Silence is not just about mission. As Pope Francis implied in his remarks to Scorsese, the film is itself missional.
Silence is beautifully minimalist, not nearly as stylized or frenetic as some of Scorsese’s earlier epics (think Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed, or Gangs of New York). Shot in muted hues by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and full of the sensory ambience of nature (birds, insect chirps, the crashing of waves), the film has a zen quality to it. As it moves along, Silence draws the viewer into an ever more contemplative space, gradually stripping away all else and focusing our gaze on Christ.
This is a film about what it means to know Christ, the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” even in our darkest moments of despair and pain. To believe in Christ is to believe in Immanuel, “God with us”: with us in weakness, with us is doubt, with us in suffering.
We don’t always hear God or feel him in our pain, and yet he is still with us. This is the faith of Father Rodrigues in Silence: “Christ is here. I just can’t hear him.” Throughout the film, Rodrigues has doubts (“Am I just praying to nothing?”), but keeps seeking God. He watches the martyrs die and believes God heard their prayers, “But did he hear their screams?”
An Incarnational Film
To prepare for the role of Rodrigues, Garfield underwent a 30-day retreat of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, under the guidance of Jesuit priest Fr. James Martin.
“You are walking, talking, praying with Jesus, suffering with him,” said Garfield of the retreat. “And it’s devastating to see someone who has been your friend, whom you love, be so brutalized.”
Questions of suffering are not easily resolvable in philosophy and theology. Silence does not attempt to answer them logically, but it does present us with Jesus. At various points in the film the screen is consumed simply by a portrait of Christ by El Greco, staring right at us, into our doubts and loneliness and hopes and fears. The deep, deep love of Jesus is right there in his eyes. Scorsese said he picked the El Greco image because it seemed to communicate to the viewer: “I will not abandon you.”
Silence reminded me of a quote from poet Christian Wiman in his memoir, My Bright Abyss: “I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ … He felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”
Far from a reason to abandon faith, in Christianity, suffering is a way into faith. Too often our Christian mission feels too world-denying, too experience-transcending. Too often it has been all Sunday and no Friday. Yet part of the good news, to paraphrase Wiman, is that God is with us and not beyond us in our struggles.
Three decades ago Christians responded to Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation not with silence, but with bullhorns and picket signs. The culture wars framed Christianity as a fight for power through the avenues of media and politics and pop culture. Scorsese’s Silence should remind Christians that the way of Jesus is not the way of positioning for maximum power and platform and influence. Quite the opposite.