Religious Cinema for Non-Believers: Martin Scorsese’s Silence

Silence (2016) | Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

In the beginning, there is only darkness. Crickets chirp and cicadas buzz. There is some small comfort in the auditory, a living hum in the blackness and blindness. Through the void, the sounds of nature build and crescendo, peaking to an almost unbearable cacophony until…


Everything is in a fog. Steam and smoke swirl in the blue-grey as our eyes adjust and hints of a human silhouette come into view. A powerful warrior stands before us; our eyes adjust further, and we realize he is adjacent to a type of wooden altar, upon which lie two ambiguous spheres. As we get our visual bearings, we recognize in horror what we are seeing: severed human heads.

The clouds of steam continue to billow through a wide shot of the craggy cliffs, obscuring our view of the various human figures dotting the foreign landscape of patchy grass and bubbling pools. A line of guards marches slowly into view; there follows a patient dissolve, nearly imperceptible in the mist. Then, a man’s back is before us, a prisoner priest helplessly witnessing a cadre of Japanese warriors torture five Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. They pour boiling water from the steaming hot springs onto the Christians’ exposed skin. We hear a voice, a narrated letter sent from the captured priest to any listening followers of Christ beyond Japan. The hopeful epistolary narration—“We only grow stronger in His love”—is a stark contrast to the image of the quivering Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) in the mud, on his knees out of surrender and despair.

So begins Martin Scorsese’s Silence, an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel of the same title and Scorsese’s long-awaited (and underappreciated) passion project. The third of Scorsese’s unofficial trilogy about crises of faith following The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, Silence is certainly religious cinema, but it is not a “faith-based film,” nor in the transcendental style of his Last Temptation collaborator, Paul Schrader. It is about entering into the cloud of unknowing, the dark night of the soul, listening to the silence of God and waiting eternally for a response. It is a long movie and a movie of longing. It is both prayerful and profane. In the words of philosopher Richard Kearney, Silence is anatheistic—it is about the lingering question of God after you no longer believe in God, a faith beyond faith. The ana- prefix indicates an afterward, a return, not a synthesis of theism and atheism but a radical openness beyond the binary, what Jacques Derrida calls “religion without religion.” In other words, Silence is religious cinema for our secular age.

In our post-postmodern era, there is a notable rise of the religious “nones” even as there is also a “religious turn” in Western academia and the public sphere—as a society, we are becoming both more and less religious all at once. The 2016 presidential election is indicative of this divided phenomenon as 81% of white American evangelicals voted for Trump, while seven in 10 religious “nones” voted for Clinton. It was not only a crisis of politics, it was also a crisis of faith, particularly as many non-rightwing evangelicals (now “exvangelicals”) found themselves without a clear religious identity, exiles wandering in a secularized religious landscape.

Merely weeks after the election, Scorsese’s Silence quietly slipped into North American theaters with very little notice. Despite near-universal critical acclaim, audiences just didn’t turn out for it; with its $46 million budget, Silence grossed a meager $7.1 million domestically. Where Last Temptation provoked angry protests and boycotts from church groups, Silence elicited mostly muted indifference. Religious audiences may have been uneasy about the film’s doctrinal ambiguities and disturbing violence, while non-believing audiences perhaps couldn’t believe in the religious traditions and tribulations (especially why stepping on the fumi-e would be a such big deal to a priest). Silence appeared too pious for non-believers and too sacrilegious for believers.

But this is precisely how Scorsese has been operating for his entire career as a filmmaker. The opening shot of his first feature film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, is a close-up of a statue of the Madonna and Child sitting in a New York apartment kitchen, and Scorsese once confessed, “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.” Even as his cinematic style and personal theology have developed and matured over the decades, Scorsese has always been breaking down the transcendent-immanent divide in his underlying theological queries and quest for redemption, uniting the sacred and profane, the religious and secular. He says it himself in Mean Streets: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.” Or in the brothels, the casinos, the boxing rings, the prisons—even in 17th-century Japan.


Ferreira’s letter reaches the ears of two young priests, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), who wish to go to Japan to find their mentor and continue the good work of spreading the gospel of Christianity. They debate the merits and plausibility of this quest with Father Valignano (Ciarán Hinds), who remains reluctant. There are rumors that Ferreira has apostatized and forsaken the faith, that the seed of Christianity cannot take root in this “swamp” of a country, as Ferreira later describes it. This is enough to make Valignano doubt the validity of any more missions. But the idealist young priests cannot give up on their spiritual father. They are so sure, so certain of God’s providence in the matter. With romantic missionary zeal, Rodrigues and Garupe convince Father Valignano to send them to Japan.

