Martin Scorsese’s Silence: A Personal Review

Reverend Francis RitchieMiscellany, Spiritual Disciplines

Martin Scorsese's Silence

11 days ago I saw Martin Scorsese’s Silence. The film wrecked me. I had hoped to write a solid review to throw into the ether of conversation about it, but for most of the time since then I have had nothing except scrambled thoughts and feelings. Initially I felt disappointed with myself for not being able to pull together something solid. But I got over that. I’m now ok with Silence having beaten me. As a minister who many think should have his thoughts/stuff together, that’s a little hard to admit so publicly.

With that in mind, this isn’t a classic film review of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, rather, it’s some personal (slightly incoherent) musings on what the film has prompted in my internal world… as airy-fairy as that may seem to some readers. For a solid review of Silence, see Alissa Wilkinson’s perspective over at Vox. She has done a fantastic job.

Continued below

[Warning – my thoughts will contain spoilers.]

I have immense respect for Martin Scorsese’s journey to this film. I was also struck particularly by Andrew Garfield’s preparation where he went through St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises with Father James Martin (who has written about the film), and what it did to him. Ignatian Spirituality is a significant part of my life and I saw the film days into my own walk with the Spiritual Exercises using Larry Warner’s Journey with Jesus – where I am being taken through the Exercises across a nine month process. I began on Ash Wednesday – the day each year where I deeply consider my mortality. The film is steeped in Ignatian spirituality.

I’m a person (and I suspect I’m not the only minister with this) who constantly struggles with a messianic complex. As a person who has made specific commitments around the faith, is keenly aware of many of the world’s injustices (much of it through my work with Tearfund), has engaged in theological and biblical studies, has planted a church, and constantly thinks about how faith relates to the world around me, particularly in my chaplaincy work, it can be difficult not to fall into the trap of feeling responsible for the well-being of the world and subconsciously trying to take on the role of being Christ to others – to be a saviour.

I live with a self awareness of that. The spiritual disciplines of silence, prayer, immersion in scripture and contemplation, along with doing the dishes, are the antidotes to that in my inner world.

In my view, Father Rodriques and his missionary companion embody that same messianic complex within the film. When they landed in Japan and all of a sudden the Japanese villagers were able to practice their faith more fully, receiving the sacraments, taking confession etc, I felt their elation – those poor believers just needed them. In the same way I find it easy to subconsciously fall into the trap of looking at the world’s problems and thinking all that’s needed is me even though I may never verbalise it like that.

That messianic complex gets confronted as Martin Scorsese’s Silence progresses – I see it confronted in Father Rodrigues as he discovers that he can’t change a thing and that, in fact, he may actually be making things worse for Japanese Christians – and it was being confronted in me as I watched Father Rodrigues being broken.

Another place where I was confronted with myself was in the journey of the Judas character, Kichijiro. Kichijiro constantly denied his faith and kept coming back to Father Rodrigues to confess and be absolved of his sin. Early on I felt compassion for him but as each confession was requested, that compassion eroded to the point where I was annoyed with him, yet in the end it was Kichijiro who was still there with Father Rodrigues after the latter had been broken. Grace. And it was Kichijiro who seemed to become a hero for his faith at the end of the film – remaining true as he was led away having harboured a Christian symbol.

Big spoiler alert! The crux of Martin Scorsese’s Silence comes when after being broken down for so long and facing the suffering of others based on his decision to remain faithful to Christ, Father Rodrigues tramples on an image of Christ andtherefore seem to deny Christ. In the film and the book, the words of Christ call him to trample, saying that’s exactly why he came – to take on the suffering of humanity. It is an expression of love from Jesus to Rodrigues and, ultimately, to humanity.

For a Christian with a messianic complex, that moment of denial is huge. In that denial all status and foundation that one leans on to prop up one’s sense of self importance was ripped away. Without that foundation Father Rodigues had nothing. Everything was stripped away and all he was left with was his broken, vulnerable, humbled self. It’s as that broken, vulnerable man that the words come from Christ again a little later as Kichijiro once again comes to Rodrigues to confess even though Rodrigues is no longer a priest and is now an apostate contributing to the destruction of Christianity in Japan.

With Kichijiro and Father Rodrigues in mind alongside my own journey, I’ve had two words running around in my head since seeing Martin Scorsese’s Silence. I can’t get away from them. ‘Offensive grace.’

I’m the sort of guy who wants things worked out. I want to know the rules, more for myself than anyone else. But even with others, Kichijiro in Martin Scorsese’s Silence showed that my grace has a limit. That discovery disturbed me. I was confronted by offensive grace. In identifying with Father Rodrigues, when he broke my compassion was with him and because of that I realised that the grace I can give also needed to extend to Kichijiro. Offensive grace.

In feeling compassion towards Father Rodrigues following his fall, that offensive grace then got turned on me. It has been turned on me during my first weeks of going through Larry Warner’s adaptation of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.

In extending grace to others I find my borders fairly wide and relaxed to the point where though I have an orthodox faith, many others perceive me as ‘liberal’. Undertaking the Preparation Exercises in Journey with Jesus and in watching the film, I’ve discovered that I struggle to extend that grace to myself and simply be. I know that God has wiped the slate clean so to speak, but to accept that grace for every part of who I am and what I have done is an ongoing struggle.

Grace doesn’t make sense. It’s offensive. Grace breaks the rules. Grace isn’t fair. Grace gives us and others what we don’t deserve. I thought I was all good with that until being confronted with Father Rodrigues breaking a cardinal rule, denying Christ with no seeming confession and repentance to bring him back, just a glimmer that an isolated faith remained in his life somehow. Does grace go that far? If it does, am I willing to allow myself to be offended by the grace Christ extends to me?

On the cross, Christ extended offensive grace and the rules were broken. The difficulty is it means that faith isn’t about having it all worked out – knowing the rules of right and wrong and ticking the boxes of ‘right’ and the good Christian life. If grace has torn up the rule book then living out faith and walking the path set before us can only be done in intimacy and union with God – being open to the grace that completely and utterly transforms us. That involves giving up the messianic complex, being honest, open and vulnerable, and learning to discern the voice and will of God in the daily walk of life even if it leads to disgrace.

In Martin Scorsese’s Silence, Father Rodrigues broke the rules (Matthew 10:33). He did so hearing the voice of Christ and stepping into the will expressed in that voice. Following the voice of Christ took him into a place he did not understand. He completely and utterly lost power and took on weakness by placing the loss of his power on Christ at the cross. It didn’t and doesn’t make sense. Offensive grace.

To follow that sort of faith; a faith that calls me into places that don’t make sense to myself or onlookers requires rhythms of openness to God when much of life pushes me into distraction; even distractions that may, at first glance, look good and ‘right.’ It requires me to let go and accept God’s offensive grace for myself and others. The question then simply becomes, how do I continually bring myself into the truth and transforming nature of that grace. That is what my spiritual rhythms are all about and hopefully as that slow journey continues, my life reflects that offensive grace more and more.

I thank Martin Scorsese’s Silence and those involved in it for once again confronting me with that challenge. The film was the catalyst for a worthy Examen that has placed offensive grace for myself and others front and center.