Theodicy at the Movies: Silence (1971)


Why would a benevolent God allow the suffering of innocents? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do evil and injustice exist if God created everything, and God is good and just? These are the most difficult questions people of faith have to face. “Theodicy” (from the Greek “God” and “justice”) is the word we use to describe attempts to grapple with and answer these questions. The oldest, best-known work of theodicy in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the biblical Book of Job, but many of the most brilliant religious minds in history have also wrestled with these challenges. Theodicy often takes place in the context of philosophical or theological works, but also sometimes in great works of art, including films. This is the first in a series discussing theodicy in movies from various decades, national cinemas, and faith traditions.

Silence is based on a 1966 novel by Japanese Catholic author Shūsaku Endō, adapted by Endō himself for director Masahiro Shinoda. The story takes place amid brutal religious persecution of Japanese Christians in the 17th century. The film opens with a voice-over juxtaposing two important pieces of historical context: First, the Jesuits are described as a militant order formed in opposition to the ongoing Protestant Reformation. Second, their arrival in Japan in the 1500s is connected with the simultaneous arrival of firearms, implying both the secular element of the Europeans’ mission to the Far East, and the violence that resulted.

By the time the story-proper begins, in 1638, Christianity is outlawed in Japan, and Japanese Christians have been driven underground by persecution, torture, and death. Into the midst of this desperate situation, two Jesuit priests (Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garrpe) arrive on the shores of Japan under cover of darkness, led by Kichijiro, a guide they feel they cannot entirely trust. We soon learn that they have come to learn the fate of Cristóvão Ferreira, their former mentor and a missionary in Japan for 20 years, who mysteriously vanished 5 years ago.

silence4Kichijiro brings them to a village of Christians who have continued practicing their faith in secret, albeit without the benefit of a priest to perform the sacraments. Unable to search openly for Ferreira, they take up the work of ministering to the villagers. Meanwhile, Kichijiro begins bragging about his role in smuggling two Jesuits into Japan. As word spreads, Christians from other villages come looking for the priests, and it seems only a matter of time before the authorities are alerted.

As expected, soldiers eventually arrive and slaughter most of the villagers. Rodrigues and Garrpe are separated, and Rodrigues falls in with Kichijiro, who ultimately betrays him for the reward of 300 silver pieces. Rodrigues is forced to witness the torture and execution of several other Christians, including Father Garrpe, who swims out into the ocean and drowns after witnessing the execution of several Christians who were to be spared if he would apostatize. Eventually, Rodrigues is tortured himself, and told that the other Christians will continue to be tortured until he apostatizes. Finally, he is brought face-to-face with Ferreira, who has apostatized and adopted a Japanese name (“Sawano Chūan”) and wife, and who encourages Rodrigues to do the same for the sake of the others who are suffering.

Up until this point, Father Rodrigues has clearly expected to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Betrayed by his disciple Kichijiro, he explicitly draws the parallel himself when he learns about the bounty for his betrayal (remarking in awe that Judas’ reward was much less). He is brought in on the back of a donkey, and then marched, barefoot and bloody, through crowds that pelt him with jeers and rocks. He endures physical torment at the hands of his captors. The logical conclusion of this story is a glorious martyrdom, which he is peacefully resigned to endure with quiet strength and dignity, secure in his faith and his spiritual reward.

silence3But the Japanese authorities don’t need another Christian martyr. They need an apostate missionary to symbolize their victory and demoralize the remaining Japanese believers. Rodrigues cannot hope for a noble death, only an ignoble existence in which he clings to his beliefs while other Christians are forced to die for them. Initially disgusted by Ferreira’s “betrayal” of the faith, he slowly begins to understand the impossible choice Ferreira was given.

Woven throughout the trials of Father Rodrigues, the film also pays a great deal of attention to its troubled Judas figure, Kichijiro. We learn early on that he was once a Christian, and that he and his family were taken by the authorities and tortured many years before. Of his family, only he succumbed to the suffering and apostatized, while the others were executed. His weakness has made him an outcast among the other Christians, but his role in the arrival of the priests has restored him to the community.

Sometime before the village is ultimately destroyed, however, Kichijiro and three other believers are captured and subjected to the fumie test (literally “stepping-on picture”). Suspected Christians are required to step on a likeness of Jesus or the Virgin Mary (called a “fumie plate”) to prove they are not believers. When all four of the captured Christians reluctantly step on the plate, their interrogator pushes further by demanding they spit on it, as well. Only Kichijiro will do so, and he is set free. The other three Christians are bound to wooden crosses planted just off-shore and drowned when the tide comes in, singing hymns together as the whole village watches and prays. Kichijiro, tormented by this new failure, visits a prostitute and asks her to spit in his face.

silence5Having lost a second chance at redemption, Kichijiro follows pathetically after the fugitive Father Rodrigues, begging for forgiveness and absolution even up to the moment Rodrigues is taken by the soldiers. As the priest is hauled off, Kichijiro remains prostrate on the beach, weeping with his face buried in the sand, while the captain of the guard dumps his payment over him. Still hoping to be absolved, he trails desperately after the group, breaking into the prison to beg Rodrigues again to hear his confession and forgive him. When the guards come to kick him out, he tells them he is a Christian and demands to be locked up, and they oblige.

