In the film Silence, the character of Rodriguez, played by Andrew Garfield, exists simultaneously as a Christ figure and Judas figure. The most pronounced instance of him being framed as the former is when he sees his reflection morph into the face of Christ while drinking from a stream. Yet like the movie itself, even this scene opens up a prism of interpretations if you mark it as an allusion to the Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image as mirrored in a pool of water.
The film certainly raises the possibility that Rodriguez, with all his priestly pride, holds a touch of narcissism. It’s not always clear if it’s the film or just him as a character who equates his own suffering with that of Christ. His former teacher turned tormenter, Father Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson, uses this image of suffering as leverage against him, encouraging him to overcome his messiah complex and become a true life-saver by apostatizing and rescuing the Japanese Christians that he — with his stubborn belief in the importance of his mission — has doomed to torture and death.
RODRIGUEZ AS A CHRIST FIGURE
Before that, however, as Rodriguez is being brought to Nagasaki, he is shown riding through a bustling street on the back of a donkey, much like Christ riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. There’s also the way he looks: his Jesus beard and robes. Moreover, his relationship with the character of Kichijiro has an overt Jesus-Judas dynamic to it, with Kichijiro being the betrayer who sells him out repeatedly.
Seen as a miserable, drunken wretch when we first meet him, Kichijiro later sits apart from the other Japanese Christians in their cell, but even though he is foul-smelling, Rodriguez shows him mercy, going over to his side of the cell and acting as a confessor to him. At the end of the movie, Rodriguez identifies himself as “a fallen priest.” Kichijiro, with whom he has formed an odd intimacy by now, says, “But you are the last priest left.”
As noted in this episode of The America Media Podcast, the very fact that Rodriguez is the country’s last priest would almost seem to position him as its high priest. By emptying himself out and taking on the aspect of Kichijiro in order to save others, he has effectively mimicked the kenosis of Christ, abandoning his own will and submitting himself to the will of the divine.
In a sense, Rodriguez is to Kichijiro as Christ is to Rodriguez. There are levels upon levels of meaning to this story, which director Martin Scorsese sought to adapt for the big screen after reading the classic Shusaku Endo novel on a bullet train bound for Kyoto, Japan in 1989. He was there to film a part as Vincent Van Gogh in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, but the specter of controversy from his own film, The Last Temptation of Christ, also loomed over him.
In that movie, Christ was portrayed as weak and Judas was portrayed as strong. It was an inversion of the confident Christ — the miracle-worker who spoke with authority — and the opaque, suicidal Judas that the New Testament of the Bible depicts. The inversion was meant to be a metaphor for the internal struggle humans experience. Scorsese even inserted a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie, stressing that it was “not based on the Gospels, but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.”
Silence shows that his preoccupation with that kind of story and with the Jesus-Judas dynamic did not end there.
RODRIGUEZ AS A JUDAS FIGURE
Another level to the story is the one in which Rodriguez functions just as a Judas figure. When he tramples on the fumie, it’s not an isolated act of betrayal, but rather, the first step toward how he will live the rest of his life.
The fumie-as-first-step is a cautionary symbol for how a single act of compromising one’s integrity can snowball into something greater over time. One step leads to another: Rodriguez has to trample on the fumie again as he takes part in “periodic examinations of all suspected Christians.” Together with Ferreira, who has become “useful” to Japan by writing a refutation of Christianity (the title translates as “Deceit Disclosed”), he helps identify objects with Christian images for the Inquisitor, Inoue.
This leads to problems for some of the Dutch traders and presumably other hidden Christians. Rodriguez and Ferreira have become enemies of all they held holy before. Their lives are now spent working actively against Christianity to prevent it ever taking root in Japan.
It’s in the film’s final stretch of minutes where Scorsese falters just the tiniest bit in doing the book justice and bringing the full richness and complexity of Endo’s vision to life on screen. In adapting any work, filmmakers are entitled to have their own take on the material. That’s arguably necessary, even, to give an adaptation life of its own. This was a very personal project for Scorsese … he tried for years to get his version of Silence off the ground, visiting Nagasaki with his production crew as far back as 2009.
When they are reunited for the first time and Ferreira sits across from Rodriguez, he argues fervently against Christianity as a viable religion. Toward the end, however, he makes a slip of the tongue and says, “our Lord,” hinting that he still secretly believes. “You said our Lord,” Rodriguez observes nervously. Ferreira offers a glib “I doubt it,” and then walks off like he’s the man.
The way the moment is staged feels like a cop-out, as if Ferreira has not earned the right to be so smug, because his whole life is a testament to the opposite of what his lips have just acknowledged. At the very end, when the camera zooms in on Rodriguez’s body in its burning wooden casket to show his dead hand clutching a cross, the crudely carved totem of his own belief, it feels like the film comes down firmly on the side of one limited perspective.
It arguably reduces the original text to a simpler reading, whereby Rodriguez is just this brave fool who holds onto Jesus in his heart even as his martyrdom gets stretched out into an extended Jesus-denying bout over the course of his lifetime. Scorsese’s Silence would appear to fall into a backward stance here, imparting the message that a person can live his or her entire existence without ever letting faith translate into action.
It’s one thing to believe in justification by faith alone, but when your life goes against your faith and there’s very little outwardly to confirm what you inwardly profess, is there not some sense in which that’s a dead faith—one that cheapens the gift of grace it relies upon? Is what’s in a person's heart all that really matters, or should “the tree of Christianity,” as it’s called in the movie, bear more fruit than that?
The film raises these questions without offering easy answers. People always say that the book is better than the movie, but it’s worth mentioning that Scorsese has been regarded by some as the wrong man for the job of adapting Endo’s novel.
The Internet is full of caustic opinions: in one review, a professor who's a member of the Writer's Guild of America calls Scorsese a “lifelong flailing apostate,” while commenters decry him as a “rock ’n’ roll pornographer.” The prevailing sentiment among some upset viewers seems to be that he would not, could not, have the spiritual maturity to render a fully nuanced version of Endo’s challenging masterwork. Then again, maybe that’s a tall order for any filmmaker to carry out.
Using a voice from Rodriguez’s past (namely, that of the senior priest played by Ciarán Hinds) as the voice of God, Scorsese’s film does flirt with the possibility that Rodriguez, in his unending self-deception, merely conjures a voice out of his subconscious in the instant before he steps on the fumie. If that’s the case, then Rodriguez’s story can be viewed as a tragedy, yet another in a long line of them from a director who once joked that his neighborhood priest appraised his films as “too much Good Friday, not enough Easter Sunday.”