Martin Scorsese would like us to see Silence as a film about religion — but its central issue is race

Malory Nye*

Perth, Scotland, 3 Januaary 2016 (Alochonaa):In many respects, the new Martin Scorsese epic Silence is a film that explores belief, faith, and religion (specifically Catholic Christianity). The director’s primary concern appears to be exploring the faith of a man of god in a hostile environment, when the hoped for divine voice is silent.

However, there is also a much more important theme to the movie — one which is hidden in plain sight. Scorsese’s Silence is first and foremost a twenty-first century exploration of race and empire. Ironically, perhaps, this takes on new and challenging meanings as we fearfully enter the age of Trump.

I do not mean this in any sense as an either/or between religion or race. The two are different sides of the same coin. That is, the idea of religion is primarily about exploring and classifying differences. It is about the exertion of power, to influence and control others. Likewise, the idea of race is also about how Europeans have constructed such differences.

These issues are central to the narrative of this movie.

How, after all, do we watch a film that has at its heart depictions of Japanese soldiers in prison camps, using increasingly unpleasant forms of torture on their subjects? We know this narrative so well already through film, even though in Silence we are in the 1640s not the 1940s.

John Foxe’s 1563 Book of Martyrs gives us an abundance of cases of Christians being tortured and executed because of their religion. Just one small example is the case of Helen Stark, who was drowned by a religious tribunal in Perth harbor in Scotland in 1544, apparently for the crime of failing to call on the Virgin Mary during childbirth.

So what is added to the story when the torture and violence is in Japan, and involves a naive European priest seeking to save souls?

This is where the issue of race comes in.

Silence is an adaptation of a book (of the same name) that Scorsese read two decades ago, by the Catholic Japanese writer Shusaku Endo. It tells the story of a young Portuguese Jesuit seeking both a mission and martyrdom in seventeenth century Japan, during a time of harsh punishments of Christians by the recently centralized Japanese state.

The English language translation of Endo’s book Silence (Chinmoku in Japanese, written in 1966) is faithfully rendered onto the screen by Scorsese and Jay Cocks, with perhaps the main innovation being a brief concluding epilogue that makes explicit what are otherwise rather ambiguous snippets in the book.

However, there is a fundamental difference between a book written in Japanese for a Japanese audience and a film written in English for consumption mainly in north America and Europe. Despite his meticulous exploration of the complex themes of Endo’s writing on faith and Christianity in Japan, the western audience will read the message of Scorsese’s version of the story through their own particular historical perspective.

That is, the film is about early European colonialism in Asia — whether we look at it in narrowly ‘religious’ terms, or otherwise.


It is not by chance or mere circumstance that the two Portuguese missionaries are in Japan in the 1640s. We see them first in the context of Portuguese Macao (Macau), an already established European colony in East Asia, at the end of a chain of such colonies linking back through Malacca, Goa, and Africa to Portugal. The presence of these two Jesuits might be ideological and primarily about faith, but they are also part of an army of Christian missionaries who represent, rely on, and also advance the colonial and commercial interests of the Portuguese empire.

In this context, they were no strangers to the use of coercive violence — against those who opposed such colonialism and also those who resisted or deviated from the religious power of the Catholic Church. Portugal had itself expelled its religious minorities in recent decades — including Jews, Muslims (Moriscos), and Protestant heretics. The Inquisition was indeed brought into Asia by the pioneering Francis Xavier, one of the earliest Jesuits, who traveled through India, southeast Asia, Japan, and China a century before in the 1540s.

Thus, although Endo’s Japanese novel is about reclaiming a hidden Christian history within Japan, this film serves more to educate a western audience about a forgotten element of the spread of Jesuit-based Catholicism in East Asia.

It could even be argued that it is about Japan’s successful resistance to European colonialism and domination during this time.

After all, the context of the film is the initial stage of the two-century ‘closing’ of Japan (sakoku or kaikin), strictly regulating the Europeans’ attempts to trade with, influence, and colonise parts of Japan. As elsewhere in Asia and America, the spread of Christianity was a very important part of such empire building. This closure was eventually ended by colonial powers through force, after the US sent gunships into Tokyo Bay in 1853.

