In Which I Review “Silence,” the Book & the Film

Buckle up, ladies and gents! It’s been a long time since I’ve been this passionate about a story, and I am here to tell you this one is a must-read, must-see. 

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All images retrieved from Google Images

Back in ye olden days (and by “ye olden days” I mean 2016) when the film Silence came out, a friend of mine told me she’d recently read the book on which it is based. “It’s wonderful,” she said, her passion for this story shining in her eyes. “The movie is so hard to watch, but the book…oh, the book!”

I was intrigued, but didn’t act on it. Silence became, for me, “That movie where Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) plays a missionary.” Then last year I became, shall we say, an Adam Driver enthusiast, and Silence became “That movie where Spider-Man and Ben Solo are missionaries–therefore I shan’t watch it because I’ve watched those two suffer enough and I don’t like pain.”

But over the past couple of months, new interactions with this story came at an alarming rate. First I saw the film at Barnes & Noble and almost bought it…then remembered I didn’t want to watch My Boys suffer, so I put it away. Barely a week later, during a re-read of Sarah Clarkson’s Book Girl, I stumbled upon her hearty recommendation of the 1966 novel. Mere days after that, my good friend Katie Hanna used the novel as an example of powerful, thoroughly Christian art in her excellent article “The Other Kind of Christian Fiction”AND THEN, while I was reading Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew, HE referenced the author of Silence, Shusaku Endo!

I stopped right there and prayed, “Lord, do you want me to read this book?!” My small local library didn’t have it on hand but I went ahead and reserved it, figuring it would get to me from the main library within a week or so. It arrived THE VERY NEXT DAY, guys. 

I inhaled that novel. I even put aside my sentimental anxieties and watched the film. And I am here to say that Silence is not only one of the most thought-provoking stories I’ve ever read or watched, but one of the finest, most honest pieces of Christian fiction I’ve ever encountered.

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Father Rodrigues comforts Mokichi (Shinya Tsukamoto).

Silence is the tale of a young Jesuit priest, Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield in the film), and his companion Garupe (Adam Driver), who journey to Japan together to seek out their old mentor. Rumors say that Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has denied the faith, but this is unthinkable to Rodrigues and Garupe. They are determined to not only rescue their mentor, but to set the record straight and defend the reputation of the Church in Japan.

Seventeenth-century Japan, however, is a place of indescribable cruelty. Japanese Christians (predominantly Catholic) are mercilessly persecuted, and any foreign influence is looked upon with disgust and hatred by the ruling shogunate. Yet as Rodrigues and Garupe discover, the Japanese Christians cling to their childlike faith despite their sufferings and the fact that they’re often forced to trample on the fumie–a bronze image of the crucified Christ. This is considered an act of apostasy; indeed, Rodrigues and Garupe both recoil at the thought of dishonoring Christ in such a way. (If that strikes my Protestant readers as odd, consider how you might feel if someone ordered you to trample or spit on a Bible. Would you do it?)

But what the priests soon realize is that if their new friends don’t step on the fumie, whole villages will be massacred. Furthermore, if they, the priests, are captured and make their own refusal, the samurai will leave them alive…but they’ll torture the Japanese Christians and force the priests to watch.

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Father Garupe (Adam Driver) in the Japanese countryside.

What do you do when it’s no longer a question of dying for your faith, but listening to the screams of others being forced to die for your faith? As terrifying as that question is, this one is even worse: what do you do when God seems to be silent in the midst of such physical and emotional agony?

Silence doesn’t provide neat, triumphant answers to these questions. This is not Facing the Giants, where you get the football championship, a brand new truck, and a positive pregnancy test if you simply have enough faith. This is, instead, the story of people who ask and say things like:

“My love for God is strong. Could that be the same as faith?”

“What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What will I do for Christ?”

“I feel so tempted to despair. I am afraid. The weight of Your silence is terrible.”

“But do you still believe?!”

“My struggle was with Christianity in my own heart.”

These Christians engage in raw, desperate prayer and doubt, wonder afterward if their despair and pain are somehow blasphemous…and then hurl themselves right back at the feet of Jesus where they know they belong.

This, to me, is far more relatable and realistic than the extravagant rewards and tidy conclusions of most modern Christian fiction. I feel the same way about Rodrigues’ growing awareness that he needs Christ just as much as his Japanese friends do. Initially, Rodrigues has a bit of superiority complex towards them. They’re filthy, uneducated, and not at all theologically astute. He especially despises the drunkard Kichijiro, who repeatedly capitulates to the authorities out of sheer terror. But when Rodrigues finds himself bearing the same exact shame and pain that torment Kichijiro, their shared need for Christ’s forgiveness drives him to his knees.

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Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) makes the first of many confessions to Rodrigues.

Yet all is not lost. After the story’s emotionally exhausting climax, Rodrigues is a weary shell of the man he once was. But while the authorities are certain they’ve destroyed his faith, he maintains his deep personal relationship with Christ. If anything, he loves Jesus in a deeper, more profound way than he ever did before. Could it be because he now recognizes just how much he needs his Savior? His inner dialogue–clearer in the novel than in the film–emphatically confirms this.