There follows an impressive overhead fisheye shot of the three priests descending a flight of white marble stairs as they discuss their mission. In theologically-laden cinematic terminology, this is a “God’s eye view,” a removed above-it-all vantage point looking directly downward, as if an invisible divine presence were watching the characters and actions below. Scorsese absolutely loves this shot—it’s present in every film he’s ever made, perhaps as a silent tribute to his own Roman Catholic upbringing and earlier seminarian longings. Yet I think it’s more than mere auteurist technique—Scorsese is subtly drawing our attention to the transcendent via his cinematography, the Spirit hovering over the waters of our chaotic world. Whether it is Travis Bickle or Henry Hill or Billy Costigan or Jordan Belfort, Scorsese has always been asking through his movies: Is there a God silently watching us? Is there any moral judge or divine comfort beyond this mortal coil? It’s as if cinema is Scorsese’s mode of theological inquiry—he is doing theology via his movies, not just depicting it. In an interview with Deadline about Silence, Scorsese says the following about this theological drive:

“Questions, answers, loss of the answer again and more questions, and this is what really interests me. Yes, the Cinema and the people in my life and my family are most important, but ultimately as you get older, there’s got to be more. Much, much more. The very nature of secularism right now is really fascinating to me, but at the same time do you wipe away what could be more enriching in your life, which is an appreciation or some sort of search for that which is spiritual and transcends?”

There is a both-and approach to the religious and secular with Scorsese, this blurring of categories as he searches for God while acknowledging that the faith of his childhood is gone. He continues: “There are no answers. We all know that. You try to live in the grace that you can. But there are no answers, but the point is, you keep looking.”

You keep looking. This is precisely what Scorsese’s camera does in Silence. It continues to look into the lives (and deaths) of 17th-century Jesuit priests and Japanese Kirishitans, peering directly into the in-between space of belief and doubt. In the sacred-secular divide, Scorsese makes his home within the hyphen.


If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

–James 1:5-6

Many significant moments in Silence occur on beaches, the meeting of sand and sea, the liminal space between the security of dry ground and the relentless undulation of the waves. The biblical book of James describes the latter as akin to doubt, that tumultuous spiritual anxiety which keeps us up at night, wondering. Scorsese the hyphen-dweller places significant narrative crises in Silence on these shorelines, where the solidity of belief is repeatedly washed over by liquid uncertainty.

When Rodrigues and Garupe arrive on the shores of Japan, they initially take shelter in a cave as they wait for Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), an apostate and the priests’ cowardly Japanese host. This same seaside cave frames the Japanese soldiers and the inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata) as they bear witness to the deaths of three Kirishitans hung on crosses in the pounding surf. The cinematic image of the ocean crucifixion is paradoxically horrific and beautiful, the painterly framing honoring these martyrs even as we wonder whether anything is worth this cost. The villagers and priests silently bear witness as the believers’ lives slip away due to exposure to the wind and waves; the Japanese burn the bodies on a pyre, the smoke rising like that from a religious altar. We learn that Kichijiro’s family came to a similar fate on the edge of the sea, burned alive as he publicly recanted.

Rodrigues and Garupe choose to separate in order to hide from the Japanese authorities and possibly spare the villagers from further persecution. Traveling by boat, Rodrigues arrives at Kichijiro’s home village, Gotō, to find it derelict and deserted. Climbing from the boat into the waves, the sounds of nature—the same sounds as the opening title sequence—suddenly break through and fill the soundscape as Rodrigues makes his way to shore. In a striking image, Rodrigues is centered in the frame as he (and we) take in the view of the silent town, overrun with stray cats. As Rodrigues enters a home to lap up water, the camera slowly wanders out an open window in a shot echoing Taxi Driver’s phone call scene with the empty hallway, signifying the abject loneliness of the priest. There is no one listening. Despondent, the priest wonders what we, too, wonder: What am I doing here?


Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

–1 Kings 19:11-12

Wandering in the misty mountains of Japan, Rodrigues is akin to the prophet Elijah in the wilderness, a believer experiencing the pangs of unbelief. Curled up under a rocky overhang like Elijah was curled under a desert broom tree, the priest’s faith in his mission and his God is no longer so solid. A series of quick dissolves indicate his fractured psyche as he silently pleads with God: “I pray but I am lost. Or am I just praying to nothing? Nothing, because you are not there?”

