Unless you were paying close attention, you probably didn’t notice that Martin Scorsese released a new movie just before Christmas. Scorsese’s newest movie, “Silence”, released in very select theatres on December 21st, 2016. In a nutshell, it is about 2 Jesuit missionaries who travel to hostile Japan to rescue their mentor that had presumably renounced Christ in the face of Japanese persecution. It tells the story of how these two missionaries struggle with their faith in the midst of intense persecution and trial.
It reached theatres in Dallas/Fort Worth in late January and for a couple of weeks at most. At first glance, the movie looks as though it would be a huge box office hit; it featured Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Liam Neeson (Taken), and Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens). However, the movie has received mixed reactions, not least among Christian audiences.
For many, “Silence” was jarring in its cinematic aesthetic and its surprising content. When I saw “Silence” the first time, it certainly set me back in my seat. I left the theatre feeling confused, frustrated, and a little annoyed. However, after hours of reflection and conversation with others who had seen the movie, when I saw it for the second time my perspective completely changed. I began to see the movie in a new light. I dare say it became one of my favorite films after a second viewing. In my opinion “Silence” is a crucially important movie for Christians to see. In addition to being visually gorgeous, “Silence” is very powerful.
The Culture of Christian Cinema
Before we jump into the specifics of why I loved “Silence”, we need to take a look at the current culture of Christian cinema. I walked into the theatre with a lot of expectations about what “Silence” should be like. I expected an un-nuanced, easy to swallow portrayal of faith, martyrdom. What I got instead was a very realistic picture of doubt, struggle, and the often messy reality of wrestling with faith in Christ in the midst of intense trial. Part of my expectation and initial disappointment was due, in part, to what I had become accustomed to in Christian cinema. Exceptions notwithstanding, the culture of Christian cinema is one that often paints faith in Christ as something very cut and dry and easy to swallow. You either believe Jesus and obey him or you don’t. There is often little grey area in between. The reality of doubt, uncertainty, and struggle are swept under the rug because they are uncomfortable. The culture of Christian cinema is often intolerable to grey area, so they avoid it, and, I think unintentionally, paint a picture of following Jesus that precludes doubt, uncertainty, and struggle. We’re left with a vision of the Christian life that doesn’t really need to depend on Jesus, but simply needs to muster up “more faith”. Faith looks more like a self-produced commodity than a gift from God. What’s more, we’re often left with a burden of feeling inadequate, unholy, and less godly because we can’t seem to create “more faith” out of thin air. “Silence” is a film that explores the grey area.
For this review, there is only one theme in the movie “Silence” that I want to explore. This theme, in my opinion, makes “Silence” such an important movie for Christians to see. There are lots of other themes in the movie that are helpful to explore, but the theme of repentance figures prominently in the film.
Kichijiro & Repentance (spoiler alert)
In the movie, there is a specific character that the Jesuit missionaries come into contact with early on named Kichijiro. Kichijiro is a depressed alcoholic that the missionaries pay to transport them to the island where they are traveling in search of their mentor. As the missionaries begin ministering to the Japanese Christians living in hiding, Kichijiro decides that he wants to become a Christian, though he greatly fears the persecution it will welcome. What’s interesting is that we find out Kichijiro had once identified as a Christian, but fell into depression and alcoholism because of the shame he felt when his family had been martyred while he was let go. He was let go because he had denied Christ. After Kichijiro meets the missionaries, he repents of his sin and vows to live for Christ. However, as the story progresses we see Kichijiro deny Christ several more times as he is threatened with death by the Japanese government. At first glance, Kichijiro looks like an apostate; however, I think Scorsese paints a beautiful picture of the gospel through the character of Kichijiro precisely because he unashamedly runs back every single time he denies Christ to confess his sin to the Jesuit missionaries. Though there is a very real, even comical, sense of frustration between the missionaries about the two-sidedness of Kichijiro, he is the only character in the film who portrays an authentic, uninhibited sense of repentance and brokenness over his sin. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Peter’s denial of Christ. As believers, I think this is important for us to see. The power of the gospel says that we are given access to the patient favor of the Father. We are called to repent and believe over and over again. We, like Kichijiro, should never grow weary of repenting of our sin because we know that our Father will welcome us as His children. Kichijiro understood that, and though his conduct was less than exemplary, his penitent heart demonstrated a level of dependence on Christ that many of us should seek to model. This theme makes “Silence” a movie for the “denying Peter” and the “doubting Thomas” in us all.
I have a lot more thoughts on why “Silence” is an important film for Christians, but couldn’t fit them all in the article. Feel free to ask any questions you may have! I will warn you that “Silence” isn’t an easy movie to watch. It’s rated R for violence and is very emotionally intense. However, if you have the temperament to watch it, I cannot recommend it enough.