Silence is About Feeling Empowered in Powerlessness
Note: SPOILERS ABOUND
Martin Scorsese’s latest film is tough to process. In a time where the Muslim inhabitants of 7 foreign countries have been forbidden to come to the U.S., Silence’s story of oppressed Christians is a film that arrived at the wrong time.
Never mind that the film has languished in development hell for upwards of 2 decades. It’s just really unfortunate timing for Scorsese. The film is clearly a personal story, as the film rarely lets up with the presence of Christ. It’s present in everything, even in our main character Sebastião’s (Andrew Garfield) darkest hours.
It’s so problematic, but I left the film feeling like it was about something more. You know, besides the complete devotion in Christ and the Catholic Church.
The film speaks so much less about the faith in God and wrestles with the greater issue: the act of faith.
Faith in Silence
Sebastião toils in Japan for his faith in God. It is one thing to simply believe, as Sebastião does in the waning moments of the film post-talk with God. You can believe in God, but not be punished because your belief is a secret.
Sebastião is punished because of his faith. His active profession of belief in God.
Note: Before we get too far into this diatribe, my definition of faith may be different than yours. For the purposes of this, faith is active profession. Faith can also mean something similar to belief, which is internal. But, to me, faith is active. If you need to, you can pretend I’m saying “practicing faith.” I will not persecute you the way the imperial warlords of Japan did.
Christ is interwoven in this film’s story. This film would not be the same were it about something else. Yet the struggles of the two priests and their devotion to God is reminiscent of any struggle of one underdog against the tyrannical. The film’s specificity may alienate, but I couldn’t help but be moved by the unwavering devotion to a greater ideal. People that were willing to die because they believed in “the Truth.”
History may say otherwise, but the film depicts Sebastião as an underdog trying to spread a gospel of peace and love. Japan doesn’t want that, so they hunt anyone that identifies as Christian.
The faith of these two priests is looked upon as a life-saving, life-giving item that is as crucial as water and shelter (if not more). As Sebastião and Francisco make landfall in Japan, they stumble upon a small village of impoverished Japanese that are so desperate for “the Truth.”
For these villagers, God is air, food, water, and all the things they don’t have. They are living in the worst kind of squalor, desperate for something better. For them, God is true and it gives them something greater to aspire to. Faith gives them life.
What is “the Truth”?
Sebastião specifically refers to God (or the word of God) as “the Truth.” For him, there is no alternative. This is a fact to him, yet this fact gets tested and tested by the Japanese. Sebastião watches people get executed in front of him, drowned, decapitated, because of his and their faith in the Truth.
By saying that God is the Truth, the film goes beyond an examination of Christianity and the struggle to maintain faith. The Truth is just that: truth. It is the inalienable belief that they choose to profess via faith.
Truth is universal. At least, it used to be. Each and every one of us have a set of beliefs that we turn into faith. Whether it’s something as big as God, as important as equal rights for all, or as nerdy as Star Wars being the greatest, that’s a form of faith.
Your Truth is also something larger than you that you must convey. It’s a belief so strong, it radiates through your core.
Perhaps this is oxymoronic, but watching Silence and seeing how Sebastião suffers for his faith in God, I couldn’t help but equate this to gay rights. Two items seemingly at the opposite spectrum, but both being a fundamental truth that both are the right thing.
When Sebastião suffers and begins to wane in his faith, he is losing grasp on what is true anymore.
So much of my days recently have been filled with my truth being challenged. Well, not just with my truth, but the truth. You have a person in charge of the most powerful position in the world literally gaslighting the world, trying to tell the entire world that their truth is wrong and his is right.
Sebastião arrives in Japan with Francisco (Adam Driver), whose faith is shaken once in the squalor of feudal Japan. Yet, when Francisco sees several Christians being drowned by Japanese officials, Francisco swims to save them and ends up drowning as well.
The Japanese try to posit this blind faith as stupidity, but the film posits this act as a very matter-of-fact action. It can be interpreted as martyrdom, but there is no swell of music to signify the bravery. Francisco is dead and was unable to save the prisoners.
So what good is faith if you cannot use it to spread truth? Was Francisco arrogant in trying to stand up for something that was clearly hurting others? Or was he standing for something larger, trying to stand up against a behemoth that was wrong in trying to persecute?
Or was he stupid and should have refused his faith to save the others?
At what point does dogmatic belief begin to hinder? How evil do your aggressors need to be for you to give up your own beliefs for the good of others?
The movie answers all these questions by quite literally having God talk to Sebastião, thereby removing the moral conundrums of faith. It’s okay to refuse your faith because God is real, now start saving people.
But for many of us, we don’t get that convenient ending. Our God doesn’t talk to us. Instead, we make the choice to have faith. In times like these, where government officials are making up terror attacks, we have to wrestle with where our truth is and what to believe in. Where does our faith go and do we keep fighting?
Silence makes a powerful case for raging on, even when everything is against you. You still choose to believe even when you are not allowed to have faith. As the final shot of the dead body of Sebastião lingers, he has a cross in his hand. To me, there is only one reading:
The Truth is universal, even whenever your faith wavers. Believe in the truth.