Empathizing with an ideologically opposed film

One of the ways in which people contextualize themselves within society is by their ideological persuasions. Ideology acts as an internalized code of ethics, morals, principles and ideals through which people build an identity. In this process, we instinctually seek out people and things that uphold our beliefs while averting those that don’t. This can be quite polarizing. It’s easy to misunderstand or even fear other perspectives when you’ve constructed walls around yourself to keep them out. That’s why sometimes the best way to gain an understanding of another perspective is through storytelling. By removing the weight of reality, stories can leave us open to considering ideas that we might instantly reject in other contexts.

Given my own ideological persuasions, I was trepidatious about watching Silence when recommended to me. A film about unwelcome Christian missionaries in 17th century Japan hiding from a regime under which Buddhism is decree? Neither side of that struggle sounded like one I could root for or identify with. Indeed, this mindset echoed within the movie-going public and helped cause the film to flop in theaters last year despite widespread praise from critics. If it hadn’t been for the combination of Martin Scorsese in the director’s chair, a great cast and my general interest in Japan, I may not have watched the film. However, after doing so I was able to contextualize the morality of its factions and– even if I may not agree– empathize.

To be clear: I’m an atheist, even if I’ve come to despise the masquerading that some do on behalf of the term (the whole idea of atheism is that it’s non-belief in gods and religion; it’s not something to parade around as if a religion in its own right). Christianity and Buddhism are ideologies that I do not associate with or believe in. Muddying matters further, Jesuit priests going to a country they aren’t welcome in to spread their beliefs out of a false sense of morality is at face value something I’m entirely opposed to. Going into the film, I’m predisposed to have contempt for both sides, particularly the film’s missionary protagonists; even if you take the religious element out of the story, they’re still invaders.

And yet I came to care about the priest characters, not because I believed in their purpose but because of how the film framed the world around them. Instead of justifying the actions of the priests, it instead portrays the imperial Japanese empire as brutish and relentless, constantly exercising new torturous ways to make examples out of killing Christian infidels. While multiple scenes in the film’s third act in particular shine a light on the Japanese ruling class’ perspective– that Buddhism is inseparably ingrained in Japanese culture and Christians posed a thread to the very fabric of their society– they’re ultimately painted as oppressors. Lo and behold, our natural instinct as humans is to defy oppression. We seek free will. Watching one side of a conflict– even if they’re technically on the defense– brutally murder and suppress while the other acts peacefully is going to make your average audience member view the peaceful instigators positively. It’s just how we’re wired to instinctually react.

What makes this all palatable to outsider views is that while the characters narrate themselves as wandering saviors adhering to a moral code, the film questions those morals at every turn. Examples of this are the scene I previously alluded to between our main priest and the Imperator, and another wherein the priest finally meets with a missionary captured and converted 15 years prior who now believes as the Imperator does that Japanese culture and Christianity are incompatible. In a climactic scene, the priest must step on a fumi-e (a slab with a crucifix carved into it), committing apostasy in order to save a group of Japanese Christians facing torture and death. His story ends with him having betrayed the faith he so deeply believed in, which is to say that this isn’t a film looking to reaffirm the beliefs of any ideology but rather present a pseudo-accurate portrayal of a conflict.

In that moment where the priest commits apostasy we’re able to empathize because it becomes a question of one being forced to give up their ideology, or more importantly, their identity. People of any worldview can relate to how it would feel to have the things they love be suppressed by society. A relevant example to many readers of this blog is how many in Western culture have a misconception of what anime is and as such some feel the need to keep their passion for the medium discreet. Sure, the ramifications for enjoying anime may not be violent nor is it being imposed by a ruling power, but expressing your love for it could come with scorn by those around them who misunderstand it. Point is, in our own ways we can relate and thus empathize. The broader concept of forced conformism is one that transcends religious connotations. Context becomes secondary.

