I began this blog some years ago when I was writing and thinking a lot about silence--not as the absence of sound but as the presence of a spiritual reality that comes to those who practice contemplation. I was, at the time, studying the work of Thomas Merton.
The silence in Martin Scorsese's film of that name, which I recently saw, is rather different, although the soundtrack is marked by quiet. Rather it is the silence of God found in those who struggle with their faith amid terrible suffering. As one of the Portuguese Jesuits says in this stunning film, set in 17th century Japan, "I would die for you if I knew you were there."
The interplay of faith, doubt and temptation, rather than its characters, makes "Silence" distinctive. It could only be made by a director like Scorsese, whose Catholic faith underlies his work in subtle ways. "Silence" is a three-hour, often bloody meditation on religious faith.
No wonder it received minimal attention at the box office and among many reviewers. I postponed seeing it until I could do so at home, via Netflix, because of its intensity and violence. My first impression was to be struck by the beauty of the cinematography, which, with its light and dark contrasts, reminded me of Caravaggio, whose paintings are filled with Gospel stories illuminated by dark, sordid reality.
Here I found the converted villagers more moving and fervent than the actors portraying the Jesuit missionaries. These are peasants willing to suffer and die to protect the last priests in Japan, which was then repressing all foreign religion with violent executions.
Scorsese's film raises many questions for people of faith to debate: why is belief so often interwoven with doubt? Why do people of faith often feel abandoned by God? How can men of faith be seen by some (the church) as traitors to God (by apostatizing) yet heroic to others? Why must human suffering be so terrible?
And finally, the cry from the Cross: "O God, why have you abandoned me?"
I recommend this beautiful film to all who want such religious questions presented in unforgettably striking images.