Reflections on Two Movies about Faith

Where is God when you need him most? Why is there senseless suffering, the crippling trials undergone by good people, of men and women who committed themselves sincerely to follow God’s will? When you call on God, waiting for an answer, is there someone listening to you or are you only “praying to silence?” What use is there in keeping the faith and relying on its promises when you feel abandoned and alone, and no one cares, not even God?

Two movies explore these themes with tremendous luminiscence and sensitivity that it will be impossible not to feel yourself asking the same questions the characters intoned.  One movie is about European priests propelled by burning fervor for missionary work in faraway Japan at the time when no outside religion was allowed to establish a foothold. The other one concerns contemplative nuns of the Benedictine Order who experienced first hand the cruel intrusion of the war and eventual occupation of their country Poland, first by the murderous Germans, and then the ruthless Russians.

Silence (2016), by renowned director Martin Scorsese, was the fulfillment of a dream that went through a thirty-year gestation period. Based on the novel of Japanese writer, Shusako Endo, the film returns to an encouragingly heroic but dangerous period of Japanese evangelization by European missionaries.

The Japanese peasants, worn out by a life of enslavement and whimsical treatment from their country’s landlords on the one hand, and warlords on the other, find a safe haven in the captivating promise of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. They experience the mercy of God through dedicated men of the cloth, the Padres, whose missionary fervor convinced the Japanese of their sincerity and good intentions. The newfound faith in Christ lifts their gaze up to heaven where there awaits the sweet pledge of eternal life, of Paraiso, an altogether different life from the base existence they have known from their birth.

As Christianity steadily flourished, an ominous sense of protectionism overwhelms the country and the new situation prohibits the introduction of any foreign religion that might pose as pretext for foreign invasion. Besides, the Shogunate insists that Japan has its own religious heritage, its revered monasteries teeming with Buddhist monks whose wise counsels teach people how to live orderly and well. There is no need for another faith, certainly not a foreign one. The film does not delve into the political reason for the banning of Christianity, a historical footnote that is merely taken as the silent background.

In the setting of persecution, the Christian religion suffers, but it also celebrates. This is the occasion to bear witness, to make martyrs, to produce enduring models that will strenghten the faithful to uphold their faith and to cling to it with all the energy they could muster. Martyrs, from both the clergy and the common converts, become the seeds of a tenacious and flourishing community.

Japanese authorities were quick to learn of the attraction and power of martyrdom for Christians. They have killed missionaries by various modes of torture. These have only served to ignite the fervor of the believers and make intrepid future missionaries among those who witnessed the sacrifices. So the wise Japanese authorities devised a novel approach against the missionaries and their Christians, the Kirishitan. Rather than kill them, they will force them to apostatize, to renounce their faith in public, to shamefully admit their mistake. In that way, fear and humiliation will pull out the roots and slowly the branches will wither.

Two young missionaries, idealistic and zealous classmates from Portugal, come to Japan in search of their Jesuit confrere and mentor, Fr. Ferreira, who reportedly succumbed to apostasy after going through crushing torture. Not only did he renounce the faith; he was also now living in comfort, with a wife and family, and was employed in some way by the authorities. Incredulous at this report, Fathers Rodriguez and Garrupe, set out for Japan to bring back the elderly Ferreira to the fold or at least verify the reports circulated about him. A proud but untested Christian formation secretly lead them in their hearts to seek to revive Ferreira’s faith and restore him back to his senses.

Arriving in Japan, the pair begins to know firsthand the exhilaration of fearless missionaries, as they observe the determination of Japanese Christians to remain loyal to their faith. Deprived of priests for so long, however, they also begin to question whether these people really understood the faith they profess. One thing is sure though, the Christians put the two priests to shame by their bravery to endure death by torture, burning, drowning and tormenting interrogations.

One of the priests, Garrupe who refused apostasy to the end, meets his death by drowning when he attempts to save the lives of his people who were thrown into the sea. The other, Rodriguez, lives to fulfill the original desire to know the truth behind Ferreira’s rumored defection from Christianity. Rodriguez himself will go through the same ordeals that Ferreira suffered, and he will understand firsthand the reason why his old professor and confessor chose the road no known missionary has travelled before.

Rodriguez undergoes “soft” martyrdom as he is slowly coaxed to apostatize, to step on the image of Christ as a sign of his revocation of faith and as a signal for the Christians to follow suit. His is a vicarious suffering, for the Christians dear to him were subjected to terrible treatment and constant threat of death right before his eyes, while he was spared their physical asphyxiation. It is now a question of his pride against the lives of his brothers and sisters in the faith. If he proves to be stubborn in upholding what his religion teaches, the people die. If he surrenders out of love for them, they live and return home in peace. But then he loses his soul.

In this situation Rodriguez’ faith is stripped to its barest minimum. He has no more companion, no freedom, no consolation, no chance of rescue or escape, no hope of performing the mission he has come to do. His one resource, and the last, is prayer. The priest turns to God for help to spare his people from the pain. He turns to God to ask him to speak clearly to him and rescue him from his desolate condition. He prays in words, in thought, in tears.  He prays only “to silence.”

Witnessing a series of tortures and martyrdoms of his lowly flock, including that of his friend Fr. Garrupe, Rodriguez begins to ask a string of questions: “Why do they have to suffer so terribly? Why do the answers I give them seem so weak? Did God hear their screams? How can I explain the silence of God to these people who love him so much? Why can’t I understand it myself?” As he receives no answer, the priest wrestles with the scandalous silence of God.

