Entry #1: The Personal

Note: This essay was written without a copy of Silence at hand and based off of recollections from two theatrical viewings, hence there may be more inaccuracies than usual.

It is, of course, conceited and undeniably inaccurate to claim that a film serves as an exact mirror to one’s life journey. Both a great movie and a person are inordinately complex, and it is impossible to truly distill either essence into a relatively uncomplicated and accurate summary. But nevertheless I feel a pull, a certain resemblance of my own experiences with faith and doubt in Silence, one that I think deserves some explication before I dive further into the movie’s many complexities.

I was born into a Christian family, and while I have never lived in Taiwan—the country of my heritage, and coincidentally the filming location for Silence—for more than a few weeks, there is nevertheless a strong sense of culture, both secular and nonsecular, that has been instilled by my family and communities throughout my life. I grew up going to church, first in an Chinese church in Seattle (that I am currently attending) and then, when my family moved to Southern California, to Saddleback Church, the famed megachurch. Moving from a small congregation of roughly three hundred to a gigantic conglomerate of twenty thousand had multiple effects on me, some for good and some for ill.

For one, I feel that I arrived at faith and religion early, probably too early. I declared my faith independently around the age of six or seven, and was baptized at the tender age of eight. As far as I can ascertain, most people are baptized as teenagers, and I can’t help but wonder if this early zealotry made my sense of doubt more acute as I grew up.

And I was, regrettably, a zealot of sorts, perhaps too much invested in the letter of the Bible and too little in the spirit. I went on a few medical mission trips with my family, and while I wasn’t necessarily the most interested in them (I’ve never been one for traveling), I did dedicate myself whole-heartedly while I was there. I was far too public about my beliefs and too inconsiderate of others, and only somewhat recently have I felt true remorse about what I did and how I did it.

All of this is to say that I relate strongly to the spirit, if not the letter, of the padres’ journey in Silence. Like them, I have gone through extreme periods of doubt (though mine are based more on the various cultures and communities I’ve been through), but more important is the manner in which this doubt has manifested itself. It does not lie in sudden moments or public declarations, but instead arises internally over a vast period of time. I am thinking specifically of that magnificent interlude, where Rodrigues prays alone on a grassy mountainside, overcome by loss as he tries to search for meaning in his suffering. To a religious person, the absence of God can feel like a total absence of life, and, as I stand now, religion is more than anything a quest for meaning, a desperate and hopefully fruitful attempt to survive in this world, something that I think Silence embraces as well.

Hopefully, I can refrain from this level of personal exorcism henceforth, but this series will be inextricably bound to my various identities. I (and hopefully you) wouldn’t have it any other way.

Statement of Intent

In my limited experience, there are two types of “favorite” films. This does not apply just to films that the viewer relates to on a personal level (although that plays a significant part) or to the towering masterpieces of cinema, but to a very particularly moving form of connection that the experience of watching and subsequent reflection activates in a viewer. These two types, described in terms of what each individual lover has to say, are as follows:

1. It is immensely difficult to articulate the nature of the film’s greatness or general quality for whatever reason. Usually, this seems to stem from more intimate movies, ones that are difficult to evaluate from an impersonal lens. They are usually films that lie closer to real life, in the small interactions and little snippets of dialogue.

2. The viewer has an inordinate amount of things to say about the film from a variety of self-imposed perspectives and aspects. This more often than not occurs concerning mammoth films that are clearly great, grandiose productions (not to be conflated with Farber’s conception of white elephant art, as these are usually incisive works), whether they be in the canon or not.

Obviously, this binary is, as all binaries are, reductive, and there are many of my favorite films that fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Nevertheless, all of them are aligned somewhat with these dual categorizations. More importantly, never have I felt the urge of the second type as strongly as I have with Silence, Martin Scorsese’s depiction of incredible, purposeful, and troubling faith in the most hostile of locales. It is a film that gives no quarter, leaves no stone unturned in its repeated questioning of its central character and by proxy the viewer, and what results is a kind of affirmation, a complicated ambiguity that feels irresistible.

It is perhaps only fair to lay out my rather considerable shortcomings in undergoing this venture of writing multiple long essays on this great film. I have seen a grand total of—at this time of writing—six Scorsese films, and among the unseen are a good deal of films both relevant (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, The Wolf of Wall Street) and not but still essential (Mean Streets, The Age of Innocence). I also have not seen Masahiro Shinoda’s version of Silence, nor Shūsaku Endō’s original novel, though I do know the context in which the latter was made. And of course, I am a neophyte of cinema at best, whose cursory knowledge vastly outstrips any benchmark of actual viewing.

So why do I want to tackle such an extraordinary film in such a brazen manner? The film’s majesty, of course, speaks for itself and even for someone as unlearned as me I want to discuss it. The decidedly mixed response of the consensus as a whole (in that the detractors have stated their opinions as vociferously as the supporters) is another reason. But certainly the strongest is my identity as an Asian Christian and the ways in which it deals with that ideal. Silence challenged and moved me in ways even religion cannot, and I relish any attempt to grapple with it further.

This project of sorts will take some time, and I anticipate that posts will come out irregularly. There is no set outline at this time, but each essay will attempt to tackle some different facet of Silence, some focusing on more technical sides and others on more theological issues.

For now, this is what I have to say about Silence. There will be many, many more words forthcoming, and I pray that they will not come in the form of unadulterated fawning, but as a testament to the glory of this truly monumental work.