How historically accurate is Martin Scorsese's movie Silence

The Silence

Was the movie Silence historically accurate? Martin Scorsese is acknowledged to be one of the giants of modern cinema. He is mainly known for his movies on gangsters, but he has had a life-long fascination with spiritual themes. This is evident in his movie The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese worked on the movie Silence for over twenty years, and it was a labor of love. It is based on a novel by Shūsaku Endō, which narrated the fate of Christian missionaries in Japan in the 17th century.

The movie stared Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson and leading Japanese actors such as Tadanobu Asano. The movie's screenplay was written by Jay Cocks, who consulted with the English translator of the works of Endō. Silence was a box office flop at the box-office and only received one Oscar nomination. However, the work was well-received by critics.

Plot of the movie

A fumie, these were designed to be stepped on by Christians as a way to demonstrate their apostasy

Silence opens with a scene in which Japanese Christian converts and European missionaries are being brutally tortured by samurais. A veteran Portuguese Jesuit priest Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) is shown helplessly witnessing the torture. The movie then moves to the then Portuguese colony of Macao.[1] The Jesuit Order had received information from a Dutch trader, that Father Ferreira had apostatized and had renounced his Christian faith. When this is related to his two pupils Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) they are shocked. They decide to determine if this was true.

Rodrigues and Garupe employ Kichijirō (Tadanobu Asano)to be their guide and interpreter. Kichijirō an alcoholic fisherman who had renounced his Christian faith after death threats. The two priests and Kichijirō are taken to Japan by Chinese sailors. Father Rodrigues and Garupe know that they will be in grave danger as missionaries. The Japanese Shogun had banned Christian missionaries from the island. Many Christian priests had already been killed.

When they arrived, they are met by some Japanese Christians who have been forced to practice their faith in secret. The Japanese Shogun and his lords were brutally persecuting any Christians they could find. The Portuguese priests minister to the villagers. However, a Japanese official, known as the "Inquisitor," arrives in the village.[2] He ties some of the villagers to crosses on the shore and forces their loved ones to watch them slowly drown as the tide came in. The Inquisitor burns their bodies so that they cannot receive a Christian burial. Garupe and Rodrigues split up and realize that their presence is putting local Christians at risk.

Father Rodrigues goes in search of Ferrerira. During his search, he has a spiritual crisis. He is reunited with Kichijiro, but he later betrays him for money. An old samurai tells the Portuguese priest to renounce his Christian faith or else more local converts would be tortured and killed. The Japanese authorities hope that this will convince them to abandon religious beliefs. Father Rodrigues was taken to Nagasaki, which had a large Christian population. Here he is told by the governor, why the Japanese government is persecuting the Christians. When he is taken back to prison, he finds that Kichijirō has also been imprisoned in the same jail. Rodrigues somewhat grudgingly forgives him for his earlier betrayal.

The interpreter is later released after he once again renounces his Christian faith. Rodrigues is later brought to a beach where he is forced to witness a terrible spectacle. He sees his fellow priest Garupe, who had been captured, and some Japanese prisoners. The prisoners are taken on a boat out to sea. Garupe is told that unless he apotheosized - the trio would be drowned. The Portuguese Jesuit refuses to renounce his faith and the samurai, throws the bound Christians into the sea. Garaupe drowns in an attempt to save the last prisoner.

Rodrigues then is brought to Father Ferreira, who is alive and does admit that he renounced his faith when he was tortured. He tells the younger priest that he had to do it to save Japanese Christians lives and that he believes that Christianity will never take root in Japan. Rodrigues is imprisoned. When he is in his cell he hears Christians being slowly tortured and killed. The Japanese demands that he renounces, his faith, or else they would kill more innocents. Rodrigues, in order to save the lives of the Japanese Christians, agrees to do so, only after hearing the voice of Christ telling him to do so. Rodrigues no longer believes himself to be a priest and apparently adopts Japanese values and customs. He grows old and he dies and his body was cremated. The last image of the movie is the dead Rodrigues holding a tiny Christian cross. Scorsese indicates that while he renounced his faith; he remained a Christian.

The persecution of Christians

Andrew Garfield

In the Early Modern period, the Japanese were mainly Buddhists or followers of the traditional religion Shinto. St Francis Xavier began the first organized mission to Japan in 1549. Later he was joined by mainly Portuguese priests. The Jesuit Order became very active in the missions to Japan. They soon were converted many of the local Japanese to Christianity and in general, the missionaries could preach freely.[3] All of the Japanese who converted became Catholics, at least nominally and as in the movie, whole villages and towns converted. Under the great warlord and Imperial regent, Oda Nobunaga, the Christians even enjoyed some favor.

However, this changed with the rise to power of Toyotomi Hideyoshi's. He and the feudal lords became very wary of the Catholic priests and the growing power of the Japanese Christian community. Hideyoshi began a crackdown on the foreign religion and its local adherents. In 1598 he ordered the execution of 26 Christians outside Nagasaki. With the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate (Edo period), there was a wave of persecutions unleashed against those who professed Christianity. After 1603, there were many followers of Jesus killed for their faith and many missionaries executed.[4] The graphic scenes in the movie where the priests and local converts are brutally killed are based on historical incidents. The repression of the Japanese Christians went on for decades. Many of them were forced to go underground and to practice their faith in secret, despite often having no priests. This was shown very well in the movie.

