Earlier this year, I wrote an article about this very film, “Last Breaths of Christendom in the Land of the Rising Son”, emphasizing the role of the Japanese state (Tokugawa Shogunate) and the Hobbesian reading which implies that the state proscribes the teachings and religions practiced by the populace; in this case the state religion is Buddhism and the outlawed religion is Christianity. The Portuguese missionaries, in this film fathers Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, spread the words of the Gospel in Japan, a land hostile to the teachings.
In this article, I will focus on the spiritual aspect of the film, and the many trials and hardships Sebastião encountered on his spiritual journey drenched in blood of the dying Christians, who are shown as martyrs. The title of the article “The Dark Night of the Soul” was “borrowed” from the title of the book written by the 17th century Catholic Mystic of Spanish origin, St. John of the Cross. He understands this “dark night” as a spiritual journey and purgation which can lead to the Mystic union of the soul with God. This union and the dark night itself are a bliss, but many trials and sufferings are part of it. This is why I find St. John’s book illuminating as it can help us understand the suffering of the main character of the film.
It is 1633, “Pax Christi”, but there is little peace in this land for Christians, says Father Ferreira, a Jesuit missionary who witnessed the torture of Japanese Christians in the hot springs, called “hells” by the Japanese, partly in in mockery, partly telling the truth. The splashes of boiling water are poured on the naked bodies of men, extending the torture for days. Ferreira narrates: I never knew Japan when it was a country of light, but I have never known it to be as dark as it is now. This darkness is the dark night of all the souls who embraced the teachings of Christianity, spiritual suffering is conjoined with the suffering of the body, which is endlessly tortured, with an aim to break the wills of the faithful, the hymns are sung and the faith in Christ is proclaimed at their dying breaths, as it seems.
It is 1640 and Father Rodrigues proclaims the mission of Jesuits: Go ye in into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every living creature… so our Lord commanded, and as I prepare to do His work, I see His face before me. He is fascinated by Christ’s words, and they fill him with great love. It is important that he sees the face of Christ before him, vividly, and in the next shot El Greco’s Christ is shown, emphasizing that the love of God and his presence are at this moment tangible for Sebastião. He has not endured the trials and hardships yet, and in peace, the face of God is near.
When they start their journey to Japan, Sebastião speaks that “the black soil of Japan is filled with wailing of so many Christians. Red blood of priests has flowed profusely. The walls of the churches have fallen down.” This is the state of the Japanese Christians and missionaries after Shimabara Rebellion against the Tokugawa state. The Japanese authorities believed that the Portuguese missionaries played an important part in the uprising, since a significant part of the rebels against the state were Christians, and Christianity was outlawed as a result, considered to be dangerous.
I will not dwell on the political implications, since I have done that elsewhere, but note that Sebastião sees Japan as the “the black soil”, barren and hostile. He is aware of the endless martyrdoms and heavy losses the Japanese Church has suffered, yet he goes there. We can suppose that all of this fascinated him to a degree; to die for one’s beliefs, in the glory of Christ is seen as a supreme act of love for God. Yet, when he sees the state of the Japanese Christians, he cannot but ask himself, why does God make them suffer so much? He compares the masses performed in villages, in secrecy, to the catacombs of early Christians, and the Japanese are thus put next to Romans, who tried to defeat Christianity, but in the end accepted it as a state religion.
Sebastião longs for the same outcome in Japan, unaware of the balance of power and great dangers which await him and his fellow Christians. He parts with his rosary and gives it to the Japanese Christians, thinking how they are desperate for “poor signs of faith“, and he fears that they value them more than faith itself. Sebastião himself, although he does not admit it, longs for those tangible signs of faith himself, since he feels the weight of God ‘s silence and needs his relevation in the material world. When he sees the bird of prey soaring in the sky, he calls it the sign of God.
The Japanese officials come to the village and Sebastião tells the Christians that it is all right to trample on Christ’s image, but the officials ask of the Christians to spit on the cross. This many cannot do, and become martyrs. In a beautiful and harrowing scene, some Christians are put to torture by the waves, and for four days, the Japanese Christian Mokichi was beaten by the ocean, while his skin was being pulled off by the might of waves, and the salt was corroding his flesh. While he was dying, he sang hymns, and “his voice was the only sound”.
Croatian writer Sebastian A. Kukavica, the namesake of the main character in this film, in his unpublished novel, writes about Sebastião’s understanding of the possibility of martyrdom in modern times. He writes of the “cruel, silent and absurd” sea, the ocean, which he differentiates from the Medieval sea of the era when theology dominated (which was “constrained” as it can be seen if we study cartography), and the very possibility of martyrdom is put in question. This endless sea is almost a metaphor for the meaninglessness of life in the wake of the impending silence of God and finally his death proclaimed by Nietzsche.
