Andrew Garfield (left) as Rodrigues and Yosuke Kubosuka (right) as Kichijiro in a scene from Martin Scorsese's film "Silence."
Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence is a story meant to plumb the
depths of the mysterium iniquitatis by
focusing on the character of Judas Iscariot and his relationship with Christ.
Martin Scorsese underlines the theme of Judas’ betrayal in his foreword to a new edition the novel put out in advance
of Scorsese’s film adaptation, in select theaters now. Endo has his
protagonist, the Jesuit priest and missionary Sebastião Rodrigues, meditating
on Judas for much of the book, mulling over in particular the perplexing line
of Christ in John’s Gospel, after Satan had entered into Judas, “What you are
going to do, do quickly” (Jn 13:27). Rodrigues wonders in the novel what it
could mean for Christ to tell Judas to betray him. His wonderings foreshadow
the climactic moment in Rodrigues’ own life, when he must choose whether or not
to place his foot on an image of Christthereby disavowing his Lord publicallyin
order to save the lives of Japanese Christians being tortured by the
authorities in order to extort the priest’s apostasy.
Much of the
commentary on the new film has focused on Rodrigues’s fatewhether the novel
and film set up Rodrigues’ apostasy as praiseworthy or not; whether Endo and Scorsese
neglect the heroism of the Japanese and missionary martyrs due to a morbid,
spiritually-suspect fascination with the apostates. Those are legitimate
questions, but they are not the best entries into understanding either Endo’s
novel or Scorsese’s adaptation.
Tellingly, very few
reviews and commentaries have discussed the character of Kichijiro, the serial
apostate and serial penitent, at much length. Kichijiro is not the central
character; that is undoubtedly Rodrigues. But Kichijiro is central to
understanding what Endo and Scorsese are up to. For the sake of accessibility,
I will mostly limit myself to commenting on the film adaptation in the
following (and there are spoilers ahead).
When we meet
Kichijiro, played exceptionally well by Yosuke Kubosuka, he is drunk, dirty,
miserable, and exiled from his native Japan. When asked if he is a Christian,
he denies it immediately and vehemently, while another character confirms his
Christianity. Despite an unpromising beginning, Kichijiro agrees to be a guide
for Rodrigues and his companion, Father Garrupe (Garrpe in the novel), as they
set out to do undercover missionary work in Japan. Once the Jesuits make
contact with local Japanese Christians, Kichijiro’s backstory comes out. His
whole family was rounded up when they were found to be Christians and
confronted with the choice to trample on a fumiean
image of Christor be burned at the stake. Kichijiro trampled; the rest of his
family refused. He watched them die. One of the most touching, cathartic
moments early in the movie is when Kichijiro asks Father Rodrigues to hear his
confession, tearfully desiring to be reconciled with the God he had denied.
But it soon turns out
that Kichijiro’s conversion does not give him the courage he needs to face
persecution when it comes to him next. Kichijiro denies God publically three
more times throughout the film. This is in sharp contrast both with Rodrigues,
who stays steadfast almost to the end, and with several of Kichijiro’s fellow
Japanese Christians, most notably the martyr Mokichi, who dies under a form of
water torture singing the Tantum Ergo.
Kichijiro even sells out Father Rodrigues, leading the Japanese authorities to
him, and receives 10 times Judas’ price for the deed, 300 pieces of silver. At
that point, Rodriguesnot without reasonbegins to think of him as Judas
Iscariot. The troubling implication of Rodrigues’ attitude is that he then
begins to place himself in the place of Christ with a certainty that becomes
spiritually deadly for him.
