Martin Scorsese is undoubtedly one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. The overview of his filmography impresses one not just with the number of excellent films, but also with the diversity of the genres that it treats. Perhaps unfairly, reviewers of his work often focus on his gangster movies with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. But the filmmaker has shown a great sense of rhythm, an ease in the direction of actors, a pronounced taste for the gloomy and the tragic, and flamboyant staging in genres as diverse as comedy (“The King of Comedy,” 1983), film noir (“After Hours,” 1985), thriller (“Cape Fear,” 1991 and “Shutter Island,” 2010) and the fairy tale (“Hugo,” 2011).
His most recent offering, the much-anticipated “Silence,” is a worthy addition to the Scorsese oeuvre. Like so many of his other films, it is marked by spectacular cinematography, outstanding performances from both lead and supporting actors, a gripping narrative, and enough thematic complexity to keep you thinking for a long time.
Silence, based on the 1966 Shusako Endo novel of the same name, is about two 15th-century Portuguese Jesuits, Rodrigues (Andrew Garefield) and Garupe (Adam Driver), who travel to Japan to find their mentor, Ferreria (Liam Neeson), a priest who is rumored to have renounced the Christian faith, or apostatized.
The movie focuses on Rodrigues, and while Scorsese’s film is about many things, it’s primarily about whether Rodrigues should deny Christ and save the life of his followers. Garfield’s character is called to traverse a series of cruel temptations that will test his faith and his perception of Christian living. As a missionary, he wishes to bring the good news of the Gospel to the Japanese but soon realizes that his presence and teaching puts his flock in danger of being persecuted and killed by the Japanese inquisition.
Placed before such a paradox, how should the Christian act? Should he seek to preserve the life of the humble poor by denying them the divine truth (while at the same time risking damning their souls), or should he seek instead to save as many souls as possible (while at the same time risking leading converts to death)?
Silence is a film whose narrative progression resembles the Way of the Cross. For some, like the Japanese martyrs crucified by the sea, it is an imitation of Christ. For others, like Rodrigues and Ferreira, it ends with their trampling on the image of Jesus. And when Rodrigues does so, a cock crows in the distance (cf. Luke 22:54-62).
Scorsese seems to ask: What would you do when asked to step on a sacred image of Christ if doing so would save the lives of others? Christians are hanging upside down in a pit filled with excrement, slowly bleeding to death from the small incisions on their necks, and only you can save them. All you have to do is stamp your foot on an icon depicting Jesus. What would you do?
To me, as a Christian and as an Armenian, this struggle between apostasy and martyrdom evokes the tragic years of the Armenian Genocide at the beginning of the 20th Century.
There are many accounts of the Armenian Genocide where the Ottoman perpetrators promised to spare the lives of Armenians if they denied Christ and converted to Islam. Yet with unwavering and resolute conviction, the Christian Armenians embraced martyrdom, for to them “to live was Christ and to die was a gain” (cf. Phil. 1:21).
One of the most interesting accounts is the story of the Armenian doctor and poet Ruben Sevak. Many records testify that the martyr-doctor indeed preferred to accept death in confessing his faith rather than to renounce it and live in shame. In Chankri, where he was exiled, he cured the daughter of an Ottoman official. In gratitude to the doctor, the Ottoman official suggested Sevak convert to Islam and marry his daughter to save his life. However, Sevak remained steadfast in his faith, even in the most terrible suffering. Moreover, he encouraged others to be firm in their faith and in their Armenian heritage.
And this is not an accident or an isolated case. Witnessing to Christ through martyrdom is intertwined with the life of our people. Our people's history is marked with deprivation, persecution, and violence. Driven by the conviction "conscious death is immortality" and recalling the words of Abraham’s sacrifice, our people always exclaimed: “Receive, o Lord our voluntary sacrifice and let not this wicked prince subject Thy Church to scorn and ridicule.” (Eghishe, The history of Vardan and the Armenian War, Yerevan, 1957, p. 123).
From Avarayr to the Genocide, Armenians remained unshaken and firm in their conviction “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:39)
Indeed, the thousands of Catholic and Japanese martyrs and the million of Armenian martyrs of the Genocide, saints one and all, perished because they refused to apostatize—because they believed their lives, though ending in agony, were redeemed by the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Eternal joy awaited them.
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