Many Japanese converts continued to practice their faith despite the threat of death. However, as is shown in the movie many others renounced their faith. This was done by either spitting on a cross or stepping on an image of Christ or the Virgin Mary (known as a fumie). Unknown numbers of Catholics did apotheosize, like the character Kichijirō. However, in the movie, the local converts did not resist the Samurai sent to force them to abandon their faith. In fact, many Christians did resist efforts to make them apotheosize. In the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-1638), Japanese Catholics rose up in rebellion. This was brutally put down and some 30-40,000 rebels were beheaded.[5] Overall, the movie captures the brutality of the persecution of Christians in Japan very accurately during the Tokugawa shogunate. It is interesting to note that despite all the persecution that small groups of followers of Jesus continued to practice their religion in secret and that the savage persecution did not exterminate the creed.

The treatment of the priests

A monument to Japanese Christians martyrs, in modern Nagasaki

The movie shows the Japanese tortured the missionaries. There were many cases where European missionaries, mainly Spanish and Portuguese, were tortured and martyred in the first half of the 17th century. In general, at least in the early years of the persecution, the Japanese were willing to expel the Catholic priests. It appears that the Tokugawa shogunate killed missionaries to frighten their colleagues into leaving. This effort was largely successful, and the number of missionaries and clerics in the country was halved from 1590 to 1620.

In the movie, we see the Japanese being very eager to ensure that the Christian missionaries renounced their faith. The Shogunate wanted the discredit the priests in the eyes of the local population. The treatment of the priests in the movie and the cruel tactics used to make them renounce their faith are all based on historical precedents. Indeed, as in the film, the Japanese were able to make a small number of European priests renounce their faith; they became known as the ‘Fallen Priests.’’ [6]

The role of foreigners in Japan

In the late 16th and early 17th century, Japan came into contact with the Europeans. The Japanese initially welcomed them and valued them as trading partners and were impressed by their technology. The English, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese were all active in Japan. They came as traders or as missionaries. The Europeans competed with each other to win the favor of the local Japanese lords and the Shogun. Many Japanese suspected that the foreigners wanted to conquer or invade their country, and this was justified.

In a crucial scene, an old Samurai compares the four competing countries to four concubines, whose machinations are leading to the downfall of a lord’s household. The four concubines are the Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Dutch, and the house they are destroying was Japan. Many in the ruling class believed that local Christians would support the conquest of the country by Western powers.

The fear of foreign influence was the root cause of the persecution of the Japanese Christians and missionaries.[7]

The models for the missionaries

The character of Father Ferreira was based on a real-life Portuguese Jesuit missionary. As in the movie, he was captured and tortured and abandoned his Catholicism in 1633. He later went on to marry a Japanese woman and wrote several books that introduced Western ideas into Japan. As in the movie, he was a great missionary, and his rejection of his faith scandalized the Catholic Church in Asia.[8] As required, he registered as a Buddhist at his local temple.

However, unlike the Liam Neeson figure, in real life, Ferreira, helped the authorities to persecute Japanese Catholics and even missionaries. The character of Rodrigues was based on the remarkable story of an Italian Jesuit, Giuseppe di Chiara (1602 –1685). He had arrived in Japan to find Father Cristóvão Ferreira, who was discussed above. However, when Di Chiara was captured, he was also tortured and renounced his faith. Later he married a Japanese woman and attained the rank of a samurai. He lived to a ripe old age and never returned to Europe. Endō, the book's author, was inspired to create the character of Rodrigues from the story of Di Chiara. However, it seems that the character of Father Garaupe, is entirely fictional, as is his heroic death.


Silence deals with profound human themes, such as forgiveness, faith, and religion. Scorsese based it on real life events. Silence is much more historically accurate than many historical movies and period dramas. Silence realistically shows how the Japanese Shogunate persecuted Christians in the 17th century. The movies accurately shows how the Shogunate and the local lords set out to destroy the small Chrisitan community.

Unfortunately, the horrifying details of how Christians were tortured is also very accurate. The Japanese perspective as to why members of the Western religion were persecuted is also given in the movie. There were many missionaries in 17th century Japan and many were martyred and expelled. There were also European missionaries who renounced their faith and became known as ‘Fallen Priests.’ The story of Fathers Rodrigues and Ferreira are both based on real people, namely two priests who apotheosized and rejected their faith.

Further Reading

Enright, Lyle. "Reading Shusaku Endo’s Silence with an Eschatological Imagination." Renascence 69, no. 2 (2017): 113-128.

Clarke, J. (2017). Scorsese misses the depths of the 'Japanese swamp'. Eureka Street, 27(3), 5.

Moffett, Samuel Hugh. A History of Christianity in Asia, Vol. II: 1500-1900 (USA, Orbis Books, 2007).


  1. Montevecchio, Caesar A. "Silence." Journal of Religion & Film 21, no. 1 (2017): 26
  2. Montevecchio, 26
  3. Gonzáles, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, 3rd edition (Prince Press/Hendrickson Publishers. Volume 1, 2004), pages 405–406
  4. Gonsalez, p. 410
  5. Gonsalez, p. 410
  6. Breen, John, and Mark Williams, eds. Japan and Christianity: Impacts and Responses (NJ, Springer, 2016), p 112
  7. Turnbull, Stephen. The Kakure Kirishitan of Japan: a study of their development, beliefs, and rituals to the present day. (London, Routledge, 1998.), p 89
  8. Breen, p 119