struck me most was not only the beauty of Silence, but the intimacy. Though there were some sweeping landscape shots, much of the movie honed in on heads and other individual components of a person, showing an ethereal and fragile view of a human’s existence. Eyes, hands, and feet played a major role in the film. This intimate cinematography was by no means awkward; rather, it gave Silence a personal quality. People mattered, and the cinematography highlighted this. The way it was shot asked, is this you? Is this your foot, your eye? Who are you in this scene?
E — Experience. From the acting to the story, the cinematography to the directing, the movie left our family almost silent. Not a sound was heard as people filtered out of the theater. It wasn’t until we reached the lobby that I asked my daughter her thoughts. She could only respond with sadness. It was like a prayer. But as you can ascertain from this article, Silence didn’t leave me silent for too long. On our way home, my wife and I talked about the film, analyzing its profound impact.
As with anything virtuous, you must tell others where to find truth, beauty, and goodness, even when sadness and suffering is in tow. So do yourself a favor and locate where Silence is showing in your area. If it’s not showing, ask why. But more importantly, if it is showing, go see it, reveling in its mystery, sorrow, and complexity.
As I mentioned at the beginning, Silence poses as many questions as it provides answers. After seeing the movie, ask yourself the following:
1) How did I emotionally respond to the movie? Did it encourage me or discourage me? Why?
2) How would I respond to the fire of religious persecution? Would I renounce my faith or stand firm upon it? And can a Christian really lose or leave their faith?
3) What can I learn from Silence regarding other religions, worldviews, and cultures? How does it temper or tantalize my understanding of evangelism and cultural sovereignty within a particular society?
4) What am I doing for Christians around the world who suffer daily because of their faith? Do I remain silent or sound the alarm?
5) What is apostasy? Is it the denial of Christ with the head only, through the voice? Or is it the denial of Christ in the heart?
6) Is it more important to emulate Christ (saving lives, living for love) or educate people about Christ (evangelism, discipleship, etc.)? Or are these things equal? Because Christ’s love constrains us, telling others is not only compelling, but also a command (see Matthew 28:18-20). How would I handle a culture that clashes with my calling?
7) How do I respond when God seems silent, when I can’t ascertain His voice in a particular situation? How should I live in light of God’s silence?
3) One, my extended family has ties to Japan. Both my in-laws and brother-in-law were missionaries in Japan. Because of this, we have many Japanese friends. And to make matters even more intriguing, I married into a Portuguese family. So my wife’s family are modern Portuguese-American champions of the faith in Japan. This gave me a personal connection to Silence. Two, I’ve long admired the work of Martin Scorsese. And when I learned that Silence was almost thirty years in the making — that it was something Scorsese is passionate about (see http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2016/12/20/silence-martin-scorsese-journey-big-screen/95622494/) — I took notice not just of that, but also of the stellar cast Scorsese employed (Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, and Andrew Garfield). Third, Kim Allen Kluge scored the movie. I’m an advocate for modern composition, and choosing someone like Kluge who incorporates both Eastern and Western musical sensibilities makes the movie sonically appealing. For a sample of Kluge’s work, I recommend his Haiku Suite (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMAms7CzweY).
4) I’ve since learned — once again through Fujimura’s Tweets — that Scorsese is seeking further exposure and release for the movie in more theaters.
Photo captions: 1) Martin Scorcese and Endo’s book. 2) Liam Neeson. 3) Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield. 4) Shinya Tsukamoto. 5) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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