Kichijiro is a
ridiculous, but also a tragic, figure. Scorsese’s direction and Kubosuka’s
acting draw that out well. But Kichijiro’s constant betrayals, both of his God
and of his neighbor, do not tell the whole story of his character. After each
betrayal, he seeks out the sacrament of reconciliation with genuine penitence,
oftentimes weeping and prostrating himself. He lashes out, saying, “It’s so
unfair!” He claims he could have been a good Christian, if he had not been born
under a persecution. He asks Rodrigues during his confession, when both are
being held in a Japanese prison, “Where is the place for the weak man?” meaning
himself. At this point, Rodrigues is so thoroughly disgusted by Kichijiro’s
inconstancy that he can barely bring himself to give the words of absolution.
does not answer Kichijiro’s question. He regards Kichijiro as not even worthy
of being called evil, compared with the cunning and ruthless evil of his
Japanese tormentors. The place for the weak man, Scorsese’s direction strongly
implies, is right there in the makeshift confessional. But Rodrigues is no
longer capable of seeing it.
As Catholic saints and spiritual masters have always
pointed out, the Christian life is at its base the constant battle between
humility and pride.
Kichijiro’s weakness is the perfect foil to Rodrigues’ fortitude; but
Kichijiro’s weakness is also his avenue toward humility. Whereas Rodrigues, with
his narcissistic and facile identification of himself and his own circumstances
with Christ, it ultimately undone by his pride. When Rodrigues falls, we do not
see him seek out the sacrament of reconciliation, as Kichijiro does time and
Kichijiro appears as
a kind of Christian-disciple Everyman. He does not have the fortitude to die a
martyr under persecution, although he acknowledges that the martyrs have taken
the better path. He is traumatized by his failure, but also continually seeks
forgiveness. At the end of the novel, Rodrigues has emerged not as Christ to
Kichijiro’s Judas, but as Judas himself.
tradition, the figure of Judaswho betrays Christ, despairs, and commits
suicideis always contrasted with the figure of Peter, who likewise betrays
Christ, but then repents and is accepted back into friendship with Christ.
Likewise, except for St. John, all of Jesus’ apostles abandon him after his
capture in Gethsemane. Kichijiro (who is, we are told, a fisherman by trade)
turns out to be less like Judas than like the other apostles, who likewise
betray Jesus but who then repent.
Endo’s intention is not to valorize apostasy, but to shed
light on the crucial reality that, at some point, every Christian is put in the
position of Peter, who was asked, “Are you not also one of his disciples?” In many and varied
ways through our sins, we answer with Peter, “I do not know him.” As Amy Welborn
points out in her Catholic World Report article on Silence, the image of the trampled-upon fumie functions universally: everybody
tramples on their loyalties due to external pressure at some point and in some
way. Christians, none of whom are without sin, all in some way or another
betray Christ, as St. Paul reminds us.
For any Christians in
a time of persecution or shortly thereafter, there is a deadly temptation
toward the heresy of Donatism, which opposed the re-admittance of penitent
apostates back to ecclesial communion. The case of Kichijiro implicitly summons
the question of St. Peter to Christ: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin
against me, and I forgive him?” Christ’s answer is as much to say: as many
times as your brother sinseven apostatizesyou must forgive him.
In Endo’s book and Scorsese’s
film, Rodrigues is at first suspicious of the Japanese Christian peasants who
put so much stock in “tangible signs” of faith such as medals and rosary beads,
thinking that perhaps their faith is not “spiritual” enough. But in the absence
of priests, those tangible signs were what provided the lifeline to the faith
for Japanese Christians. In a beautiful touch, it is Kichijiro who is caught at
the end of the novel and movie with a religious medallion, implying that
Providence will work even through these compromised figures to pass on the
Catholic faith, despite the ruthless persecution and the weakness of
One final note is
necessary because of the way many Catholics have approached the final,
apostatized figure of Rodrigues. It is tempting to scorn Rodrigues utterly. In
comparison with the martyrs, he deserves it. But it is very easy for the
contemporary Christian reader and viewer to treat Rodrigues in the same way
that Rodrigues treated Kichijiro. We are not shown whether Rodrigues was
penitent like Kichijiro or not at the end of his lifebut the temptation toward
contempt for Rodrigues is a moment for self-examination Endo and Scorsese
present us with, and a moment that allows us to learn Rodrigues’ lesson without
undergoing Rodrigues’ trials.