It’s not often that a film about the nexus of faith, suffering, and mission is rumored to be an Oscar contender. But this month, Martin Scorsese’s new critically acclaimed film Silence brings one of the most intense periods of Christian persecution to the big screen just in time for the Academy Awards season.
Based on the novel Silence, by Shusaku Endo, the film portrays the extreme persecution of Christian communities in seventeenth-century Japan that drove many believers to renounce the faith or to practice it in secret. The story follows the journey of two Jesuit priests on a dangerous mission to find their mentor, played by Liam Neeson, who is rumored to have apostatized under torture.
Horrific acts of violence and terror around the world, including purposeful and growing opposition to gospel proclamation, has a direct effect on the work of the church in missions. This new normal has led to increased complexity regarding how Christian faith is to be lived out. Believers who watch this film will be challenged to think deeply about the implications of our faith as we continue in the difficult work of fulfilling the Great Commission.
In anticipation of the film’s opening on December 23, we talked with executive producer Tyler Zacharia about the issues the film raises for committed Christians. The weighty themes addressed in the film warrant thoughtful consideration by those who desire to live their faith openly, no matter the cost.
Suffering, Human Frailty, and God’s Glory
Eliza: You’ve just returned from Rome where you were a part of screening Silence with the Jesuits, whose mission is at the heart of the film. Can you describe their reaction?
Tyler: I went to Georgetown University, which is a Jesuit school. A lot of my professors were Jesuits. They’re some of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever met. You could hear a pin drop in the room after the film was done.
The silence was a reverent silence. Overall, they loved it and were thankful someone made a film about this history. I can’t remember exactly how one Jesuit phrased it, but essentially he said, “Thank you for allowing us to experience the suffering of our brothers in a way that honors them.”
Afterwards they spent about an hour and a half asking Scorsese really thoughtful questions about the film.
Eliza: What are some of the most important questions raised by the film?
Tyler: I think they’re some of the fundamental questions every Christian has, but may be afraid to explore: Where is God in the midst of suffering? Why does he allow those who love him to suffer? Is he silent when those who devote their lives to him are persecuted?
When you’re thrust into life-and-death circumstances, how do you view God and his love?
It’s easy to be pious in a comfortable environment. But when you’re thrust into life-and-death circumstances, how do you view God and his love? What would I do? Would I fold? Would I bend? Would I be strong?
There are questions of human frailty. Where’s the place for a weak person in this environment of suffering? There’s a character in the movie, Kichijiro, who kind of embodies human frailty. He’s an anti-hero. He’s constantly betraying and coming back for forgiveness, flip-flopping back and forth almost to a comical degree. And yet, I can relate a lot to him. He describes all of us to a certain extent in straying from God and coming back to him.
There’s also a question of the denial of faith in front of other people. Can faith be hidden and still be real? When you’re faced with impossible circumstances, how far does God’s grace extend?
Eliza: When I think of Peter’s betrayal on the night before Jesus’s crucifixion, it seems his denial of Christ was a part of his faith journey. He had believed before, and he would be forgiven and restored to fellowship later.
Tyler: Yes, absolutely, and God is glorified in the midst of weakness. He’s chosen imperfect vessels— imperfect people—to display his glory. Paul says we boast in our weakness. There is purpose in understanding our weakness and still clinging to God.
An Inoculation for the Trauma of Persecution
Eliza: Motivations for making a film like this must be complicated. In an interview with Paul Elie for the New York Times, Scorsese said he once wanted to be a missionary. Elie suggests the nature of faith has animated Scorsese’s entire life’s work. Does Silence suggest the way of faith is the way of suffering?
Tyler: Yes, I think that idea flows throughout the film. It’s a key component. When Scorsese read Endo’s novel nearly thirty years ago, he knew he had to make this film. By watching the movie, you can understand [Scorsese] a little more.
The Bible promises Christians wonderful things in terms of joy, peace, meaning, and purpose, but it doesn’t promise a life of ease or a life free of suffering.
Part of being in union with Christ is experiencing suffering. The Bible promises Christians wonderful things in terms of joy, peace, meaning, and purpose, but it doesn’t promise a life of ease or a life free of suffering. It promises the exact opposite. Human frailty revealed in the midst of suffering magnifies God’s strength. The joy that faith in God provides Christians in the midst of devastation says that when we turn to him, he is enough to sustain us.
Eliza: In Silence and Beauty, artist Makoto Fujimura suggests reading Endo’s novel can act like an inoculation against the trauma of persecution. He says experiencing suffering through art can strengthen Christian resolve to meet “dark realities of persecution and irreversible losses” with faith. In your view, might the film function in the same way?
Tyler: Yes, I do. I read once in an ethics class about the idea of moral imagination, how our perceptions of the world are based on our experiences and the stories that we see, hear, and live. Our experience of suffering, of God, of morality—our whole worldview—can be shaped by stories. When we can walk in someone else’s shoes for a brief moment, whether through a film or a book, we can share in an experience, learn from it, and grow in our own worldview.
This particular story that looks at intense suffering could be like an inoculation. If you’re courageous to face these hard questions, then I think you can be more equipped to face difficulties. This is not a film anyone can watch and not have a conversation about. Whether you hate it or you love it, it will be valuable to anyone’s thoughts about suffering in the future.
Eliza: The novel, Silence, on which the film is based, was inspired by historical events. How important was accuracy to this period in Japanese history to Scorsese?
