Having decided not to watch Split due to its depiction of a cross-dressing male psychopath, and the resulting feelings of discomfort this would give me in a cinema, I went instead for Martin Scorsese's Silence. This had the kind of existential quest narrative in a far-away land that I could watch in detachment. Not being religious, I also wondered how it would deal with an issue that fascinates me, the 'communication' that religious people have with God – what do they get in return for their prayers? Do they hear a voice? Or a set of thoughts? Or does it come down to symbols and signs (a Bible falling open to a certain page)?
The film shows a Christian missionary (played by Andrew Garfield) and his defiant faith; as the title suggests, he gets little in return for his prayers. He anguishes over the torture and executions of Japanese Christians, and in the end, PLOT SPOILER, they break him. Or do they? The final scene leaves this open, and with it the question, what is it to be broken anyway?
This is a film to provoke questions. What is it that would feel like selling out, to me? The Welsh language? Wales itself? Trans rights? I read about the Cultural Revolution in China, and how young activists broke a passionate Marxist – insufficiently loyal to Mao – by making him burn his own beloved collection of books. He never recovered. I guess selling out is a personal thing; in Orwell's 1984, the sell-out involves two lovers, the one denouncing the other. The most savage sell-out is of the ones you love, perhaps, and because of this, I think 1984 has the more harrowing depiction.
Silence is also a film that relies on its awesome cinematography; you don't get much background, the director wanting you to fill in the gaps. The film doesn't explain why Japan so ruthlessly persecuted Christians, but I can understand why they did (if not the horrific techniques); the colonialization of a people's loyalties, the authority of the Emperor Under Heaven challenged by the Pope. Spirituality may be beautiful, but religion is political; see how Saudi Arabia attacks any minor neighbour with pretensions towards establishing a Shia state. See what the Spanish Inquisition did to non-Christians. The film doesn't explore the double-sided complexity of missionaries trying to convert a foreign people to the might of Rome; in the end this is a film about faith and being confronted by its painful logic: for it to be faith, you're relying on trust, not on evidence.
First conclusion on the film: we don't really get whether God answers the missionary's prayers. We get a voice, calm and mature, but is it God or the missionary's imagining of what God would sound like? Is the voice of God a subjective affair? Based on all the different interpretations of God, all the terrible things done in His name, it might have been intriguing to explore this idea of the voice of God further.And one more conclusion for myself, perhaps: if the sight of Japanese Christians being tortured, being crucified, is so harrowing for Garfield's missionary, why then is he inspired by the crucifix of Christ? It's strange to be so appalled by the sight of one, and so infatuated by the other, when it's effectively the same. Is there the suggestion that Christ's suffering is – when you're really faced with the reality – less inspiring than simply horrific? Is the crucifix really a symbol worth worshipping? Having grown up with it in a Christian country, it suddenly strikes me as a strange thing to have as the ultimate symbol of our civilization.