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9th March 2017

Silence, 2016 MA 15+ (Australian rating)

Silence is a strangely beautiful and yet alarmingly horrifying depiction of a quite savage period in Christian history. The context here is the period after the first ‘opening up’ of Japan in the middle 16th century, and then the reaction, and the desire to purify and rid Japan of foreign influences (not only Christian, but associated). Possibly thousands of Christians were martyred during this time, with one of the most well-known being the crucifixion in Nagasaki on February 5, 1597 of twenty-six Christians including six European Franciscan missionaries and three Japanese Jesuits. Persecution continued into the 1630s and the film itself is set in this later period following a major rebellion that had some Christian context, though was also related to other factors. The film itself provides an eye-opener into the never-ending methods of torture and killing that mankind develops at times when they desire revenge and destruction.

The film is based on the 1966 book by Shusaku Endo, and directed by the influential and controversial ‘actors’ director’ Martin Scorsese. Apparently, it was a nearly three-decades long personal project to bring the film to fruition. This film is oddly reminiscent at times of Terrence Malick films with the soft voice-over and lyrical filming. Like Scorsese, Malick focusses on people exploring their beliefs in extraordinary times.

Intriguingly Andrew Garfield, who played the main Christian character in Hacksaw Ridge, plays one of the Jesuit priests Father Rodrigues, who goes in search of his mentor Father Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson), partly to find out if there is truth to the rumour that he ‘apostatised’? The film also follows the struggles of Father Rodrigues and his companions. This is the ‘silence’ connection – even in the times that there is seemingly silence by God, God is there. As Father Rodrigues observes, “It was in the silence that I heard Your voice.”

There are certainly some theological questions raised due to the Catholic context (especially in related to confession and prayer), but these need to be considered in the strong pastoral context where the priests gave totally of themselves to serve their people. There are also incredible moments that we all hope we would never have to personally face:

What would you do in a situation where;

  • Your life will be spared if you deny your faith?
  • Others will be spared if you deny your faith?
  • You are tortured simply for having a Christian symbol in your possession?
  • You repeatedly deny Christ and yet are so burdened you repeatedly seek forgiveness?

There is another whole theme in the film about the hidden or ‘secret Christians’, and readers may be aware of this context in China after the expulsion of missionaries in 1949, in countries in the former Soviet Bloc, and in middle eastern countries today. The ‘secret Christian’ remains a theme throughout the movie right to the incredible end.

The early 17th century was a very public period of confrontation for the local Christians, and yet it was also an isolated period for Japan itself. In contrast to today, it was of course a time without social media and the broadcasting of martyrdom. This is very much an adult film, but one that I believe will lead you to think deeply about your faith. It will have a short season at the cinema, but given the length of the film, it may be best watched at home with a group. Then  you can take a break at an appropriate time, perhaps even spend some time in prayer and reflection, before preparing yourself for the final part of this quite searing and intriguing drama.

Peter Bentley is the ACC’s National Director 

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