The main question I want to ask about this film is “How could the Padres’ apostasy been made less probable?”
My theses are: (1) They should not have come as Padres (2) they should have dropped Catholic relics (3) they should have undergone a more thorough philosophical training with special emphasis on Japan’s Buddhism to meet the intellectual challenges (4) they should have dropped all notions of ‘wedding’ Japan to the Church, but rather seek to bring individuals to Christ.
(1), (2) and (4) stand in connection to Roman Catholicism as a religious system. As to (1): their coming as “Padres”, an office of special importance, made it more likely for the simple Japanese farmers to idolize them (that is not to say that that really happened, just that it was more likely that it happened). The result would be that indeed at least some Japanese Christians died for the Padres and not for Christ, which would confirm Padre Ferreira’s and the Inquisitor’s arguments. Concerning (2): The relics the Padres brought with them made it more likely that the Japanese hung their faith on those material objects rather than stretch themselves so that they would trust in the invisible God. Ferreira brings up the importance of this point by pointing out that the Japanese “cannot imagine anything beyond nature” and that the sun was their “Son of God”.
Option (4) concerns the problematic attempt to mix the Gospel with some kind of territorial claim. It is there that the conversation between Rodrigues and the Inquisitor goes astray. To that point, they were talking about universal truth. But then, the Inquisitor brings up the parable of the concubines, which Rodrigues should have analyzed and rejected as irrelevant. But he jumps on the bandwagon, suggesting that Japan be wedded to one woman, namely the Holy Church. Of course, this is a miserable argument. Why should it convince the Inquisitor? He thinks badly of the Church, why should he suddenly free the way to make it Japan’s bride?
That brings me to the central point. Especially in the conversations with the Inquisitor’s servant and Ferreira, it becomes evident that Rodrigues has no defense against the corrosive effect (on his own faith) of a seemingly peaceful religion that is just “what befits Japan”. Buddhism seems so tolerant, as the Inquisitor says: “In Spain and Portugal, Christianity may work, but not here”.
The persecutors constantly compare Japan to a swamp in which “nothing grows” (nothing – except Buddhism?). But first, this metaphor pertains only to Japan’s spiritual receptiveness, not to the truth of Christianity. Also, strangely, the Padres are asked to deny their faith – which is odd, given the Inquisitor’s conviction that Christianity would be ineffective in Japanese ‘soil’. This is as if someone asserts disbelief in homeopathy and yet demands its adherents to publicly renunciate their beliefs and have all homeopathic substances disposed of. Moreover, if the Padres’ religion were not a matter of truth, and given that the Japanese authorities had a good reason for wanting to have its effects curtailed (e.g., that it was simply a nuisance for them, as Jehovah’s witnesses and other sects are to modern people), a simple “mission stop agreement” would have sufficed, would it not? But instead, the Padres are asked to repeat that denial regularly and to not speak of Christianity (at least they stop doing it) but instead help to identify forbidden Christian symbols in the freight of Dutch ships. Finally, Ferreira points out that the Japanese couldn’t believe in anything beyond nature (which may be mistaken), but why does he himself abandon Christianity? Obviously, he finds Buddhism more compelling, but never claims that explicitly.
There remains a bedlam of unanswered questions and contradictions. One gets the impressions that the Padres are helpless – in a way, silent – when it comes to showing that Christianity’s claims are for all manking, that the roots of their faith go deep into the common soil of humanity.
Rodrigues finally denies Christ publicly, apparently being encouraged to do so by Jesus himself. The argument seems to be that public denial is not that crucial after all, and that Jesus, being familiar with being trodden upon, ‘can take that one more blow’. How this can be squared with the Christ of the New Testament who says “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33) is beyond my ken.
What remains of this film is the insipid aftertaste of a crushing defeat of Christianity, which is depicted like a ‘cobbler who should have sticked to its trade’. This seems to be Scorsese’s image of Christianity – what is left of it after it has been purged in the furnace of Japanese rejection is this: a wholly private matter. The conclusion could hardly be embodied better than through Rodrigues, who, after being silent about Christianity after his denial, still takes a small cross amulet into his grave. Silence is indeed an apt title for this film – although at the end one may wonder whether it applies to God’s alleged silence or to the silencing and eventual silence of his messengers.