To say Martin Scorsese’s Silence has underperformed at the box office is a tidy euphemism for an unfortunate truth: the film has bombed, badly. The film’s weak showing has many causes, to be sure, but it isn’t exactly surprising that an almost three hour, deeply serious film about martyrdom failed to draw American moviegoers in droves. Not surprising, but disappointing, since the film feels not just like the labor of love it is (Scorsese has had an adaptation on his mind since he read the novel by Shūsako Endō in the 1980s), but also a summative statement of the religious wrestlings of a director haunted by the Catholicism of his youth.
Nor has the film gained a fervent critical following: though reviews have mostly been positive, the praise feels strangely muted from most corners – admiration rather than passion, and more than a hint of consternation at Scorsese’s decision to make a film about an obscure subject with a central conflict that feels remote and detached from our present lives. The internal struggle of Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), a Jesuit priest sent to 17th Century Japan, as he chooses between apostasy and the torture of his fellow Christians, may seem odd in a contemporary context where all allegiances take second place to a sense of shared humanity. The modern viewer will likely sympathize with Rodrigues’ ultimate decision to renounce Catholicism by stepping on an image of Christ, thereby saving a group of Japanese Christians from slow, painful deaths, but they may very well wonder what took him so long to decide. In our present moment, faith has come to be seen by many as residing primarily in the intellect, leading to belief that is conceptual and private. Faith worked out through the will, in the public sphere, tends to lead to uncomfortable choices.
Work Out Your Salvation With...
The 19th Century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard found himself confronted by a similarly indifferent public. Setting himself the task of “bringing Christ to Christendom,” he goaded his fellow Danes, most of whom considered themselves Christian through the mere fact of their baptism into the state church, into an honest assessment of their standing before God. Throughout his authorship he emphasizes the difficulty inherent in a faith that truly works itself out, moving beyond mere intellectual assent to active expression in the world.
His most famous meditation on faith comes in his book Fear and Trembling, where he explores the case of Abraham, not just a man of faith but, for the Judeo-Christian tradition, the father of that faith. Writing under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio (crucially, an author who admires Abraham but finds himself unable to rise to the challenge of faith himself), Kierkegaard wrestles with profound questions posed by the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, his son. By examining Kierkegaard’s understanding of the most famous of all tests of faith, we can better illuminate the stakes of Father Rodrigues’ struggles in Scorsese’s film, and in turn form a clearer picture of what lived faith might look like.
Like Rodrigues in Silence, Abraham faces an almost impossible choice. Finally blessed in extreme old age with a son by his beloved wife Sarah, Abraham receives a call from God to sacrifice that same son on the top of Mount Moriah. Abraham willingly goes through with this plan, though at the last moment God provides an alternate sacrifice in the form of a ram. The text of the story as found in Genesis is remarkable in its plainness and simplicity, with no explanation given for Abraham’s actions. The great task of Fear and Trembling is for Silentio to analyze Abraham’s choices and make sense of them, a task itself impossible for someone without faith, since faith’s willingness to act supersedes the ability for others to understand it.
Throughout the book, Silentio draws a sharp contrast between universal experiences, which he associates with the ethical, and particular experiences that go beyond the universal and have to do with faith. Contra Hegel, for whom the universal/ethical occupied pride of place, for Kierkegaard the faith of the individual surpasses, when necessary, even the dictates of ethics. Without question, the ethical choice in Abraham’s situation is not to sacrifice his son. Likewise, when viewed from an ethical standpoint (as most viewers will be inclined to do), there is little ethical murkiness in the choice Rodrigues faces: by a single act he can spare a whole group of people untold agonies, even death. Yet, according to Silentio, there may be individual cases where an imperative greater than the ethical exists.
It’s important to pause here to note that, in the case of both Abraham and Rodrigues, the sacrifice involves potential harm to others, not just the self. Rodrigues, on first being captured by the governor (Issey Ogata) who tortures him, believes his own life to be at stake, and confidently asserts that he will never relent and will gladly become a martyr. That choice becomes more agonizing, however, when the lives of Japanese converts – the flock to whom he is supposed to minister – become jeopardized.
What makes Abraham the paragon of faith, then, is his willingness to suspend the ethical in the face of the demands of the religious. Silentio’s understanding of this faith act, however, provides a critical corrective to the scoffing of those who read the story of Abraham as one of fanatical slavishness. Far from blind obedience, a willingness to jump however high at God’s command, what Abraham's faith actually comprises is a belief, against insurmountable odds, that God’s promise to give him numerous offspring and a rich inheritance will remain fulfilled, even if he should sacrifice Isaac. Thus, according to Silentio, even as Abraham binds Isaac to the altar, he clings to the belief that Isaac will remain alive with him, in a real and physical sense. The absurdity of such a belief only makes Abraham that much greater; yet at the same time it would seem to push such belief beyond the reach of most people.
In Presence, But Much More in Absence...
Rodrigues, strong as his faith appears at the beginning, does not find himself up to the task. Partway through the film, Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), Rodrigues’ guide and a Japanese convert who keeps apostatizing in the face of death, utters a key line as he talks to the priest: “What place is there for a weak man in a world like this?” Even though Rodrigues appears much stronger than Kichijiro, he does not have the inner strength he fancies himself to possess. Rodrigues has faith in himself, but lacks the (admittedly enormous) faith necessary to entrust the souls of those under his care to God, instead taking it upon himself to ease their suffering, whatever the cost.