From the neighboring cell, he tearfully explains to Rodrigues that the circumstances he finds himself in are unfair. He did not betray Rodrigues for the money, about which he cares nothing, but because he was threatened by the authorities. “I betrayed my faith,” he wails. “But if I had been born a generation earlier, I might have found my way to heaven as a good Christian. But I was born after Christianity was outlawed. I was born too late.”

Soon enough, he apostatizes yet again under threat of torture, and is set free. But he keeps coming back, seeking forgiveness and restoration from Rodrigues. The guards at the prison stop bothering to arrest him, regarding him as a poor lunatic, and merely threaten him until he leaves. The last time we see him, he wades out into a body of water, and then begins thrashing madly about, ducking his head under as though to drown himself and end his torment, but lacking the courage even for that.


Meanwhile, much of the film’s final half-hour consists of a series of fierce debates between Rodrigues and the former Ferreira, in-between torture sessions in “the pit” (during which the prisoner is bound tightly and dangled head down in a hole for hours and days on end, with a cut behind the ear to drain the blood rushing to the head and prolong the agony). Ferreira argues that Christianity was doomed in Japan from the beginning, likening it to a “terrible swamp” in which anything that is planted soon begins to rot. He tells Rodrigues that none of their converts were ever truly Christians, having immediately folded the priests’ teachings into their own Buddhist beliefs.

Rodrigues is appalled by what he regards as the ease with which the authorities were able to subvert Ferreira’s decades of faith and service. Seeing that Rodrigues will not change his mind about Japan, Ferreira reveals that he did not apostatize because of the torments of the pit: “Even while hanging upside down, I never uttered a word of betrayal against God. The reason I apostatized was because God … Because God did nothing to intervene. I prayed fervently to God. But God did nothing to intervene.”

Rodrigues is enraged, but Ferreira continues, lamenting the plight of the Christians they can both hear groaning in the pit: “Why should they have to suffer like that? […] If Christ were here at this moment, I feel sure, for the sake of those men, he would apostatize. Christ would have apostatized for the sake of love. Come now. You must perform the most painful act of love, that no one has ever before done. Come. You must be brave.”

The guards bring the plate, and Rodrigues slowly stands and places his foot on it. As he does so, Ferreira closes his eyes and mouths a prayer and the interrogator grins diabolically. The camera cuts to a shot of the deserted hallway between the cells, sunlight streaming in from a window just out of sight, as a rooster crows, evoking Peter’s denial of Christ from the Gospels. The film ends with Rodrigues and Ferreira working together to aid the authorities in their quest to keep Christianity out of Japan. Rodrigues has assumed the name of an executed Christian, and taken the man’s wife, who apostatized earlier in the film rather than see her husband killed in front of her.

silence1What does God’s silence mean in this story? Was God truly silent? Ferreira and Rodrigues both certainly knew Jesus’ words in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Through Rodrigues’ painful journey to apostasy, Shūsaku Endō suggests a different meaning to those words; one that is much more difficult to understand.

Near the end of the novel, as his foot hovers over the plate, Rodrigues imagines that the image of Christ is speaking to him:

“Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross. […] Your foot suffers in pain; it must suffer like all the feet that have stepped on this plaque. But that pain alone is enough. I understand your pain and your suffering. It is for that reason that I am here.”

“Lord, I resented your silence.”

“I was not silent. I suffered beside you.”

“But you told Judas to go away: What thou dost do quickly. What happened to Judas?”

“I did not say that. Just as I told you to step on the plaque, so I told Judas to do what he was going to do. For Judas was in anguish as you are now.”

[…] “There are neither the strong nor the weak. Can anyone say that the weak do not suffer more than the strong?”

[…] No doubt his fellow priests would condemn his act as sacrilege; but even if he was betraying them, he was not betraying his Lord. He loved him now in a different way from before. Everything that had taken place until now had been necessary to bring him to this love. “Even now I am the last priest in this land. But Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.”

The God of Silence suffers, in silence, alongside us, with love and understanding for our weakness as well as our strength, and with a bottomless well of grace and forgiveness for our inevitable failures. And, in turn, He makes His presence known to others through us.

In the foreword to a new edition of Silence, director Martin Scorsese writes: “Silence is the story of a man who learns – so painfully – that God’s love is more mysterious than he knows, that He leaves much more to the ways of men than we realize, and that He is always present … even in His silence. For me, it is the story of one who begins on the path of Christ, and who ends replaying the role of Christianity’s greatest villain, Judas. He almost literally follows in his footsteps. In so doing, he comes to understand the role of Judas. This is one of the most painful dilemmas in all of Christianity. What was Judas’ role? What was expected of him by Christ? What is expected of him by us today?”

Scorsese, who describes himself as a “lapsed Catholic,” is set to explore that dilemma himself with a new film adaptation of Silence next year. Whatever Scorsese brings to the text, this profound Japanese classic of literature and film already has a message worth contemplating about the Silence of God.


~ by Jared on March 11, 2014.

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