As previously stated, storytelling mediums are perhaps the best way to humanize conflicting ideologies explicitly because they aren’t real. Even a story steeped in non-fiction such as Silence works in this regard because we’re watching a writer’s embellished retelling of events that very likely played out quite differently from how they’re being presented (non-fiction is very much fiction, but let’s explore this in future). Through the emotional distance created by blurred reality, we’re able to remove our own code of morals from what’s being displayed and thus role-play. It’s what makes anti-heroes work; by feeling no moral quandary in pretending to be something else for a few hours we can bend our minds to justify somebody’s actions and, if the material is well crafted, come to an understanding about why they are how they are. I may never see eye-to-eye with a religious missionary, but I can understand how their own moral code drives them to believe their actions righteous, such as how my own moral code would makes me feel the same. I came to see them as fallible human beings like the rest of us.

All of this is to say that Silence and stories like it that challenge my own ideological stances hold an important value to me. They’re the types of media that can widen my own grasp of other people and ideas. I may not have walked away from the film with my mind changed in the slightest, nor was it the film’s goal to convince people on the merits of missionaries and their ideologies, but that comes secondary to developing a mutual understanding on a human level. While storytelling does bring with it embellishment and as such can’t be directly applied to reality, taking a look at another walk of life in any regard can be eye-opening in its own right.

13 thoughts on “Empathizing with an ideologically opposed film

  1. Great stuff.

    I sometimes indulge this thinking.

    Though I haven’t seen this work, the way you describe it makes me feel like I need to be in a certain set of desires (mood, etc.) to even want to watch it. But putting that aside, empathy is an active thing where you must actually set out to do it – though, as in your case here, there are works that can pull it out from you.

    I feel like I’ve very little to add to this discussion (beyond that), only to say that posts like this are what make this such a great blog. Glad to have you back!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. How you say the pulled it out of me is interesting. I think empathy is somewhat passive, that it can just happen to a degree, but you’re right that you need to engage those feelings of empathy to look past moral differences. I feel most audiences would watch this film and find both sides morally questionable, but it’s not presenting unlikeable characters either which means you’re very likely to find yourself rooting for at least somebody (probably the focal priest as he’s the one framed as the sympathetic character). While you may disagree with the meta, the minutiae is that you naturally form that human mind-linking that happens with great, relatable characters.

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  2. I’m simultaneously surprised and not surprised that this film didn’t do well.

    A critic’s job is to assess a film’s quality. Whether they can do that apart from their own moral and ideological views isn’t guaranteed, but from your short description of the film’s content I can imagine what a critic might find appealing about this film. Being a fan of history, regardless of which side is made to look good, I’m always interested in stories like this. Japan’s resistance to Christianity and westernization is a very intriguing subject that had far reaching consequences for its modern development, but I digress.

    Ideology of any kind is an intrinsically divisive concept. Along with being used to build an identity, it can replace the identity of those that espouse a belief different from your own. Suddenly it’s much easier to refer to an entire group as /those/ people.

    Films about religion, or where religion is a prominent topic, are thus especially vulnerable to divisive rhetoric and preconception. The very thought that a belief not matching your own will be idolized (or vilified if you share it) can become an instant barrier in your mind. Understanding that there is a human element behind every opinion, every belief, and every ideology sometimes has to be a conscious exercise of will than a natural rational response. Unfortunately that’s something many people are unwilling to put an effort toward.

    This film sounds like it explores that human element very well. I’m glad you were able to check it out and talk about it in this context. I hope to see it myself sometime.

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    1. First, on its flop, it’s definitely a bit surprising consider its Scorsese but at the same time it wasn’t widely marketed (from what I saw) and was an ideological film in a rough time for many people. Also, I’ve seen it assessed elsewhere that there were just too many dramas at the time and it was overshadowed.

      On the rest, you’re right on. I found the film interesting in that while it wasn’t vouching for any religion, it also didn’t scrutinize it heavily as I feel is most common in media that uses religion as a central theme. And it was refreshing for that, even though I do quite like mocking as much as anyone else of my persuasion. It got me actively thinking about religion and the people who practice it, not labeling them as “those” as you mention. And I think that’s the power of the film. I think we could all use this reminder from time to time.