Scorsese captures this gradual deterioration over the second half of the film, in a bravura series of sequences detailing Rodrigues’ capture. Using some of the most basic film grammar – the pattern of shot/reverse shot, where the camera flips on a 180-degree axis – the director slowly, patiently wears away the resistance of both Rodrigues and the viewer. Pure reaction shots, those where the reaction captured is that of an observer set apart from the main action, emerge through this pattern. Rodrigues must bear witness to a horrific series of actions perpetrated against the Japanese Christians, and Scorsese mimics the priest’s gradually building turmoil through the natural dialectic of the reaction shot. Garfield does an excellent job showing the internal conflict of a man being worn down, but that same conflict goes to the very foundations of the film itself.
In Fear and Trembling, Silentio emphasizes that he wishes he could have been present, not merely for the sacrifice of Isaac, but for every painful step of Abraham’s three day journey to Mount Moriah. Under his schema, faith should be visible not merely when crisis reaches its highest pitch, but at every moment. In one of Kierkegaard’s most famous images, Silentio speaks of a knight of faith, someone who, though externally unremarkable, lives every moment imbued with religious significance, and therefore meets every challenge with an unshakeable belief.
There is another knight Silentio mentions, though, one who closely resembles the knight of faith, but whose differences emerge all the more clearly because of the resemblance: the knight of resignation. Like the knight of faith, the knight of resignation willingly gives up his or her own desires, in this case in order to meet the requirements of acting ethically. Having given up their own hope, however, the knight of resignation cannot make the final step of faith: to believe they will receive the sacrifice back again, intact.
Silence makes clear that, in his act of apostasy, Rodrigues views himself as choosing the ethical over the religious. Seeing his mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) living a life of ease after having renounced the faith, Rodrigues believes he too will have nothing left of the promises of the Church if he steps on an icon of the Lord. He makes the decision to do so out of a desire to stop the torture of others – clearly the ethical, universal decision. Yet, as admirable as this decision may be, it’s clear that in some sense Rodrigues has failed the test of faith, not simply in stepping on the image, but in refusing to entrust the lives of others to his Master. He lacks the final step necessary.
Rodrigues’ faith proves fragile at least in part because of his pride. He comes to Japan with a high view of his own capacity for martyrdom, but repeatedly counsels Japanese Christians to apostatize and avoid suffering; Garfield’s expressions and body language in the early part of the film make clear that Rodrigues sees his faith as more complete than those around him. Yet his firmness proves illusory, as many of the Japanese whose faith he discounts gladly embrace martyrdom, while he fails his own test. Even his companion, Father Garupe (Adam Driver), whose resistance appears weaker at the beginning of the film, sacrifices himself while trying to help drowning Christians. Rodrigues places his confidence in the totality of his own courage, much like the Hegelian systematizers Silentio attacks at the beginning of Fear and Trembling trust in their own, supposedly complete, knowledge. By contrast Abraham trusts every moment in God, and walks humbly to Mount Moriah confident in only one thing: God’s goodness.
Despite his ultimate failure, it would be remarkably presumptuous to dismiss Rodrigues out of hand. On a practical level, of course, we should all fear ever having to make such a choice, and thus treat those who choose with a large measure of understanding. In the world of the film, too, it is clear that Rodrigues reaches his decision through agony and suffering; Silence plays in the spaces of its own ambiguous attitude to the story’s central decision. And, if we understand Fear and Trembling correctly, it’s clear that not everyone need – or can – be Abraham. He is an exemplar of faith precisely because his faith goes beyond that of almost every other human. Though Silentio does not say this explicitly, it is clear that he believes (as Kierkegaard certainly did) that even those who cannot achieve Abraham’s level of belief can still trust in God.
This cuts to the central purpose of Kierkegaard's book, which lies in rousing the sleeping person who gives little account to the seriousness of the task of faith. Against his Hegelian contemporaries who sought to start at faith and go beyond it, Kierkegaard firmly replies that faith is the task of a lifetime, something to be wrestled with over the course of decades. Silence too recognizes the prolonged nature of the struggle, and in its epilogue suggests that Rodrigues’ failing of his great test does not mean his abandonment of faith altogether.
Having lived for decades as a dutiful Japanese subject, with a wife and family, Rodrigues appears by all accounts to have left his once-precious Catholicism behind him. Yet, as the film slowly reveals, there remains an inner core that cannot be chipped away. Curiously, it is Kichijiro, the weakling of faith, who acts as a catalyst for Rodrigues’ own belief. Though Kichijiro has recanted and unrecanted countless times, he finds himself drawn again and again to the grace of the Christian message. Years after Rodrigues has apostatized, Kichijiro comes to him begging to receive absolution. Being restored, in however broken a manner, to his role as a priest rouses Rodrigues’ dormant faith, and by film’s end has reclaimed his belief, as the film’s stunning final shot reveals to the viewer that (as Kierkegaard says elsewhere) the outer is not the inner. Early in the epilogue, Scorsese hints that Ferreira too might have preserved his faith in his own weak way. These apostate priests may not have conquered their mountains, but they cling with desperation to a fragile faith. In an age of easy come, easy go belief, Silence – like Fear and Trembling – forces believer and unbeliever alike to reckon with the true cost of faith.
Asher Gelzer-Govatos is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, where he lives with his family. His writing on film and other culture has appeared at The A.V. Club, Books & Culture, and the Movies section of Christianity Today.