Martin Scorsese’s latest film “Silence” offers a clear window into the souls and minds of the faithful.

Martin Scorsese's latest film "Silence" offers a clear window into the souls and minds of the faithful.

Martin Scorsese’s latest film “Silence” offers a clear window into the souls and minds of the faithful.

Martin Scorsese's latest film "Silence" offers a clear window into the souls and minds of the faithful.
Pope Francis looks at a painting given to him as a gift from director Martin Scorsese, right, on the occasion of their private audience at the Vatican, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. Francis has met with Scorsese, whose new film, “Silence,” about Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Japan, was screened this week in Rome. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

Martin Scorsese, never afraid of a challenge, takes up the human struggle of faith and fidelity in his upcoming movie about missionaries and martyrs: “Silence.” He himself describes it as an attempt to tell the story of the Christian faith and “the difficulty, the crisis, of believing.” I would describe it as a bracing plunge into the minds and souls of those whose faith is an intimate, personal love – the kind that demands and deserves heroic integrity.

The director presents a vivid story of Christian evangelization and martyrdom. And he does this to a rapidly secularizing culture that finds it increasingly difficult to understand the demands and rewards of faith. If religions, as secularists believe, are anodyne myths, isn’t it silliness to make yourself uncomfortable fulfilling religious obligations, and foolishness to suffer professionally or socially because you won’t act in a way that contradicts the truths you live by? Isn’t it the height of insanity to die rather than renounce your allegiance?

But Scorsese knows that the drama of Christianity, its civilizational impact and lasting appeal, cannot be understood without seeing that it has always been colored with the blood of martyrs: from the Roman Coliseum, to the Japanese persecutions depicted in “Silence,” to the plight of the Syrian Christians suffering in the present day.

To those who would really like to understand, “Silence” offers a clear window into the souls and minds of the faithful.

The movie is based on a book by Shusaku Endo, a man often called the Graham Greene of Japan. Scorsese’s adaptation is faithful to Endo’s delicate grasp of the enormity of religious belief in the human drama: the heroism and fidelity it provokes even in the face of God’s apparent “silence.” It opens with a shocking (and historically accurate) scene of martyrdom: Seven Christians are tied naked to stakes and tortured with boiling water from the Unzen hot springs, dripped on them with punctured ladles. The narrator informs us: “The officials told the faithful to abandon God and the gospel of His love. But they not only refused to apostatize. They asked to be tortured, so they could demonstrate the strength of their faith and the presence of God within them.”

The movie is filled with Japanese characters ennobled and strengthened by their Christian faith, which they have grasped as a liberating benediction. The protagonist Father Rodrigues, based on a real Portuguese missionary, understands that the reason Christianity penetrated the Japanese people like water flowing into parched earth is “the dignity for the first time of being treated like God’s creatures, not animals. And the promise that earthly trial would not end in nothingness, but in salvation.” Christianity presented these peasants, in reality wretched slaves to their brutal overlords, with a shining truth – that of their own nobility and worthiness. If God Himself suffered cruelly for love of them, they could also reach heroic heights in their fidelity to Him.

Rodrigues enters Japan filled with a great love and anxiety for the persecuted faithful “without a single priest or brother to encourage and console, gradually losing hope and wandering bewildered in the darkness.” He is prepared for his own martyrdom. He will recapitulate in his own flesh, out of love for Jesus and the Japanese people, the passion of Christ. The emaciated, suffering, humiliated Jesus of the cross is his ideal and to share his fate a great privilege. Uniting himself with God’s suffering and death will be a fountain of faith and encouragement to the poor Japanese whose life in this world is too painful. But he is not prepared for the trial that awaits him. A man who sees the tender gaze of his Beloved in his prayers is asked to trample on the image of that face on the fumie medal, to stop the savage torture of Christian Japanese in the next room. In that moment he realizes that he “had come to this country to lay down his life for other men, but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives one by one for him.” Is he meant to recreate the passion of Jesus? Or re-enact the betrayal of Judas? At the moment of this unbearable choice God seems to break through the silence, although one must discern whether it’s God or some other voice speaking.

This is a complicated story of bravery, failure and success that, though glorious, may be beyond the limited human understanding of most of us. It is a beautiful reminder to those who live in the comfortable moral universe of relativism that men, women and even children make sacrifices every day in faithfulness to the ennobling truth through which they see the world. And these sacrifices are not made to a set of dry dogmas or rules, but to a friend with a tender, compassionate gaze – a gaze that even Judas could not evade without breaking his heart.

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