Silence Review: Hollywood's Gift To The Church That Might Just Save Your Faith

Liam Neeson as Fr Ferreira in Silence.Paramount

Martin Scorsese is a visionary film maker who has directed some of the most iconic films in living memory. His back catalogue includes films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Departed and his cabinets are full of awards and trophies.

Faith has played an important role in Scorsese's life; he went to a Catholic school and even spent a year studying in a seminary before deciding to pursue a career in film. Not surprisingly, then, faith has played a significant role in many of his films and not just his hugely controversial Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese's films are not afraid to deal with huge questions, often beginning with one of the deadly sins taking centre stage: pride in Raging Bull, greed in Casino, gluttony in The Wolf of Wall Street, and lust in Taxi Driver.

Scorsese wrestles with pride and wrath on a grand scale in his latest movie Silence. The making of this film has been something of a life's work for Scorsese, as it has been an ongoing project for the last 27 years. Originally Daniel Day Lewis was cast for the movie but in the end it was Liam Neeson, Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield who took the lead roles. These are very well known actors especially to younger audiences, but they are arguably more used to playing fictional and fantastical characters in Star Wars and Spiderman. Now, we see them take on this film by an A-list Hollywood director about 16th century Portuguese Jesuit priests and their Japanese persecutors. Faith is the central theme throughout all 160 minutes of the movie.

Without giving away any spoilers, here are five reasons why you should consider going to see Silence.

1. It will challenge your commitment to Christ

This is a difficult film to watch. It depicts in often graphic, but never in an exploitative fashion, the horrors faced by Japanese Christian converts during a time of great oppression in the 17th century when Christianity was outlawed. Although the film is based on a novel, the persecutions depicted really took place. More than 37,000 Christians were killed during the Shimabara Uprising, mostly by beheading, while hundreds more were tortured into apostasy. In 1619, 52 Christians were burnt at the stake, and in 1623 another 50 faced a similar fate. Watching scenes of families being burnt alive and peasants being tied up to crucifixes and then drowned is harrowing. But it is also deeply challenging. Christians who knew nothing of the prosperity that believers in the West enjoy today were courageous and faithful to the end of their lives.

Sadly, Christian martyrdom is not restricted to the pages of Japanese history. Around the world today believers in Iraq, Syria, North Korea, Nigeria and South Sudan face the threat of martyrdom every day because of their faith. It is hard to watch Silence without asking ourselves how much we are really willing to suffer for Christ. If we like to believe we would stand up for our faith under the threat of martyrdom, why are we so cautious and often cowardly in our willingness to speak up for our Lord and Saviour here and now? I took my 17-year-old son with me to see this movie and we were both challenged in a profound way about what it means to follow Christ.

2. It provides a meditation on perseverance

The number of Christians who walk away from faith seems to have hit epidemic proportions in the West. Not only are we failing to convince the wider population of the truth of Christianity, we are struggling to help our young people transition to adulthood with a resilient faith. Perhaps, like me, you know that abandoning faith is not monopolised by young people – you too have seen the steady drift away by friends and peers. But most of the reasons I've heard regarding why people decide to leave the faith seem pretty trivial compared to what Japanese Christians were prepared to endure. Busyness, boredom, bitterness, broken relationships and belief crisis are the dominant reasons I have come across for Christians to slide away from the life of church and often from faith itself. When you are in the middle of one of these challenges they most certainly feel severe, but once set alongside the prospect of being slowly tortured by boiling water, suffering exsanguination while being hung upside down, drowning, being set on fire or beheading, then challenges faced by Western Christians feel light to say the least.

Go to see this movie as a means of holding yourself to account, a means of tying your allegiance to Christ through witnessing the testimony of brothers and sisters in history who model for us the kind of faith the Bible demands of all of us: "This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God's people." (Revelation 13:10)

3. It opens a conversation about how we should do mission

There is an in-depth dialogue that takes place throughout the movie on the nature of mission. The Portuguese missionaries are seen to be agents of the West seeking to displace the Western political and social structures. The fear of colonialism wasn't without substance. There has long been a collusion between Western imperial expansion and missionary endeavour where the Church was used as a tool of the empire.

This is not to write off the entire history of Christian mission; there have certainly been wonderful endeavours with fantastic Kingdom results. But we must face up to the dark side of mission which often was unable to distinguish between the gospel and Western culture and too often ignored or destroyed local cultures. You will notice in the film that when the priests offer confession or communion they speak Latin, because there was the mistaken notion that somehow that language alone was capable of communing with God. Watching Silence should help us to ask questions about how we can make sure our current missionary endeavours can be as brave as those 17th century missionaries but yet have a better and more respectful approach to culture and language.

4. It is a masterclass in cinematography

Yes, it is two hours 40 minutes long. Yes, as its title suggests, there is not a lot of music. Yes, there are horrific scenes. But there are also breath-taking shots that fill the whole of the wide screen and the actors all put in impressive performances. Garfield, who is on screen for virtually the entire movie, impresses with a mammoth performance. His character is far from a saccharine saint as he has to cope with guilt, doubt, arrogance and humiliation, and Garfield handles it all very deftly. It's a breakthrough performance for an actor who is best known for wearing a mask and being replaced by a CGI action figure in the Amazing Spiderman movies. The Japanese actors do a fantastic job of bringing Christian devotion to life in a compelling and convincing manner. The film in the end is dedicated to Japan's Christians and their priests and there is such a respect for Endo's 1960s novel that the film seems to fit perfectly the way I imagined the story to play out as I read it.

5. It is an eye opener

I lost a piece of technology recently and have since spent a lot of time and energy searching for it. It has totally frustrated me that I can't find it anywhere –  I've been unsettled and annoyed about its loss. And I can't remember the last time I was this upset about Christians undergoing persecution. When was the last time it really got under my skin that brothers and sisters are facing the threat of abduction, physical torture and death right now? Because of their faith, Christians in Nigeria face the wrath of Boko Haram and believers in North Korea face terrible torture for daring to believe in a higher power than their nation's leader. Two hours and 40 minutes of your life spent watching this film will help you to care again about the things that matter to God. That is a worthwhile investment.

Scorcese has truly gifted the Church a discipleship tool of staggering beauty and sharp-edged challenge – the question is whether we will dare to use it.

To further explore this movie why not

  1. Read Shusaku Endo's award winning novel Silence.
  2. Read the historical account of the events in the movie In Search of Japan's Hidden Christians.
  3. Make use of Damaris' free resources to help you discuss the film further.

Dr Krish Kandiah is the founding director of Home for Good and a contributing editor to Christian Today.