When I was a teenager, I was smitten by a beautiful girl from the Bronx. I thought we were going to get married, and I prayed to God that it all would work out. Thank God, God did not answer my prayers. If He did, I would have led a very different life from the one I lead now.
Many years later, I heard a song by Garth Brooks called “Unanswered Prayers.” Its lyrics spoke to me: “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers/ Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs/ That just because He doesn’t answer doesn’t mean He don’t care/ Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”
Silence, Martin Scorsese’s personal project in which he was a writer, producer, and director, deals with the matter of unanswered prayers in a very serious film about faith and how it is tested in times of crisis. The film opens as two Jesuit priests. Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe, are discussing the fate of their mentor, Father Ferrara, who they are told renounced his faith and now lives in Japan with a wife and child. The young priests cannot comprehend this and want to find Ferrara and determine for themselves his fate and clear his name.
The setting is 17th century feudal Japan where there is a raging theological battle between ancient Japanese religions and Christianity. Christianity is viewed as a dangerous and subversive force, and it is the target of a governmental official known as the Inquisitor who wants to uproot it from Japan.
Rodrigues and Garupe arrive in Japan and witness terrible atrocities visited upon Christians who do not symbolically renounce their faith publicly by stepping on an image of Jesus.
Rodrigues’ faith in God weakens when he sees people suffering and God is seemingly silent, indifferent to their pain. The Japanese officials tell him that if he renounces his faith, the people will be spared from more afflictions. The inquisitor regards Rodrigues as the leader and role model, and if he apostatizes, then the others will follow his example.
As tortures mount, Rodrigues’ crisis of faith intensifies. He wonders how God can be so silent in face of the agony of so many sincere Christians. His eventual meeting with Ferrara is complex, revealing ambivalence about religious certainties and it does not resolve his crisis of faith.
The question of why bad things happen to good people is one of the most difficult questions for people of faith. Suffering often leads to loss of faith, and that is the overarching enigma with which Silence deals.
Rabbi Noach Weinberg writes that one way to understand the mysterious ways of God is to accept the reality of eternity. Man only has finite vision and can only see the present; only God can see past, present, and future. From the aspect of eternity, pain on earth looks different because there is more to life than life on earth.
Rodrigues experiences an epiphany when at a moment of deep despair, he exclaims to God: “I feel so tempted to despair. I’m afraid. The weight of your silence is terrible. I pray, but I’m lost. Or am I just praying to nothing? Nothing. Because you are not there.” At that moment, he hears the voice of Jesus say: “I have suffered beside you. I was never silent,” to which Rodrigues responds: “It was in the silence that I heard your voice.”
Silence is a complicated film dealing with issues of religious faith that are seldom dealt with in commercial movies. It reflects a sensitive soul trying to come to terms with unsolvable matters. The beauty of it is in its refusal to give pat answers to complex ideological questions. In that sense, Silence reveals a Jewish sensibility which says that asking the question may be more important than finding the answer.