If the first film features the faith of priests, the second one portrays the shocking saga of consecrated virgins given to prayer, silent work, and sacrifice for the sins of the world. Released first in Europe as Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), this highly acclaimed film goes by the title The Innocents (2016), in its American release. While Scorsese’s film was based on a novel that was, in turn, inspired by the real history of Japan’s “hidden Christians,” this movie about nuns was loosely-based on the diary of a lady doctor of the French Red Cross who became an unlikely ally of the community in their time of great trial.

 The period is post-Second World War Poland, now invaded by Russia. The dreaded Russian Red Guards are known all over Europe for their unconscionable rampant raping of women and girls, believing it their right and prize for their wartime heroics. As they descend on an idyllic village, the soldiers thrice paid a visit to the secluded convent of contemplative sisters. None was spared, from the young novices to the elderly Mother Superior. The young ones become pregnant, while the superior contracts an egregious virus.

Throughout their ordeal, the Sisters live in fear, isolation and helplessness. Because of the war, there is no priest to minister to them with the sacraments. They cannot turn to their neighbors for help out of fear of ridicule, spite and the social stigma attached to their degrading experience. They are also in constant threat of the closure and suppression of their community. Relying only on liturgical monastic prayer, and on one another’s determination to survive and keep the community intact, the Sisters courageously seek to rise from the darkness of their shared ordeal.

The central character of the movie, the doctor Mathilde, breaks into the enclosure of the Sisters, to offer medical help to a young nun in labor, without her knowing the mystery the monastery tries to keep from the outside world. She survives the cold-treatment and suspicion of the superior and soon gains the trust of the nuns for her dedicated involvement in their lives.

Mathilde discovers and deeply shares the horrors the nuns went through after she herself was accosted and almost raped by Russian soldiers one night while driving back to her Red Cross camp. Soon she delivers all the babies in the convent with the help of a male Jewish doctor on her team.

Unlike the nuns who are deeply spiritual women, Mathilde was raised by Communist parents and does not share the faith of the women she was rescuing. However, her experience with the Sisters draws her to suffer emotionally with them and to admire the ingenious attempts of these helpless women to make sense of their suffering and construct their lives again from the ashes of degradation.

A young novice jumps to her death in longing for the baby she lost. Another accidentally gives birth alone in her room because she did not even know she was carrying a child. There are varying reactions to the arrival of every baby, from rejection to acceptance to willingness to give it up for adoption.

Through it all, Mathilde is privileged to observe closely the struggles of faith the nuns experience amidst tears, suppressed screams, and gnawing questions. Was this brutality part of God’s will? What do they do with the added responsibility of new life? Has God the Father now abandoned his daughters and refuses to hear their cries? Is faith really “twenty four hours of doubt for one minute of hope?”

These questions drive a nun to forego what little faith she still had, while another opts to leave the convent in search of another meaningful path. For the majority however, the film pays tribute to the superb way a believer wrestles with awful moments in life.

The film reinforces our admiration for the real courage and internal strength of vowed religious women, often taken by society for simple-minded and escapist persons. It also leads us into an area of their lives we least suspect to be vulnerable – their faith in God amidst concrete trials. In this, they are very much like all the rest of God’s people.

The silence of God – that is a strange mystery. In many ways the experience of the idealistic priests in Silence and the pure nuns of The Innocents is shared by many people today who cling to religious faith. What is the good God saying about the suffering brought about by life-threatening disease, the breakdown of relationships, the crisis of families, the ordeal of innocents, the fragility of human efforts? We pray and ask, cry and plead, shout and call out to heaven. God speaks no word.

The silence of God is not the sole experience of people today. This was the lot too, of Jesus of Nazareth as he hung on the cross, desperately crying out to a Father who seemed to be present everywhere except on his Son’s Calvary. Thus, from the lips of Jesus, borrowed from his mastery of the Psalms (22), he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” – the verse of abandonment!

After a life of successful ministry in powerful words and wondrous deeds, the Son of God turns for consolation to his Father who refuses to say anything. What about just one more word, like that on the banks of the Jordan or on top of Mount Tabor, an assuring word that he truly was the “beloved?”

The night before the crucifixion, at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus wrestled with this same void. Filled with dread at his coming betrayal, arrest and passion, he pleaded to his Father for dear life, that the cup would pass from him. It will not pass, and nobody will help him; not his disciples, not his Father. But Jesus’ prayer is not without effect. Fighting his sorrow and his fear, he is back on his feet resolute to welcome the hour that approaches. He was ready to face his betrayer, to meet his oppressors, to embrace his cross.

The cry from the lips of Jesus crucified was not a cry of despair; he was still calling God “my God.” At the last moment, he did not turn his back on the Father, for he knew that he was there, silent and hidden, but receiving his sacrifice and accompanying him. Jesus was teaching us that in the moment of greatest difficulty, when God is silent or hidden (Deus absconditus), our response must be a more ardent faith, a more trusting hope, and a more abundant love. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus experienced the complete human condition of suffering; that he was like us in all things but sin. Jesus did not fall into the sin of letting go of God.

Given the silent treatment from God, did the missionary or the nuns plunge into a despair of faith? In the Scorsese film the priest Rodriguez seemed to have lost all vestiges of faith, at least in the eyes of his captors’ watchful guard; except that in truth he secretly held on to a tiny symbol of God’s love for him until his final day on earth. In the convent, where a dark veil cast gloom on the faces of the nuns, daily life is lived with a peaceful mien and a beaming smile that is well worth captured on a photograph. The silence of God on the cross is prelude to the silence of the empty tomb.

 Fr. Ramil R. Marcos