In the film, this is further explored at the end when Father Ferreira, now a Japanese, says that the Japanese have never fully comprehended the Christian God and believed in the “distortion of the Gospel”. If that is true, then Mokichi’s endless suffering was not alleviated by the sincere faith in Christ, but in his own version of the religion brought by foreigners from distant countries. The hymn Sebastião heard him singing was a hymn sung in despair and utter ruin, not a celebration of God as Sebastião understands it. It was, in one word, wailing. Sebastião asks himself: “Did He hear their screams?“.
Sebastião lies under the rock, surrounded by wasteland and thinks: I feel so tempted. So tempted to despair. I‘m afraid. The weight of your silence is terrible. I pray but I am lost. Or am I just praying to nothing? Nothing. Because you’re not there. After hearing these words, we see a long shot of Sebastião alone, surrounded by a barren landscape. St. John of the Cross speaks of the similar temptations and despair which are a part of the “dark night”.
He writes: “This is a painful unsettling, full of misgivings, imaginations and inward struggles, in which the soul, at the sight and in consciousness of its own misery, imagines itself to be lost, and all its good to have perished for ever. In this state the spirit is pierced by sorrow so profound as to occasion strong spiritual groans and cries, to which at times gives utterance, and tears break forth, if there be any strength left for them, though this relief is but rarely granted. The royal prophet David has well described this state, being one who had great experience of it, saying: ‘I am afflicted and humbled exceedingly ; I roared with the groaning of my heart.’“
A Japanese Christian who has lost his family in the persecution, but has repeatedly denounced Christ, and in this manner survived, Kichijirō, betrays Sebastião and he is taken by the authorities and Inquisitor Inoue. Kichijirō’s repeated cries for absolution by confession puts in question the understanding of religion by the Japanese Christians, since Sebastião asks himself if the poor wretch understands the meaning of confession at all.
The debate between the Inquisitor Inoue and Sebastião which takes places in the courtyard illuminates the political and philosophical aspects of the implementation of a religion in the foreign soil, and the relation between the state and the imposition of foreign teachings, in this case the Japanese state and its view of the value of a particular religion (Christianity) in their land. Sebastião says there is much evil and beauty in Japan, and soon, one Japanese Christian is beheaded. His friend, Father Garupe, was murdered by the Japanese while he was trying to save the Christians drowned by the Japanese authorities, and we can observe how Sebastião’s world is crumbling and how he does not have any firm ground to hold on to.
He is in a wooden cell, and the moon is shown in several shots. In Japan, tortures were performed under the moon, not the Sun, and this is another important aspect of the cruel absence of God’s light for bodies and souls tortured. Sebastião is in despair: Why have you forsaken me? I was your son. Your son was going to the cross. You were silent, even to him. Your silent, cold son… He’s not going to answer [cries and laughs frantically].
This sensation of despair was familiar to Job: “He hath held my neck, broken me, and set me to Himself, as it were a mark. He hath compassed me with his spears, He hath wounded my loins, He hath not spared, and hath poured out on the earth my bowels. He hath cut me with wound upon wound : He hath come violently upon me as it were a giant. I have sewed sackcloth upon my skin, and have covered my flesh with ashes. My face is swollen with weeping, and my eyelids are dim“ (Job, xvi. 13-17.)
Sebastião speaks with Father Ferreira, now Sawano Chūan, a Japanese and a member of the Zen Buddhist sect. Sebastião tells him that it is cruel to twist a man’s soul. This cruelty is now actualized in the Japanese authorities’ demand for apostasy. Sebastião hears the sufferings and groins of the Japanese Christians in the pit, and is asked to step on Christ’s image, and in exchange, the lives will be spared. This is a tragic choice, one must choose between saving lives and practicing the faith which saves the soul. This is in fact a conflict between the soul and the body. If Sebastião apostatizes, the soul is ruined, but the bodies (physical lives) are spared. Ferreira says: You are now going to perform the most painful act of love that has ever been performed.
While most interpretations of Silence are focused on the act of apostasy (in the eyes of the Church), in my view, the situation is made more profound by the voice of God which speaks to Sebastião. It says: Come ahead now. It‘s all right. Step on Me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain. Your life is with Me now. Step. This is a Mystical experience. Sebastião has endured the trials of the dark night and his soul is now in union with God. Although he denounced the faith in public, his faith was strenghtened and made more pure.
After his apostasy, i.e. the public renunciation of God, Sebastião stays in Japan and is carefully watched by the Japanese so he cannot practice his religion in any way, he cannot even pray. At the end of the film, we see him burning in a casket after his death in old age, and he is holding a small wooden cross, given to him by Mokichi. He could have stayed Christian after he denounced the faith in public, only internally, and my speculation is that it was made possible by his union with God at the moment of stepping on his image. Sebastião’s life was with Him, until the end.