As the credits begin to roll at the end of Martin Scorsese's religious drama, he dedicates his film "to Japanese Christians and their pastors." The movie, which is an adaptation on Shusaku Endo's famous novel Silence (1966), recalls a very specific historical context. Christianity came to Japan on August 15, 1549, when Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuits, landed on the shores of Japan and founded the first Catholic mission in that country. For about a century, their efforts enjoyed varying degrees of success, with as many as 300,000 converts, until 1650 when the "contagion" of the western faith was brutally expunged. Executions, crucifixions, sadistic tortures of all kinds, prohibitions against preaching, edicts, the demolition of churches, the expulsion of missionaries, and the famous "fumie" in which people trampled an image of Christ to prove their renunciation of Christianity, ensued for two hundred years. By some estimates the Japanese exterminations of Christians were worse than the Portuguese Inquisition. When Christianity was once again tolerated in 1854, guess what? Seven generations of so-called "Kakure Kirishitan" or "Hidden Christians" were discovered. Without any clergy, Bibles, churches or liturgy, these mainly illiterate believers had survived by going underground and practicing their faith in secret.
Scorsese's film follows Endo's novel in telling the story of two young priests, Rodriguez and Garupe, who leave Portugal for Japan to find their mentor Ferreira, who, rumor has it, has renounced the faith. They witness the unspeakable atrocities. Their presence endangers the Japanese believers. Worst of all, the Inquisitor forces Rodriguez to make a choice — renounce his own faith and save the lives of the Japanese believers, or keep his "selfish dream" of a Christian Japan and so guarantee yet more and more victims in the slaughter. Today there are an estimated 1,000 "Hidden Christians" still living in Japan.