The focus of Silence is on one particular man, Father Sebastian Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield), who is portrayed as young, idealistic, and struggling with his Christian faith. His mission begins in the company of a fellow Jesuit, Garrpe (played by Adam Driver), but they separate out of fear of capture.

By going to Japan, Rodrigues enters a situation in which he expects danger, torture, and quite possibly death. His narrative is one of becoming aware of his inability to link this to the main Christian stories of redemption through suffering — either Jesus in Gethsemane and on Golgotha, or the early Christian martyrs.

Always ahead of Rodrigues is the image of his teacher and mentor, Fr Chistavao Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson), who is reported as having refused martyrdom and instead accepted apostasy — a public refutation of his Christian faith to become a Buddhist. Although the character of Rodrigues is fictional, the bones of Ferreira’s story are historical.

Within this path to either martyrdom or apostasy is not merely the Jesuit’s fear of torture. Rodrigues also has to face and take responsibility for the torture and death of those who he is meant to be serving — the hidden Christians of Japan (Kakase Kirishitan). To what extent can a European Jesuit priest reconcile his self glorification in martyrdom and refusal to ‘apostatise’ against the pain and suffering of others because of him? By renouncing his faith he can save those others.

To Scorsese, this is primarily a matter of faith and theology — it is an exploration of the morality and piety of a man of faith. As Scorsese has written:

‘Rodrigues believes with all his heart he will be the hero of a Western story that we all know very well: the Christian allegory, a Christ figure, with his own Gesthemane — a patch of wood — and his own Judas, a miserable wretch named Kichijiro.

‘Silence is the story of a man who learns — so painfully — that God’s love is more mysterious than he knows, that He leaves much more to the ways of men than we realize, and that He is always present… even in His silence.’

But it is much more than this. Indeed in this case the religious is the political.

There is no pure kernel of theology in this narrative, it is about both an individual man’s and a European empire’s constructions of religion, race, and power. It is about the connection between white male European identity and Catholic Christianity within a seemingly alien environment, among a people (the Japanese) who are constructed as an alien and different race.

Rodrigues enters this narrative with a clear aim to be a white savior of souls. Indeed, he finds his most satisfying role when providing his priestly services to Japanese Christians held in a Nagasaki prison, where the threat of their torture and execution is ever present.

In his final dilemma — between martyrdom or apostasy — either decision he makes allows him to fulfill his destiny as male white savior within this colonizing context.

The focus on Rodrigues is part of the faithfulness of the film to the original novel. But it does put at a distance the complexities of the people this European Christian missionary has traveled so far to serve. In a film of over two and a half hours there is not enough space to provide a deep characterization on any of the Japanese characters, despite an excellent cast of actors who also bring some humorous relief to the density of the narrative.

The ambiguous Kichijiro (played by Yosuke Kubozuka) is the most complex — he is clearly a flawed person, although himself a Christian, he has ‘apostatised’ several times (to the extent it is joked about) and is flaky and untrustworthy enough to be cast by Rodrigues into the role of Judas. And yet, with comedic timing he turns up regularly demanding from the priest the opportunity to confess. He has that rare quality of being both dislikable and likable. At the same time, though, his role is to be part of Rodrigues’ own inner struggle.

There are several other key Japanese characters that contribute to Rodrigues’ apotheosis, including the Christian village elders Mokichi (played by the film director Shinya Tsukamoto) and Ichizo (Yoshi Oida), and the sinister and creepy Inquisitor/persecutor Inoue (played by Issey Ogatu).

Most notable for me, however, was the character of Inoue’s assistant who is simply known as the ‘Interpreter’ (played by Tadanobu Asano) whose role it is to translate between Inoue’s Japanese and Rodrigues’ Portuguese (rendered in the film as English).

In the novel, the Interpreter is seen very much through Rodrigues’ eyes, and so appears harsh and largely set on destroying him. However, in the film there is some sympathy for him — he is familiar with the vagaries of Portuguese mission and colonialism, and comes across as a contemporary anti-colonial firebrand. During scenes of torture and execution this Interpreter is upset, and expresses his regret. But he also affirms to Rodrigues the captors’ ideology that the use of violence to suppress Christianity is both necessary and avoidable, so long as the Jesuit does what he needs to do — that is, to apostatise.