“Lord, I resented your silence,” Rodrigues prays–and Christ answers him gently, “I was not silent. I suffered beside you.” In the end, Rodrigues is finally able to say with absolute certainty, “Our Lord was not silent. Even if He had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of Him.”

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“Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.”

Silence is an intense psychological drama and not for the faint of heart. Evangelical sensibilities will likely chafe at the Catholic overtones, and many have accused it of promoting compromise in times of persecution (an accusation I strongly disagree with, but we can discuss that in the comments if anyone is interested!). Those debates aside, I maintain that Silence is far more honest about the realities of the Christian walk than the Prosperity Gospel-laced tales that pass for Christian fiction these days. Both the book and the film are beautifully crafted; even the film, while rated R, is never gratuitous in its fidelity to the novel or to the history it portrays.

Silence challenged and encouraged me, forcing me to reckon with my own ideals, my relationship with Jesus in painful times, and the way I love those who’ve hurt me. That is what good art is supposed to do, and that is why I cannot recommend it highly enough.

13 thoughts on “In Which I Review “Silence,” the Book & the Film

  1. I watched about half the movie a couple of weeks ago and decided it wasn’t for me / wasn’t the right time, but I’m glad you got something fabulous out of the story. 🙂

    “many have accused it of promoting compromise in times of persecution” <- this drives me insane.

    Jesus said to treat others as you want to be treated. He told us to love each other. In a situation where your refusal to "compromise" (something that I believe is meaningless in God's eyes — He knows quite well if you are being "coerced" into a false testinomy) would hurt other people, you have a moral obligation to compromise for their greater good. It's not an act of cowardice, it is doing exactly what Jesus told you to do — care more about caring for others than you care about yourself.

    I think this is why Paul advised some people to remain single — if you are the kind of person who intends to entirely devote yourself to the mission field, you cannot divide your attention between "what is best for my family/my dependents" and "what God is asking me to do." Once you have a family, you have no choice but to make decisions that include them not being killed / tortured, etc. It's fine if you are willing to be a martyr, but in my mind, less fine when you sacrifice your kids / followers / etc.

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    1. The question “To trample/deny or not to trample/deny” reminds me so much of the debate between Corrie ten Boom and one of her sisters (it wasn’t Betsie, but I don’t remember her name off the top of my head) about lying to the Nazis. Corrie insisted that for the sake of loving her Jewish neighbors, she was duty-bound to lie to the Nazis. But her sister insisted that NO, God explicitly speaks against lying in the Bible and so she could not in good conscience do so. Interestingly, Corrie lied and saved the Jews hiding in her house…and her sister, who REFUSED to lie, also saved the Jews hiding in HER house. Which way was the “theologically correct” one? Perhaps both of them were…just like Rodrigues’ “apostasy” and Garupe’s martyrdom (which only happened because he was trying to save Monica–he *could* have stayed on the beach) were both inspired by love.

      And I do realize there’s the whole passage where Jesus says, “If you deny me before men I will deny you before my Father in Heaven.” BUT! Peter denied Him not once, but three times–vehemently–and for no other reason but to save his own skin. Yet Jesus STILL loved him AND welcomed him back AND told him to “feed My sheep!” So I have to deduce that that stern warning was most likely meant for people who never feel any kind of agony or repentance over their denial.

      In the case of Rodrigues, he puts his foot on the fumie for no other reason than that he can’t stand the suffering of others. If it had been a matter of saving his own skin, he would’ve died gladly. But he could not bear to see others being tortured anymore than Garupe could. And in the story, he knows that Jesus understands this. Granted, this is fiction, not Scripture. But I do think that people who condemn Rodrigues for his actions are 1) putting far too much weight on a person’s performance (which sounds an awful lot to me like a works-based system, which is *precisely* what Protestants accuse Catholics of embracing, so they’re actually guilty of what they profess to oppose) and 2) they’re putting too little weight on the fact that Jesus understands His children’s earthly agony and loves them unconditionally.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s interesting that you would bring up lying to hide Nazis as an example, because that was a “straw man” argument an agnostic gave me one time, in an attempt to challenge my beliefs. He was quite shocked when I said, of course the more moral thing to do is to protect people, even if it means “technically” breaking the rules.

        I think everyone’s relationship with Jesus is different and we have to be careful in judging each other or determining FOR other people what is and what is not “a sin.” Corrie’s sister may have been right in not lying because that was HER conviction, whereas Corrie’s lies were made to save another person (and not her conviction). You can’t say either of them were closer or further away from God. But each one felt a different conviction and acted on it, and that, I think, is the important thing.

        It’s not our actions, to me, that matter so much as our motivations for doing them.