      Hope you get a chance to look at it! It sounds like you’d dig it

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  3. This was a nice read. I hadn’t even heard of this film and now I want to watch it. Although I can’t say that my ideology would make it difficult to watch this one in particular, there are certainly some that I’d rather not watch for their ideology. Manifest destiny is/was slice of ideology that is completely absurd and genocidal, for example and anything that promotes this in a positive light I won’t stomach. Sometimes though I might have to watch this stuff, just to be able to see what horrible crap is out there. Otherwise, I’m none the wiser.

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    1. For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s a “positive” light rather than (as I’ve overused at this point) a human one, one that can make you relate to a character you might not agree with the actions/beliefs of. As I noted, ultimately it’s a story, not reality, so it all needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

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      1. Yeah, for me its a matter of what the film makers say overall with the film, even if its vague or even accidental, as opposed to what they are depicting in their film. Schindler’s List depicts Nazism, but as an evil. Others might depict manifest destiny, as an evil. Now if they promote it, even accidentally, that’s when I tend to stay away from them.

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  4. I generally agree, though I do think there’s a limit. It’s not that hard for a film or show to sway me towards a character whose ideology I disagree with, except when I find that ideology patently disgusting on its face. As irrelegious as I am I don’t hold any antipathy towards religion, so I can easily be motivated to like a religious character and root for them in their goals, religious or otherwise. A fascist or racist character on the other hand would be hard for me to empathize with no matter what, since I see their ideology not just as evil but as a direct threat to my own life. I suppose some of this depends on whether the character’s ideas are presented as right or merely as their ideas, but I think most films are bound to make the protagonist’s ideas sympathetic merely because we need to sympathize with them.

    Anyways, love the piece and glad to see you back!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I totally understand you there. That’s most likely a gap I could not get over either. However, take Tony Soprano. Outside of other qualities we would often consider dangerous (like, he’s a violent family head), he’s definitely racist. Just look at he treats her daughter’s boyfriends throughout that series as one of many examples. But we can still find way to relate to him (and tbf his racism never really manifests in a dangerous way). Also look at Don Draper, a habitual cheater who’s job it is to literally deceive people. Definitely not a moral dude. That said, a dangerous racist or fascist (of which all are dangerous) could be a different story.

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  5. Great read Tim. Was always interested in this film, but just never got around to watching it. Just from reading plot synopses and reviews, it does indeed sound like a polarizing movie that highlights a conflict of Eastern and Western religion. I’m a Protestant, so I found it particularly interesting that the Catholics in the film were so distraught about stepping on the stone crucifix. They seem to value the symbols of Christ more than I thought and this inherent conflict definetly helps me see a different side to things at that time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s interesting too, because the Japanese officers (or whatever their positions are) who tell them to step on the slabs tell them that the act is just a formality, that it’s meaningless, and to them it is. Yet the faith of the Christian characters is so embedded within them that it’s the ultimate sin to them. Actually, talking about how the film approaches sin is an interesting line of discussion in its own right.

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  6. Pingback: Mel’s Round-Up Week 50 | Mel in Anime Land

  7. “It’s what makes anti-heroes work; by feeling no moral quandary in pretending to be something else for a few hours we can bend our minds to justify somebody’s actions.”

    Great sentence, you nailed it with this one! I love your thoughts on the film; personally, I find it ethnocentric and problematic. There are numerous examples; one is when Liam Neeson’s character says that there is much “knowledge” in Japan.

    I wouldn’t say that the essence of Japanese culture at the time (I believe that it is the Tokugawa period, correct me if I’m wrong) is in amassing knowledge – generalized facts about reality; for example medicine as we know it came to Japan from the Dutch through Nagasaki.

    What Japanese culture is about, and the reason why we love it, is its aesthetics, a sense for beautiful and sublime – kami, relationship with nature (Shintoism). Poetry was always valued in Japan, poets were honoured almost like semi-gods. And the priest says – knowledge…

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