And so for me, the key notes of the film are not in the questions of what happens to Rodrigues’ faith journey. These are subsumed within the wider issues that are explored in two scenes towards the end of the main narrative.

In the first of these, in a dialogue between Rodrigues and Inoue, the Inquisitor uses two metaphors to justify the Japanese response to the Portuguese. To quote from the book, in the words of the Inquisitor, Inoue:

‘[A man] had four concubines who constantly quarelled out of jealousy. Unable to bear it any longer, [he] ended up expelling all four from his castle.

‘… our whole Japan is just like this man… Spain, Portugal, Holland, England and such like women keep whispering jealous tales of slander into the ear of the man called Japan.’

The conversation then ends with a switch being made to this metaphor Inoue uses of Christians as a woman/wife:

‘Father, I want you to think over two things this old man has told you. One is that the persistent affection of an ugly woman is an intolerable burden for a man; the other, that a barren woman should not become a wife.’

The male-centered misogyny of these metaphors is left unchallenged, but the issue they allude to is clear. There is a regional power struggle going on, between the various colonial power. The centralized Japanese state wishes to maintain control in this situation and to ‘master’ it — as a man in the context of what is to him a troublesome marriage.

Building upon this, in Rodrigues’ eventual meeting with Fr Ferreira, the apostate Jesuit, attempts to convince the once idealistic Rodrigues of the futility of seeking to support Japanese Christianity.

Ferreira likens Japan to a ‘swamp’, in which the roots of Christianity cannot grow, since they will always rot away. Even the Christian communities that flourished briefly around Nagasaki in the sixteenth century were not successful, since Ferreira argues that their faith was based on falsehoods and misunderstandings. In particular, this Portuguese former Jesuit priest argues that the Japanese are not culturally disposed to Christianity, since they are more interested in ideas of humanness rather than divinity.

‘The Japanese are not able to think of God completely divorced from man; the Japanese cannot think of an existence that transcends the human.’

Indeed, these are the words put into Ferreira’s mouth by the Japanese writer Endo, who was himself a Catholic. We then read them through the English language translation of Endo’s novel, and then Scorsese’s dramatic visualization of the viewpoint that Endo is trying to explore.

In the end it comes down to race, culture, and ideas of difference.

Whether we agree with Ferreira, Endo, or Scorsese, this film is an English-language, American-produced narrative about the history of particular forms of European (specifically Portuguese) Catholic colonialism. The film explores that narrative with beautiful imagery, thoughtful characterization, and quite a degree of wit and humor.

But in as much as it focuses on the narrative of a single religious man’s faith development, it fails to challenge the much wider issues of race and empire that frame Rodrigues’ questions. In this respect, it is certainly a tale about the modern world.

And so, the narrative of Silence cannot simply be reduced to one particular person’s faith, finding his path through the silence and the voice of god — despite the best intentions of the director.

It is, instead, the much bigger historical, colonial picture that frames the meanings we should take from this exploration of the trials of Rodrigues and the people to whom he brings suffering.

What is presented to us as the religiously personal is in fact profoundly political, and the focus on his religion and faith is also very much a focus on European constructions of race and difference. Behind that is also the complexity of constructions of empire and its resistance.

I would have liked to see this made more explicit by Scorsese, even if it went against the grain of his desire to explore and represent the issues of faith that clearly fascinate him so much. His choice to make such a film about this particular colonial moment of Portuguese Catholic missionaries in Japan in the 1640s set him the mainly unfulfilled challenge of asking difficult questions not only of faith but about our assumptions on white racial identities that are highly relevant to the world we now find ourselves living in.

This discussion is also available as a podcast episode, on Malory Nye’s History’s Ink podcast series. Follow the link here to listen.

* Malory Nye is an independent academic, consultant and writer, affiliated with the Ronin Institute. He has a particular interest in multiculturalism, religion, diversity, and contemporary social issues. He is the author of Multiculturalism and Minority Religions in Britain, and Religion: the Basics, and he edits the journal Culture and Religion. His website is at

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

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