Observations, Having Watched Scorsese’s Silence

Having the honor to write a little bit about Endo’s novel Silence, recently, of course I went to see the movie.  My observations here will make more sense if you know what I’ve written elsewhere:

Up to Garrpe’s death scene, I’d say we’re seeing material that is at least as good as the novel. A few details are dropped, but only to foreshorten the very long backstory and make this story more definitely about Rodrigues from the beginning, something it would be very hard to avoid in a movie adaptation. The companion left behind before they even reach Japan is a very noticeable omission.

One scene that some reviewers made confusing-sounding is clearer in the movie even than the book, as the Father-Brother system the kakure kirishitan used is clearly applicable only to baptisms and leading prayers; there is nothing exceptional at all about what they’ve done, nothing that would require special permission. The scene of Garrpe not understanding the woman’s confession is very well-rendered, one of many ways Scorsese tries to make the story legible to an American movie audience (something of a quixotic aim, but nobly attempted).

Scorsese gives very good play to both Kichijiro and Rodrigues. Kichijiro’s role is less ambiguous than in the novel; Kichijiro clearly and specifically acknowledges sin, his traumatic past is viscerally included in his characterization, and Rodrigues plainly gives him absolution. Catholics ought to love the presence of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in this movie; one of the most vivid visual presentations I can recall of confession.

Rodrigues comes across as sincere, passionate, and rather more adolescent than I imagine him from the movie–same for Garrpe. Garrpe is more erratic than Rodrigues, but it is Rodrigues who makes really dangerous errors, repeatedly. The first time Rodrigues tells the villagers “Trample!” is shockingly underplayed; the book treats it as a sort of loud Freudian slip, a word hastily spoken and instantly regretted. The movie makes it quite plain that Rodrigues thinks the villagers should just apostatize when threatened and then practice secretly, which fits with some reviews of the movie that suggest Rodrigues applies a radically different standard for apostasy to priests than laity. While I’m not sure I agree that this accords with the book’s depiction of Rodrigues in detail, it’s a simplification that helps to underscore one of the two important themes that do flourish in the movie: that treating spiritual warfare as a matter of summoning up enough internal resources, to try to “believe harder” or be “strong enough,” is fundamentally missing the point. We are all weak, and frankly under some circumstances we can all be broken. “Let him who thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.”

The other theme that comes across quite clearly in the movie is the persistence of faith even under external and internal rejection. This theme comes across clearly, I should say, despite many obstacles. To be honest, the arguments and motives become almost incoherent in the last third of the movie. Garrpe dies, not singing with bobbing “basket-worms,” but clinging to one of them and pushed under, apparently drowning while trying with panicked inefficacy to save her life. The scene is rushed, with the “basket-worms” being hastily drowned in a manner that sharply departs from the book; the effects on Rodrigues are thus intense but not intelligible. Similarly, the colorful characterization of Inoue and the flattening of the interpreter’s character put speeches which have less influence on Rodrigues in the novel in more prominent positions. Scorsese is hardly to be blamed for this, because those speeches include many of the most-quoted lines from Silence and are very close to the novel’s climax. The scene of the pit torture is actually muted after what we have seen before; the flashback to Ferreira’s ordeal at the beginning of the movie, especially, has stolen the thunder of the climax. The “snoring” is still horrifying.

As is true many places in both book and movie, Rodrigues appears to be determined by the author’s problematic, rather than internal motivations, in his decisions. This is especially true of the “voice” telling Rodrigues he can formally apostatize, which has to either be a delusion (in which case it cannot help justify the later actions of Rodrigues) or something we are to imagine could actually be a speech of Christ (which would be straightforward blasphemy). Given that the voice quotes Rodrigues, and is inconsistent with Christ (though consistent with Endo’s later A Life of Jesus), I am confident that the right way to take this is as a semi-autobiographical delusion shared by Rodrigues and Endo; I would like the movie to have made that clear, in some way. In many cases, the movie sides with Endo’s baptismal faith rather than Endo’s ideological agenda; in the case of the voice from the fumie, it simply renders Endo literally.

All that by way of concession against my point that the movie does make the story one of the persistence of baptismal faith even when one is forbidden to practice and when one struggles against it. This is a fitting theme to draw from Endo, both because this is his own stated experience and because his style of writing explicitly deploys characters to act out possibilities of experience for the highly subjective narrator (a modification of the I-novel genre). The film makes a number of interpretive choices for the viewer that the novel does not, and these are not obviously motivated; and the Confession scene of Rodrigues and Kichijiro is completely fabricated (it partially duplicates a scene elsewhere). Whether the choices are especially effective, or faithful to Endo, though, they do all tend to underscore what I hope Scorsese intends us to take away: that even under conditions where we find our faith suppressed and distorted beyond belief, the grace of God that reaches out to us through the Mochiki or Kichijiro he sends us may shape an opportunity for repentance–symbolized by a wife who knows her fallen husband will of course want Mochiki’s crucifix in his hands at burial, and who risks her life to place it there–that we must willingly accept. Not by proving our strength, even under the banner Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, but by setting aside our boasts and entrusting our feeble selves to His mighty love.