But God appears. Or, at least the image of Christ manifests in the muddy river waters (another shoreline) just before Rodrigues is betrayed by Kichijiro to the Japanese inquisitors. In a (quite literally) narcissistic move, the exhausted priest sees a vision of the face of Christ in his own reflection, prompting a maniacal laugh before he is captured. The face of Christ in Silence is an adaptation of a 16th-century painting by El Greco, St. Veronica with the Holy Shroud. Traditionally, Saint Veronica offered the struggling Christ her cloth to wipe his brow as he carried the cross to Calvary; when she received the cloth back, the exact image of his face was miraculously impressed into it. I find the shroud’s parallels to celluloid and cinema striking, how an image is imprinted onto the film, creating new meanings. I love how Scorsese deliberately chose this painting of a cloth—an image of an image—to portray his mediated Christ. Like cinema, it generates remarkable empathy and emotion even as there is always a mediated distance—we are always seeing through someone else’s perspective, a vision of the viewed, an alluring aloofness. The mediated Christ of Silence will not speak in the traditional ways of Biblical epics or like Willem Dafoe’s crazed Jesus in Last Temptation, with drama and fervor, gusto and glory, earthquakes and fire. No, if this Christ speaks—and he will—it will be in the sound of sheer silence.


Rodrigues is captured near the exact midway mark of Silence. The film’s second half plays out like an extended courtroom drama as the priest is tried and tested before the inquisitor Inoue and his unnamed translator (Tadanobu Asano). The Japanese make the priest’s life relatively comfortable; though imprisoned, he is allowed to pray the rosary and gather with the Japanese Kirishitans for worship. The wooden cage becomes a confessional, the parallel bars framing the characters’ bodies. In a scene where the Japanese Kirishitans are put forward to step on the fumi-e, the camera remains inside the cage with Rodrigues—we, too, are prisoners watching through the slats, our vision slightly obscured by the vertical divisions which cannot be overcome.

Inoue’s strategy is to compel Rodrigues to recant his faith by torturing the Japanese converts until he does. It is a patient technique, and Scorsese’s pacing and editing incarnate this approach, taking time with the images and ideas presented so that we can truly wrestle with their moral and mortal implications. In yet another shoreline scene, Rodrigues is taken to a beach to witness Garupe from a distance as guards take three prisoner converts and drown them off-shore. Unable to communicate with his fellow priest, Rodrigues (and we) watch helplessly as the emaciated Garupe refuses to apostatize and flings himself into the surf in a desperate attempt to save the victims, drowning in the process. “Terrible business!” the interpreter screams at Rodrigues. “Think about the suffering you have inflicted on these people, just because of your selfish dream of a Christian Japan. Your Deus punishes Japan through you!”

How are we to respond to this? Who is in the wrong: the Japanese inquisitors who torture and kill the Kirishitans and priests, or the European Christians who arrive uninvited and ignore the Japanese cultural heritage in the name of conversion? Why are human beings capable of such cruelty to one another in the name of religion? Why do people suffer and God remains silent? Silence does not offer us simple, black-and-white answers. It demands that we wade into the suffering and sit with it. Yet Rodrigues initially cannot do this—he always has an argument, an answer, a position, a system, a Truth he will clutch tightly in his hands and heart until he is finally able to let go.


My ears had heard of you
    but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
    and repent in dust and ashes.

–Job 42:5-6

“Come ahead now. It’s all right. Step on me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain. Your life is with me now. Step.”

In the silence, we hear the calming voice of Christ speak these words to Rodrigues through the fumi-e. Though uncredited, the voice we hear must be Ciarán Hinds, who earlier portrayed Father Valignano. Scorsese’s choice to have Hinds’ voice speak to Rodrigues (and to us) in this climactic scene creates a remarkable ambiguity and tension. Are we to believe this is the actual voice of God, a figment of Rodrigues’ imagination, or some combination therein? For those who believe the former, isn’t it possible that an emotionally-distraught person is merely hearing voices conjured from his broken psyche? For those who believe the latter, isn’t it possible for a divine person (if such a person could exist) to speak in whatever manner desired, especially if the voice were familiar and brought comfort to the hearer? Are you open to the impossible becoming possible, whether toward belief or unbelief? Silence invites us into this liminal uncertainty, asking us not to disbelieve or believe, but to simply be in this unresolved tension and not speak. Step.

He steps. There is absolute silence as Rodrigues places his foot on the fumi-e and his body collapses in slow motion to the dust. He has seen the face of God fade from view, and he will never be the same again.