Tyler: Well, the story is fictional and some characters are composite, but Endo’s novel and the film are inspired by a true period of time. The events actually happened. One of the priests, Ferreira, was a real person. The film producers were obsessed with making the film as historically accurate and honoring to the book as possible.
The best art asks really compelling questions. Questions force people to think, to wrestle to find answers for themselves.
Co-producer Marianne Bower‘s job was historical research. I was on set when they were exploring how to portray a cremation scene. She found out that during that time in Japan, coffins were cylindrical, so that’s the way they’re depicted. That’s the level of detail that went into the architecture, costumes, and hairstyles. The hub of Jesuit missions in Asia was Macau, where the ruins of the famous St Paul’s church are today. The steps of the church were created to scale because Scorsese wanted scenes set there to be as accurate as possible, and it also created one of the most beautiful shots in the film.
Christian Mission and Cultural Context
Eliza: The trailer opens with a recitation of the Great Commission. What are some of the main issues surrounding Christian mission raised by the film?
Tyler: The need for cultural understanding. If there’s one thing I’m convinced of, it’s that the Great Commission is best served in the context of relationship, and relationship only happens when there is mutual respect. And I think respect is only formed from a place of understanding.
When people say they want to go out and be a missionary, it’s important to really understand where you’re going, to understand the people, the language, the context and the culture. That level of understanding helps form relationships where the Great Commission is best lived out.
The Great Commission is best served in the context of relationship, and relationship only happens when there is mutual respect.
The film also explores the nature of what draws people to Christ. Is it the words you use or the way you live? How are your actions or your words followed by those you’re hoping to bring to Christ?
Eliza: Missionary work has often been critiqued for being imperialistic in its aims. To what extent does the film bolster this critique or question its legitimacy?
Tyler: I think the film may bolster the critique because it brings to light the air of cultural imperialism brought in by the Jesuits at that time and studies it. The Jesuit priests believe they have the answers and know the right ways of doing things. There is a feeling they are coming to these villagers who are suffering to be their saviors.
Still, the film is not all disparaging of mission. It shows the compassion and love of these two priests. And the film honors the strength and resilience of Japanese Christians. It also shows a growth in the priest Rodrigues as he learns about his own imperialistic tendencies.
Imperialism is a big word. It carries so many different connotations. Maybe it’d be better to talk about imperialism in this context as a worldview that stubbornly doesn’t adapt to cultural context.
Film as Lament
Eliza: The New York Times, the Washington Post, and BBC have reported the decimation of ancient Christian communities in the Middle East over the last decade. Torture and executions have been documented. What encouragement do you think this movie about events that happened roughly three centuries ago could have for persecuted Christian communities today?
Tyler: I think the film will give persecuted communities dignity by having the experience of suffering for faith brought to light. You’re exactly right that this couldn’t be a more timely film because religious persecution is rife in the world right now. Being able to tell true stories of persecution is important.
In the film, God reveals himself to Rodrigues and answers the question of where he is when it seems he’s silent. There is an answer. It’s a personal answer, but I think it will bring comfort to those who are suffering.
Eliza: The title of the novel and film seems to allude to lamentations of the Psalmist crying out to God who seems silent in the face of suffering: “Hear my prayer, Lord, and listen to my cry for help; do not be silent at my tears” (Psalm 39:12). Do you think the film could be understood as a lamentation in the face of persecution?
Tyler: Absolutely. Father James Martin, a Jesuit who was a consultant on the film, likened the film to a living prayer. The film is one big prayer, not only the way the film is paced, but also in the way Rodrigues talks to God throughout the film. There’s a narrative voice, both through letters and internal prayers, that lets you hear his spiritual struggle and his conversations with God.
Can faith be hidden and still be real? When you’re faced with impossible circumstances, how far does God’s grace extend?
Questions Compel a Spiritual Journey
Eliza: What has involvement with this project meant to you personally?
Tyler: There was a lot that happened behind the scenes that was my own “Silence” journey. This was a very difficult project. I learned the physical limits of stress. I handled the business side of the film, and while I contributed nothing to the creative side of things, I found there’s a lot of creativity in business. We had to be creative to get this film done. I’m proud of that.
It was amazing to have one of my first experiences of film with people at the top of their game. They told me, “You just cut your teeth on the hardest film we’ve ever worked on.” Working with them was special and totally undeserved.
The film is contemplative and it looks gorgeous. It’s a masterwork of film—a work of art. I have good feelings about the Oscars. Anyone that’s a film buff will love it. I can’t imagine anyone seeing this film and not being challenged by it.
Eliza: One of the actors, Andrew Garfield, who plays a Jesuit priest, suggests that he felt “called to this role as something I had to pursue for my spiritual development.” If an actor can say participation in a film can be a spiritual exercise, do you think that perspective can extend to the audience?
Tyler: I do. Authentic spiritual experiences start with a journey that usually starts with a question. The best art asks really compelling questions. Questions force people to think, to wrestle to find answers for themselves.
The gospel shines amidst scrutiny, and asking tough questions should be encouraged. Jesus provides the best example. So many of his parables ended in questions. The parable of the good Samaritan ends with a question. But the answer is there because of the implications of the story.
Silence is definitely a film that asks a lot of very challenging questions about the role of suffering in life. But I think God is there to answer our questions. And I think this film asks great questions. That’s got to help spiritual development.
Silence opens at select theaters on December 23 and will fully debut in the United States on January 6, 2017. The film, directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Jay Cocks, stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson.
Eliza Thomas is a writer with IMB. She has lived with her family in Central Asia for more than a decade.