Wait. I can’t seem to move. My face feels cold, as if wet, but I know it’s not because my brain has failed to compute that it needs to feel sad. Tears, brain! Tears!
No, not paralysis. Not stone-cold shock, as if an angel or God himself whispered in my ear and in hushed tones relayed to me—me!—a secret of the universe. Ok, fine. Paralysis it is.
Oh! Um, hello. Hi. Hi. Yes, hi. I didn’t see you there. I—well, I just finished reading Shusaku Endo’s 1969 novel Silence.
I’m a bit at a loss for practical words.
Silence follows Sebastian Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit priest who, after hearing word that his old mentor Christóvão Ferreira had apostatized and renounced his faith, sets out for Japan with fellow priest Francis Garrpe to discover the truth of this news and do what they can for the Christians in currently under harsh persecution in Tokugawa Japan. He then discovers faith isn’t what he thought it was. That he wasn’t who he thought he was.
Seem predictable? NOPE. I promise you, it’s not. Not if you wonder about these things. And while I’m certain I had a more personal connection to this book than others might, I think anyone can relate to questions of self-identity and persistent failure.
So. How’s Scorsese going to handle this?
What They Will Do:
Silence centers around the torture of missionaries and Japanese Christians in an effort to force apostasy. This film will not be easy to watch. Reading about such horrors is one thing. Watching them in high definition with tragic music (or worse, no music at all), and hearing any kind of ragged pain escape the mouths of those hung in a pit or tied to a post in the sea—well, it makes me think twice about whether or not I, by far the lesser of these incredible people of faith, have the strength to make it all the way through viewing the trials they lived.
What They Won’t Do:
Endo uses a few different literary styles throughout Silence. The novel begins with a prose prologue, then moves into an epistolary first half as the audience reads letters Rodrigues writes to his monastery. After Rodrigues’ capture, Endo moves into third person limited, continuing the story from an outside angle that still allows us to know Rodrigues’ thoughts. After the climax we get an epilogue of sorts in the objective diary of a Dutch clerk and finally some Japanese records. This all has a profound effect on the reader, giving them different perspectives and emphasizing certain themes.
A film cannot replicate such a technique. It just can’t. Scorsese may substitute voiceovers (I hope not) or flashbacks (which when done well can bring weight), or even shots of Rodrigues writing, but I suspect he will avoid it altogether and approach the story in his own way.
What They Should Do:
Rodrigues experiences an extreme crisis of faith during the events of the novel, one that many who grew up in religious families will recognize, though naturally at a lower scale.
Endo’s Silence includes themes of mercy, betrayal, and suffering and the intense, internal struggle of Rodrigues. Is martyrdom a display of strength or is it selfish and self-aggrandizing? If we suffer, can we compare ourselves to Christ? Or must we have more in common with Judas? And, to viciously circle round, is that even a fair assessment? How could a God for whom the martyrs suffer remain absent? And if God doesn’t exist, then…well, doesn’t everything Rodrigues has done in his life become laughable?
Scorsese’s Silence must also display this internal conflict front and center, or else the work loses its poignancy and becomes an uncomfortable tale of colonialism and the white savior versus the ignorant Other. Which it absolutely is not. Silence is all complexity and subtlety, challenging aspects to capture on film.
Hollywood’s previous attempts to adapt work with overt religious themes (e.g. Voyage of the Dawn Treader) have been clumsy at best. I would personally ascribe this to the focus on external conflict and use of known, empty religious phrases to either please the Christian audience or let everyone know that, “Hey! This movie has some religion in it!” which distracts rather than enhances. Silence deserves better than that.
(So did Dawn Treader, by the way.)
But friends, I have hope.
Martin Scorsese has been around the Hollywood block a few times. And he’s known for his devout Catholicism. Even better, Silence has been described as his passion project. He even wrote the forward to the newest edition of the novel. So I think he has a good idea of what this movie should be about.
Once spurned by the Vatican for a certain The Last Temptation of Christ (which makes me think he’s not afraid to get vulnerable and dive into some tough stuff, as the best literature does), Scorcese actually met with Pope Francis to discuss his newest film, and it would seem he met with the Vatican’s blessing this time. In fact, Silence premiered there in early December, about a month before the film’s initial limited release.
What They Shouldn’t Do:
Make judgements. To its credit, Silence refused to give a definitive answer for any of the questions it asked. Once apostatized, how should life go on? Can you still be a priest at heart and not by name? Is it better to die or to live for your beliefs? Does Christianity take the same form in every cultural context? The characters in the book offer suggestions, yes, but the reader turns the final page with no concrete sense of what to think next.
“Silence is like living inside a prayer,” said Fr. Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America who served as spiritual advisor to the cast. I agree. Questions, but sometimes only still air for an answer.
Wish List Item:
I want Kichijiro, the servile, weak (but is he weak?), persistent, thrice-turncoat companion and source of anxiety to Rodgigues, to be the first shot of the film. The differences and similarities between the two men brought the book home for me. As I read, their relationship became the keystone which elevated the story beyond so-called Christian fiction. I want the same thing from the film.
Chances of this happening: I don’t know. Maybe Scorsese and I have like minds? I can think of many other ways to begin, though, so I’ll leave it at a meager 8%.
Silence opened in limited theaters on December 23, but will release worldwide on January 6. The film is directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Cirán Hinds, Issei Ogata, Liam Neesen, and Yosuke Kubozuka.
Images: Paramount Pictures, Patheos, http://www.jesuits.org.