As the sound returns and the five Japanese victims are raised from the torture pit, we hear the faint but distinct sound of a rooster crowing, an allusion to the Apostle Peter’s threefold denial of Christ. Years later, after Rodrigues has renounced the Christian faith numerous times over, Silence shows us a conversation between the fallen priest and Kichijiro. The Japanese man whispers, “Padre…Please hear my confession.” Rodrigues initially refuses, but as Kichijiro bows before him in penitence, the sound drops out and we hear the fallen priest’s narrated prayer in a whisper: “Lord, I fought against your silence.”

Suddenly, the voice of Christ breaks through: “I suffered beside you. I was never silent.” There is no face, no fumi-e, no vision. Only a voice.

“I know,” confesses Rodrigues. “But even if God had been silent my whole life”—Rodrigues is now speaking this aloud to Kichijiro, to himself, to God?—“to this very day, everything I do, everything I’ve done…Speaks of him.” A pause. “It was in the silence that I heard your voice.” Then Rodrigues kneels, his forehead pressed to Kichijiro’s, the two men nearly symmetrical in the frame as the camera lingers on their weeping bodies.

In the final shot of the film, the body of the deceased and apostate Rodrigues burns on a Buddhist pyre, the rising white smoke echoing the misty fog of the opening scene. Beginning in a wide shot of the flames, Scorsese’s camera patiently zooms forward through the fire until it rests on a small crucifix clutched in Rodrigues’ hands, placed there by his Japanese widow. This is one of the only moments in Silence not found in Endo’s novel, which concludes on a much more ambiguous note. Scorsese has included a symbol of belief in his adaptation, perhaps to indicate the priest’s futile existence as a Christian, or possibly as a material witness to the glimmer of faith which is possible for anyone and everyone.


On my first viewing of Silence, I identified with Rodrigues. I admired his spiritual and pastoral fervor, his apparent willingness to go to the ends of the earth for his beliefs. Rodrigues sees his story as parallel to Christ’s own Passion. Yet in this I also saw his pride; as Ferreira tells him, “You see Jesus in Gethsemane and believe your trial is the same as his” but the Japanese Kirishitans “would never compare themselves to Jesus.” Rodrigues arrives in Japan with all the right answers, telling the villagers what to do—go find more Christians in other villages!—without listening or learning of their culture and lifestyle. He sees himself as above them; he is a literal white savior on a mission with what he believes is the Truth, capital T. “The truth is universal. That’s why it’s called the truth,” he tells Inoue. I, too, used to be this adamant about having the corner market on the Truth. But what I first saw as conviction I now see as arrogance. To embrace dogmatic belief systems and ideologies—whether religious or secular—and ignore all other possibilities as inherently false is to live a blinkered existence.

On my second viewing of Silence, I identified with Kichijiro, the misfit Japanese Kirishitan who lives in a constant cycle of apostasy and faithfulness. He steps on the fumi-e repeatedly, and with little hesitation; it becomes pathetic, even comical. He follows Rodrigues like the Apostle Peter followed Christ the night he was arrested, lurking and cowering, unwilling to put his life on the line yet unable to pull himself wholly away from the faith. Kichijiro would never draw a parallel between himself and Christ like Rodrigues does; he knows he is too great of a sinner for that. He is humus, Latin for “dirt” or “earth,” our root word for both “humility” and “humiliation.” Yet he returns again, ana, wagering that there is yet grace to be found in this world. I am Kichijiro; I am daily failing forward in my own faith, only certain of my uncertainty as I yearn for possible glimpses of the transcendent.

On my third viewing of Silence, I identified with Scorsese. I was aware of his silent presence throughout the film, his cinematic vision and voice imbuing every scene with a sense of the sacred, the sacramental, the holy. Silence is neither praising nor condemning either the Roman Catholic Church or the Japanese culture, but it is also not neutral or uncaring. It provokes a judgment in its audience; we are not permitted to just sit back, silently watch, and do nothing. Silence invites us into a fictional world and asks us to consider the deepest questions of human existence while recognizing (as Scorsese admits) there are no absolute answers—we simply try to live in the grace that we can.

In Jesuit spirituality, there is an exercise called imaginative prayer, using one’s imagination to place oneself in a biblical scene in order to more fully enter into communion with the story. Perhaps Silence can be considered an act of cinematic Ignatian contemplation, a sensory imagistic experience of meditative and mediated prayer. Scorsese imbues his film with personal, pastoral care; one might even call it love. Whether you are a staunch believer or a die-hard atheist, Silence will lovingly challenge you to imagine the possibility of Another Way. I believe the post-secular pilgrims of our world—the religious nones, the anatheists, the spiritual misfits—may find a home in the Church of Cinema, with Scorsese as our priest.