‘This is a spiritual & cultural artefact’ – was how a producer at the BBC described Scorsese’s recent adaptation of the Shusako Endo novel ‘Silence‘. A work of historical fiction, i.e based on real characters, about the Jesuits in Japan. Having seen the film about a month ago, I tend to agree, although the cinema was fairly empty and I notice there is no ‘awards buzz’ about it – I think it will grow in stature and popularity. I hope it will slowly acquire cult status, it doesn’t have the feel-good, crowd pleasing appeal that LaLa Land has ( and surely people need that in our fragmented times) …. but it has a depth and leaves a ‘haunting’ imprint that will mature over time. Like an artefact it will stand the test of time.
If you think about explicitly Christian films that have gone mainstream, all have differing levels of depth. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, in its own way a masterpiece – has the force of a sledgehammer and I would place it in the Key Stage 3 RE category. Roland Joffe’s The Mission, slightly more complex interweaving of theology / politics/ ecclesiology maybe would be GCSE, (Key Stage 4) Level. But Scorsese’s Silence – is certainly A Level (KS5) material – with all its glorious and infuriating ambiguities. Leaving scope for discussion and meditation.
Here in Manchester – many of the students are divided by it, and fascinating discussions ensue. Some get hung up on the priests apostasy and a sense of betrayal from that, without taking into fact the incredible commitment and self-offering that have got the missionaries their in the first place. In a similar way many of the reviews are polarised. The more secularised, the less they ‘get it’ – including one absurd review accusing it of ‘torture porn’ (I actually thought the film wasn’t as harrowing as I was expecting). It is as though the sheer fact that you can believe in something enough that you are prepared to die for it. is inconceivable to the more superficial reviews. Many people (even the usually prescient Robert Barron) seem to fixated on the ‘apostasy’ element. Which I think misses the point of the film (and the novel). For me Kichijiro is the main character in the film – and it is God’s Mercy for him , through sacramental confession, this is the most powerful aspect for me.
A former student sent me a wonderful email which expresses it like this, “I found myself really focusing on more in the film was the mercy of God, which I think is and should be the big focus within the film and book. The question: How much should I forgive my brother? Seventy seven. Is something I often thought about when watching this film especially when witnessing Kichijiro continuously plead for confession. For me Fr. Rodriguez and Fr Ferreira are insignificant as for me really the true Christian is perfectly embodied in Kichijiro. As he is what a christian really is: a sinful and weak creature totally dependent on God’s mercy. Interestingly Kichijiro does not really seem to care about human respect or his reputation as seen by his continuous grovelling and humiliating display of weakness before the priest. To me I think the book and film do a great job in showing this about Kichijiro and the mercy of God; but seem to overlook it and get a bit too obsessed with somehow trying to justify someone’s apostasy. The real question I think is how much are we willing to accept our weakness and plead for forgiveness.
Maybe this is echoing Scorsese own life – as revealed in this fascinating interview with the America Jesuit James Martin, his sense of rejection at a crucial age when he wanted to be a Maryknoll Missionary. He was asked to leave the seminary, and ‘crushed’ in his own words, and then his ‘pilgrimage’ slowly and painfully from the outside and back to God (?) . Jim has also written a very good reflective piece on common questions people struggle with after Silence. So is Silence really about about the Silence of God or the Deafness of Man? .
I have been thinking a lot about Pope Francis’s ‘Eldest Son Problem’. If you remember the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the elder brother who has worked hard and kept the rules all the time seethes with resentment as the dissolute younger brother is forgiven and embraced by the father. In fact his resentment at the Father (Gods) unlimited mercy and forgiveness stops him from going in and enjoying the banquet. They appear to be a sizeable group – particularly in The States, often an elite of some type or other, who seems to resent the popularity of Pope Francis outside of the borders of the church. It;s as if they don’t want the wrong type of people included in their church which has become a comfortable country club. They can seem to dominate the English Language Catholic Blogosphere and so they appear to be many, but in reality they create an ‘echo chamber’ and they are not representative of most Catholics.
