This might come as a surprise to anyone who’s read my old movie reviews, but I love Christian movies. I love the inspiration of the gospel message when it’s put into film. I love watching stories of redemption, of grace, and of God changing hearts even the most devoted believers thought were beyond help. So naturally, I was excited when I learned acclaimed director Martin Scorsese was helming an adaption of Shusaku Endo’s gripping novel, Silence. This was going to be the Christian movie of the year.
For those who aren’t familiar with the material, Silence tells the story of two Jesuit priests as they travel to seventeenth-century Japan, a time when the country was growing increasingly hostile towards Christians. As they watch their Japanese brothers and sisters lay down their lives for their faith, the priests are tormented by questions of doubt, forgiveness, and most notably, God’s continued silence. The book is a mesmerizing dive into the very heart of Christian belief, and the film spared no expense in bringing this journey to life. The cast included veteran actors such as Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, and Andrew Garfield. Scorsese himself proved faithful to the source material and treated the Christian faith with the utmost respect.
Early reviews of Silence raved at the film’s mastery, calling it a monumental work of cinematic genius. And yet, despite all the hard work and accolades, Silence has proven a box office flop. The film barely took home a fraction of its production costs. For Christians, the failure of Silence can stand both as a personal critique of faith-based viewers, and as a warning about the future of Christian movies. Over at the Washington Post, writer Tyler Huckabee explains that Hollywood can’t be expected to make great Christian movies when Christian themselves don’t turn up to see them. He writes,
“‘God’s Not Dead’ ends with an encouragement for audiences to text the film’s title to all their contacts. ‘Son of God’ was, well, religiously faithful to its source material. ‘Silence’ wrestles with questions of apostasy and martyrdom of both the body and the soul, going great lengths to defy any easy reading. That makes for a compelling movie, but not necessarily a lucrative one.”
“And Hollywood — ever mindful of the dollar — will take note. While Scorsese’s movie was clearly made more with awards voters in mind than the popcorn crowd, it’s attracted the attention of neither thus far. Whatever other lesson might be learned, one will certainly sink in: there is no market for thoughtful, creative religious filmmaking, whatever those who rail against Meryl Streep might say. Conservative viewers of the Golden Globes might say they want Hollywood to reflect their values, but until they start buying tickets, it will be hard to take such language seriously. After all, if Martin Scorsese, Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver can’t make a profitable faith movie, who can?”
For my part, I can’t help but think Huckabee’s observations are dead on. Silence is by no means the first Christian film to leave theaters empty-handed this year. Over the summer, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey released their own remake of the Hollywood classic, Ben-Hur, which not only included the original’s Christ imagery but expanded upon it. Like Silence, the film proved to be a financial disappointment. The same fate befell Hillsong’s Let Hope Rise, which received high praise but low turnout.
Christians have long lamented the absence of faith-based material in Hollywood, but perhaps the studios aren’t solely to blame. As Huckabee pointed out, producers will take note when Christian movies fail, so why should they invest in more projects no one will go see? If believers want faithful, God-honoring stories in theaters, they need to start showing up and filling seats. This will require us to show faithfulness, and a willingness to sacrifice our time and money for the gospel’s advancement. Then again, I can’t think of another course which sounds more Christian.