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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life




On March 24, 2017, the Boisi Center hosted a screening and panel discussion of Silence, a film by Martin Scorsese. The panel, moderated by Boisi Center interim director Erik Owens, featured Hitomi Omata Rappo, a visiting researcher at Boston College’s Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies; Robert A. Maryks, associate professor of history at Boston College and associate director of the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies; and Richard Blake, S.J., professor of film studies at Boston College.

silence book image

Silence, based on the novel of the same name by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, tells the story of seventeenth-century Portuguese Jesuits who faced persecution as missionaries in Japan. The film follows priests Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) as they search for Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), their mentor who is presumed to have renounced his faith after being tortured. As Rodrigues and Garupe travel through Japan, they must remain invisible to avoid captured for spreading an illicit and seditious religion

Throughout the film, the contrast between Western and Eastern culture and religion becomes apparent as many Japanese Christians face brutal torture and death. Rodrigues’s missionary work is halted when his Japanese guide Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a Christian who apostatized to avoid death, betrays him to Inquisitor Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata). Since Rodrigues himself was impervious to torture, the governor tortures Rodrigues’s fellow Christians, saying their anguish will only end if the priest renounces Christ. To save his fellow Christians, Rodrigues apostatizes and spends the rest of his life in Japan living as a Buddhist. The practice of his faith is cloaked in ambiguity, but in the final scene, Rodrigues is cremated according to Buddhist tradition while holding a small contraband crucifix.

andrew garfield
hitomi omata rappo

After the screening, Rappo opened the panel with insight into the historical context of the film, Endo’s relationship to the story, and an interpretation of Scorsese’s message. Rappo also addressed questions of historical accuracy in the film. For example, she explained that the scenes depicting torture in the film should not be taken as exact representations of reality: the scenes exaggerated certain techniques, while excluding others that were commonly used. Rappo explained how Endo saw himself in his characters, particularly in the character of Kichijiro. The erstwhile Christian represents a paradox of faith and human weakness and is a literary Judas-figure. According to Rappo, Silence highlights a struggle for understanding across cultures, questions conquest as a means of missionizing, and elaborates upon internal dilemmas of faith and morality. Rappo concluded that Scorsese portrays the act of martyrdom as a selfish act, which mirrors Endo’s own interpretation.


Next, Maryks compared Scorsese’s film to the Japanese adaptation of Silence, directed by Masahiro Shinoda in 1971. The main differences are not in plot, but in what was highlighted. For example, Scorsese focuses on the Jesuit mission of service to others when Rodrigues confronts his fantasy that his suffering is Christ-like and realizes that his inaction will not save the innocent Japanese Christians who are being killed. The Japanese adaptation highlights more explicitly the cultural discord between the missionaries and the Japanese. Maryks noted the contrast between Scorsese’s music-less soundtrack to Shinoda’s Iberian guitar and “exotic” vocal sounds. To this end, Maryks found Scorsese’s film a helpful depiction of historical events that scratches the surface of some of the more complicated theological considerations of mission and martyrdom.

richard blake, sj

Finally, Blake explored Silence from a film critic’s perspective. An expert on Catholic directors who has written several books on Scorsese, Blake noted that the film was a box office failure and criticized Scorsese for using the same plot patterns on many of his films. Blake attributed much of the film’s problems to a seemingly self-indulgent edit and a more methodical pace reminiscent of an earlier generation of cinema. Drawing attention to the repeated scenes of apostatizing and brutal violence, he described many of the scenes as “torture porn” that did not serve a clear purpose in developing the themes or plot.

Blake’s perspective was a helpful segue into the question and answer portion of the panel, in which many attendees shared comments and raised questions based on their initial reactions to the film. Questions included the effectiveness of translating a deeply introspective book to film, the accuracy of theological elements, the exotification of Japanese characters, and the meaning of the priesthood.


Photos by MTS Photography