Francis’ inspiring model of the ‘field hospital church’ that gets out there in the middle of the messiness of life, that tends wounds and listens to those hurting, is very threatening to some people, even if it may well be very close to Jesus’s vision. So an alternative ecclesiology is at play – rather than the field hospital church it is the ‘officers mess‘ church. They create an elitist Catholicism, have an ideological spin on history, often use the labels of tradition and orthodoxy as weapons and don’t seem to take into account the reality of many peoples messy lives. So they create a type of Virtual Gated Community – and their criticisms of Francis are out in the open, relentless and already they are splintering (always a sign of the bad spirit). What worries me is the effect that these blogs are having on some of my students – perhaps even on some of our bishops. The less you are pastorally engaged – the more tempting it is to live in these echo chambers, and feel good about your Catholic Identity.
So how do we bring these dissenters along with us? I think we can learn something from the Japanese here and how they discharged soldiers. After the defeat in the Second World War, many returning soldiers were not fit to return to their communities. Their only identity for their formative years had to be a loyal soldier for their country and now they needed a broader identity. So some very wise communities created a public ceremony where they were welcomed back and praised effusively for what they had done. The community realised that they needed to move on so they created this ritual for closure and transition for ex-soldiers to return to civilization. After the praise and thanksgiving, an elder would stand and declare ‘The war is now over – The community needs you to let go to what has served you until now, the community needs you to return as a man, a citizen and something more than a soldier.’ Maybe the Pope needs to do the same with some of our culture-warriors that are finding it difficult to move with him.
The history of Christianity in Asia is marked by terrible suffering and persecution, mixed with power, corruption, ignorance, prejudice, cultural suspicions, terrible mistakes, acts of great generosity and sacrifice. Some of the fiercest persecution was in Japan – after the success of the initial journeys of St Francis Xavier. The story of the martyrs of Japan is powerful and it should be known by a wider audience…….
Well hopefully it will be thanks to two men, award-winning Japanese author Shusako Endo and one of the greatest film directors of all-time, Martin Scorsese. Scorsese has announced his next project will be a film based on Endo’s classic novel Silence. Scorsese as a young man seriously considered the priesthood, even entering the seminary. Now, having married 5 times he recently said – “I’m a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic, there’s no way out of it. You do not have to look hard at many of his films to see the Catholic influence.
The novel is based on the historical figures of three Jesuits – and at the center of the story is the infamous Fr. Cristóvão Ferreira
, who was the head of the Jesuit mission in Japan. Ferreira was captured and committed apostasy
after being tortured for five hours. The tortures for Christians were terrible often being hung upside down over a pit and slowly bled unless they denied the faith – often by publicly trampling on a crucifix. Ferreira became the most famous of the “fallen priests”, converting to Shintoism
, changing his name and writing a book entitled The Deception Revealed
in 1636(a treatise against Christianity). He also participated in government trials of other captured Jesuits. This was a great scandal and shame to many Christians. Two young Jesuits were sent to Japan to succor the local Church and investigate reports that his mentor, and if possible ‘bring him back’.
Having read the novel about twenty years ago, it has, according to Scorsese himself, “given me a kind of sustenance that I have found in only a very few works of art.” Daniel-Day Lewis, Benicio Del Toro, and Gael Garcia Bernal are all reported to have major roles locked down.In a forward to a recent edition of the novel – Scorsese explains his fascination “How do you tell the story of Christian faith? The difficulty, the crisis, of believing? How do you describe the struggle? … [Shusaku Endo] understood the conflict of faith, the necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience……. Questioning may lead to great loneliness, but if it co-exists with faith – true faith, abiding faith – it can end in the most joyful sense of communion. It’s this painful, paradoxical passage – from certainty to doubt to loneliness to communion – that Endo understands so well, and renders so clearly, carefully and beautifully in Silence.”
I hope that the film is made. Roland Joffe (The Mission) – had been working on a script about the life of St Ignatius but disappointingly put it to one side to make the recently released There be Dragons
, about the life of Opus Dei founder St Jose Maria Escriva. I hope this project sees the light of day – until then Endo’s masterpiece is available for purchase here
on Amazon. Join me on GoodReads
as I work my way through it!