The Faith-Faltering Film Of Martin Scorsese
This article is from 2017 but reading it periodically helps me keep my bearings straight as a Christian writer.
Martin Scorsese’s critically praised passion project Silence – which tells the story of 17th-century Portuguese missionaries to Japan who experience the atrocities of a brutal governmental pogrom against Christianity – has largely received silence from the movie-going public, the Christian community, and now the nominations of the award gods.
Scorsese loves to explore the dark terrain of the human heart in his films, which are populated with incredibly broken, even foul souls. Think The Departed, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Wolf Of Wall Street. He even dared to explore the moral tension lurking in Jesus Christ’s heart with The Last Temptation Of Christ, a film that was savaged by the faith community.
In Silence (based on a 1966 acclaimed novel by Japanese author Shusako Endo), two Jesuit missionaries (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) secretly enter Japan to investigate the rumors that their mentor (played by Liam Neeson) has recanted his faith. They begin to minister within a rural community of believers who have been driven underground because of the persecution. Eventually arrested, they are forced to watch the torture of the villagers which will stop only if they renounce Christianity by stepping on an image of Christ. The film views these events through the eyes of Father Rodrigues, who enters the story confident of his calling, even arrogantly so, but who eventually tramples on the image, his faith and certainty shredded by the horrors he has witnessed, and the silence he perceives from God.
While the rejection of the film by the public is being attributed to its tone (depressing) and release date (torture during Christmas, anyone?), its rejection by the faith community puzzles secular observers. “Here a famous director has thrown you guys a bone and you give him the cold shoulder.” As a pastor and screenwriter who aspires to bring faith and art together in a way that respects both, I have an observation to make that might be helpful here.
When it comes to how Christianity is depicted in movies today, I see three different categories of films: Faith-Filled, Faith-Friendly, and Faith-Faltering.
Faith-Filled is a growing genre of movie, mainly produced by Christians, and mainly targeted for Christians (though some would deny this.) The spirituality of the story is very much front-and-center, even in-your-face. Nothing is left to chance in the messaging. Recent examples are movies like War Room, God’s Not Dead, Fireproof, etc. Most are low-budget but technically proficient, theater-quality films that will tap right from its Christian audience’s pocketbooks and make a decent profit (War Room had a $3 million budget and grossed a nifty $68 million. Put that in your war chest.)
Faith-Friendly is a movie whose story is not overtly Bible-based, but faith is revealed through some of the characters in a nuanced, but full-bodied manner which is generally respectful, even inspiring. Hacksaw Ridge was just such a film. Mel Gibson (cf. Passion of the Christ – he may not live it, but he gets it) makes no attempt to hide the faith of Andrew Garfield’s Desmond Doss. In fact, it drives the entire narrative. But unlike, for example, God’s Not Dead, there is no sermonizing or patronizing to the other characters or the audience. The faith-element is just allowed to breathe naturally. If the viewer wants to learn more, he or she will have to Google it, or go to church. All the dots won’t be connected by the film itself.
I would argue that the classic 1959 Ben-Hur was faith-friendly while the 2016 reboot, which was such a chariot-wreck, was faith-filled. In the original, you never hear Jesus speak. In fact, you never see his face. In the reboot, Jesus is visible and never shuts up. The original film brings redemption, but at a terrible cost. The reboot ties everything up neatly in a bow at the end, like faith-filled movies almost always do. The reboot was filmed at a faith-friendly budget ($100 million) but in making a faith-filled movie, they reaped a faith-filled box-office ($26 million; but there were many other things disastrously wrong with Ben-Hur besides this, which you click here to review.)
Faith-Faltering is a movie which isn’t afraid to examine the dark-underbelly of religion, of which Silence is a perfect example. There are no easy answers in such a story. Faith does not always protect or heal or provide a way out. God is often very distant and silent. A faith-faltering film does not necessarily mean to claim that God is not present or doesn’t exist. In some ways, Silence showed affinities with the 1986 Roland Joffé film The Mission, which is a haunting and beautiful story of 17th-century missionaries caught in an unavoidable and devastating political crossfire. The difference in The Mission is that the missionaries choose to resist the evil, one choosing the sword and one choosing non-violence, but both give their lives in the resistance. They bend but do not break. In Silence, the missionaries bend, then break.
And perhaps therein is the flaw inherent in Scorsese’s story. Scorsese can argue that he’s just depicting real life. Sure, we get it. Good people don’t get a pain-free pass through life. And good people falter. The world is broken. Life is complex. Throw in a persecution or a tumor or a war, and things can break bad in a hurry. And God doesn’t make all that go away.
The problem with the message in many a faith-filled movie is that we are told that God will make that all go away. And usually in two hours, by the time the credits roll. Turn to Jesus and you’ll have your best life now.
The problem with many faith-faltering stories is that what begins in pain ends in doubt. The storm breaks but then the clouds linger, and no light from heaven ever bursts through. Life ends at the cross, but there is no resurrection.
Whatever you think Christianity may be, neither extreme captures its essence. Faith-filled movies just don’t do suffering or doubt well. They tend to set up straw men villains and conflicts of tin which are easily vanquished. As a pastor with 25-years of ministry experience, I know first-hand that this is most certainly not how faith plays out at street-level. Most broken marriages won’t heal in forty days. Many sorrows can’t be neatly prayed away. Scorsese is right to use missionaries as his template. The Christian history of missions (unknown to most believers, or heavily redacted) provide endless examples of the extreme suffering and sacrifice offered by those who faithfully heeded Christ’s call to make disciples of all nations.
Down to our present time. In some ways, Scorsese’s film is alarmingly prescient, as ISIS and its kin ravage Christian communities around the world.
But – and this is what Scorsese gets wrong – God is far from silent about this. Jesus said that his followers had to pick up their cross daily (so suffering will be part of the deal). From the beginning – when Cain murdered his brother Abel, to the end – when the last saint is slain by the last antichrist, people of faith will endure this treatment for the One they love. They will hate you because of me, Jesus said. But then he added this: In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart – I have overcome the world.
And in those simple words comes something most faith-faltering films leave out – hope. Yes, there is a cross, but there is also a resurrection coming. Belief in which has enabled Christians for two millennia to face unspeakable suffering with courage (e.g. Desmond Doss). While life is just not as easy as the faith-filled stories suggest, neither is it as desolate as the faith-faltering film portrays. God operates in, with and under all the complexities of life, and in those spaces is room for the mysterious and the miraculous.
And also room for the story-teller or movie-maker to explore all the nooks and crannies and gray areas of life, while eventually showing a path through the darkness where the pain and evil of this very broken world can be overcome.
Bear Clifton is a pastor, writer and screenwriter. His blogs and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, and “A Sparrow Could Fall”, all available through Amazon.