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  2. Clicked immediately… I get so excited when I see people reading Endo! 😀 I read Silence last year, and oof, it was one of the toughest books I’ve ever read or reviewed. It seemed very ambiguous, and I had really mixed feelings by the end of it (my review, FWIW: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLra6ZGPUbbzB6JPoUlzcGjlaeVJ3nZflP). It’s good to hear the movie was well done… I’m super squeamish but might try watching it.

    Another good Endo novel is The Sea and Poison. It’s also terribly bleak, but powerful. I’m planning to read anything I can find by him, just for his writing ability if nothing else!

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    1. Ooh, I’ll have to listen to your review tomorrow while I’m at work! Most of my favorite podcasts are on summer break, so it’ll be good to listen to while I dust and vacuum 😉

      And yes, Endo really is a wonderful writer. By the time I finished reading that climactic scene where Rodrigues is forced to make his choice, I was emotionally exhausted. I can’t name many books that have moved me this much–and even fewer have brought me to the verge of tears.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dangit, I read your review twice today, trying to prepare to comment, and it made me tear up BOTH TIMES.

    *sniffles*

    When I read “Silence,” I knew I would agree with its basic conclusion, I mean, I knew I would agree with Rodrigues’ ultimate decision to protect his people. But I didn’t expect to be so challenged and stretched in another direction, namely, the issue of God’s silence, or his seeming silence. (I should have seen it coming, because of the FREAKING TITLE OF THE BOOK, but I, um, didn’t. xD) Because even given that you agree with what Rodrigues decides, there’s still his pain and frustration and anger, why is God making me face this decision? Why is God allowing me to be stripped of my reputation and my idealism, and even my hope? Why is God letting these innocent Christians face such enormous suffering? Why is he watching in silence as we are hunted like animals and driven underground? Why, why, why?

    And then, in the end … “Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been, my life until this day would have spoken of him.”

    #call the ambulance #i am having an emotion

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    1. AWWWW, KATIE!!! In this house there is no shame when it comes to having emotions. (*hands you a Kleenex*)

      And yes, I think the issue of God’s silence was THE most relatable part of this story. We may never face the kind of persecution Rodrigues and his friends did (although the possibility of persecution in the future is very much there), but I suspect we’ve ALL experienced times of darkness and pain, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. I certainly felt this recently with my injury, and especially during those three weeks where I couldn’t think about much beyond my next dose of pain medication. And yet even in those times, Jesus walks alongside us. He SUFFERS with us–He understands our pain!

      I could scream about the wonder and the glory of the Incarnation right about now, but you’ve already gotten a earful of that in our texts 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think I found your blog through a mutual friend liking your post on Goodreads? The ways of the online rabbit trails are murky. But anyway, I’m so glad I found this because you’ve helped put into words why I love this movie so much. I haven’t read the book yet but I’m excited (if that’s the right word you can use for this story) to.

    The first time I watched this movie was on my birthday and needless to say, it didn’t quite provide birthday cheer and my family’s trust in my movie choices was severely degraded. I didn’t like the movie the first time I saw it—I couldn’t slap a neat moral label, a categorical “I agree” or “I don’t agree,” on it. And that’s why now, I love it. It forced me to think with more nuance about Christianity, it forced me to really ask what I would do, it forced me to see the dark side of myself and of humanity and a grace bigger than I thought. I remember realizing, “Oh, God, I’m Kichijiro.” We all are. And if stories like this help us break the pride that prevents us from realizing that, they are true and good and sacred. You might like this marvelous YouTube analysis of Silence, “The Deconstruction of Faith” by Josh Keefe, which helped me appreciate it more too.

    Anyway, all this to say, thank you for this thoughtful and well-written post! You’ve inspired me to finally pick up the book. =)

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    1. I am so thrilled you enjoyed my post! I have to say, I got a good laugh out of your choice of birthday movie…I can see how you might have to rebuild you movie-choosing reputation, haha! But I also felt such a strong resonance with your realization that, “Oh God, I’m Kichijiro.” YES! That’s what Rodrigues comes to realize, and it’s what we ALL need to recognize in our own lives as well. We need Jesus so, so much.

      Thank you so much for the recommendation–I will check it out! And thank you for reaching out with this comment. It’s amazing how we make connections on the Internet!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, you’re so right—the more we hold onto self-righteousness and try to rationalize away our failings, the less we realize we need Jesus. But realizing we need him is the whole point.

        And you’re welcome! As much as the internet annoys me sometimes, it also provides lovely surprise connections. Have a joyous summer!

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  5. Right now I’m trying to write my film course project on why Christians should engage with/make films and *what* kinds of films they should make, and this has really helped, Maribeth! I’m going to go into this arguing that Christians should make honest, accurate portrayals of human life, the beautiful and the terrible. Stories that the destitute can relate to even when they are thick in the midst of suffering. Such a profound message and one your post reinforced for me. This is the kind of Christian film/book I want to see more of in contemporary spheres!

    Plus, I realized that I hadn’t read this yet out of fear of spoilers for Silence! I’m so glad I read it though. It brought all the sad boi hours back, and I honestly still just revel in the honesty of this novel (and film). I’m looking forward to watching the film too!

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