This film offers a glimpse into a forgotten part of history: the persecution of Christians in Japan. Although the story is fictional it references places and events in the 17th Century. The Roman Catholic Church first sent missionaries to Japan in 1540, along with Portugese traders. Christianity flourished, in particular in Nagasaki and the surrounding districts. It's claimed that by the end of the 16th Century almost everyone in Nagasaki was a Christian. The Japanese government outlawed Christianity in 1587, but this wasn't enforced at first due to local governors being Christian. In February 1597 persecution began with the crucifixion of 26 Christians, a mixture of foreign missionaries and local preachers. The initial murder of Christians made the church flourish, and by the early 17th Century the Japanese government preferred to ask Christians to publicly give up their faith rather than kill them. Any Christians who didn't immediately recant were tortured until they changed their minds, for instance by being covered with boiling water or by being hung upside down while their blood was drained from small cuts.
The film begins in 1640. Two Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) travel to Japan to search for their former teacher, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has disappeared for 15 years. When they arrive in Goto, near Nagasaki, they're astonished to find a large Christian community. At first the priests are hidden by the villagers, but eventually they're captured by samurai led by the inquisitor Inoue. The inquisitor offers freedom to anyone who publicly renounces Christianity by standing on a picture of Jesus, but those who refuse are beheaded.
After Rodrigues is forced to watch Garupe being killed by drowning, he's entertained in comfort by Inoue. He's fed well and the two engage in daily theological debates. Inoue doesn't believe that Christianity is wrong, he just believes that it's "wrong for Japan". He says that the people of Europe need Christianity, but Buddhism is better for Japan. He goes on to explain that even the Japanese Christians realise this by adapting Christianity to their previous beliefs. When Japanese missionaries arrived in Japan they called their God Deus, because the Japanese language contained no word for a supreme God. The Japanese were confused by this foreign word, so they translated Deus into their own language as Dainichi, the word for the Sun. To Inoue this means that the Japanese Christians are really praying to the Sun.
Inoue has no intention of killing Rodriques. He wants him to publicly renounce his faith as an example for the Japanese Christians. When he's unable to persuade Rodrigues by friendly discussions he resorts to pressure. Inoue no longer frees the Japanese Christians who renounce their faith. They have to be tortured until Rodrigues gives up his faith. Inoue tells Rodrigues that his stubbornness is causing hundreds of death.
The silence in the film's title is God's silence. How can God remain silent when his followers are suffering so much?
Christianity is the religion of a silent God. Its believers are called on to have faith, believing in someone that they can't see or hear. This leads non-believers to mock them. because they say the reason that they can't see or hear God is because he doesn't exist.
Let's just assume for a moment that God does exist. Let's assume that God is sitting observing his followers and isn't answering them. Why not? The official answer of Christianity is that it's a test of their faith. That's a weak answer. For me the answer is that God is weak and foolish. God's silence has led to thousands of years of war and suffering. God's silence (assuming that he's the Christian God) has led to his religion being corrupted by superstition and hate. God's silence has allowed new, even more corrupt religions to rise up.
Maybe God is unable to answer. That's forgivable. Maybe he's dead, as Friedrich Nietzsche claimed. Maybe God got bored of the Earth and wandered off to create another planet somewhere else. Maybe God isn't omnipresent, and he's currently sitting in Alaska chatting to an Eskimo. That's a lucky Eskimo. If God travels round the world talking to one person at a time I can tell you that he hasn't got round to me yet.
I'm not an atheist. Far from it. All the evidence points to the fact that one or more Gods walked the Earth at some time in the past. So where is God now? I sincerely hope God isn't watching the world at the moment, because if he is watching us in silence he's an evil being who has to take full responsibility for the world's suffering.
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