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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Scorsese’s Silence speaks volumes on trials of faith


Gerald Schmitz

“I’m a believer with some doubts. But the doubts push me to find a purer sense of the other, a purer sense, if you want, of the word ‘God.’ ”
— Martin Scorsese, Interview in the Hollywood Reporter, Dec. 8, 2016

Martin Scorsese is arguably America’s greatest living director and he has never shied from controversy. He may be best known for films that feature a culture of violence on the streets and in the ring (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, The Departed). His 2014 satire The Wolf of Wall Street was laced with profanity. But as much as he has explored human nature’s darker side, the 74-year-old filmmaker has also been drawn to the most profound questions of human existence that touch on the spiritual and matters of faith. His roots in New York City’s rough Little Italy neighbourhood also reflect a devoutly Catholic influence that included a brief period as a seminarian.

In 1988, Scorsese’s adaption of the 1955 Nikos Kazantzakis novel The Last Temptation of Christ, with its provocative suggestions about the humanity of Jesus, set off a storm of mostly undeserved criticism. At the same time, after the movie was screened for religious groups, Paul Moore, New York Archbishop of the Episcopal Church, sent the director a copy of Japanese Catholic convert Shusaku Endo’s 1966 historical novel Silence about the role of Portuguese Jesuits in 17th century Japan at a time when Christians faced fierce persecution. As recounted in an essay by Paul Elie, “The Passion of Martin Scorsese,” published in the Nov. 21, 2016, New York Times Magazine, Scorsese read the book, engrossed by its quandary of faith and doubt, while on a train in Japan where he was to play the part of Vincent van Gogh in a production by master Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.

Thus began a decades-long attempt by Scorsese to realize a movie version, a true passion project long delayed by a tangle of legal, financial and logistical hurdles. Fortunately he has succeeded with a budget of nearly $50 million and a screenplay co-written by longtime collaborator Jay Cocks. An arduous shoot in Taiwan required extraordinary commitment on the part of his principal actors and was followed by a year and a half of post-production. The result, the 161 minutes of Silence (, is one of the most remarkable films ever made about what drove European missionaries and the trials of faith they endured.

Paul Elie, who calls Scorsese a “missionary for the cinema,” writes that “Silence is a novel for our time: It locates, in the missionary past, so many of the religious matters that vex us in the post-secular present — the claims to universal truths in diverse societies, the conflict between a profession of faith and the expression of it, and the seeming silence of God while believers are drawn into violence on his behalf.”

Jesuits followed in the footsteps of St. Francis Xavier who first brought the word of Christ to Japan in 1549. They made hundreds of thousands of converts in the predominantly Buddhist country. But the next century ushered in the Edo period during which Christianity, considered dangerous by the Tokugawa shogunate, was ruthlessly suppressed. The movie opens in 1633 with a searing scene in which we hear Rev. Christóvão Ferreira’s agonized voiceover as he is forced to witness the gruesome torture and execution of Japanese Christians in an attempt to get him to “apostatize” — deny the faith by the symbolic gesture of the stepping on the “fumie,” a copper plate bearing an image of Christ.

Years later disturbing news reaches Portugal that, as the Jesuit superior Rev. Valignano (Ciarán Hinds) puts it, “Ferreira is lost to us.” Not wanting to believe this, two devout young priests, his former students Rev. Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) and Rev. Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), insist on journeying to Japan to find the truth, knowing they will be in mortal danger. Setting out in 1640, in China they meet an unkempt cowering Japanese man, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), who has learned their language from other “padres.” They convince him to become their guide to reach the shores of Japan where they enter the frightened underground world of the hidden Christians. From this moment, Rodrigues assumes the narrator’s voice.

Kichijiro becomes a troubled recurring figure in the story. Surviving by apostatizing, repeatedly, he recalls the first time when he watched his faithful family being burned alive. What place is there for a believer who is a weak person? he asks. Later he will crave absolution for a Judas moment.

The priests are concealed by day while exercising a secret nocturnal ministry, until their presence becomes known to the authorities and the trials begin. They will not be offered the grace of a quick martyrdom. Instead they will have to witness the horrible punishments (crucifixions, drownings, beheadings) meted out to their Japanese faithful, the simple peasant believers who trust in them and refuse to apostatize. Rodrigues is separated from Garupe whom he will not see again until another cruel test.

Rodrigues becomes the focus of the attentions of the feared “inquisitor” Inoue (Issei Ogata). The face of the persecution is an elderly highly intelligent official who plays a long game of outwitting Rodrigues. Taken to Nagasaki and kept in solitary confinement, Rodrigues prays not to be forsaken, pleading forgiveness for his questioning of God’s silence and his doubts. His interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) needles him about the futile conceit of the European missionary project while the inquisitor works on him in stages, adding psychological torment to the horror of seeing converts put to death. “The price of your glory is their suffering,” the would-be martyr is told. Japan is a “swamp” in which Christianity will never take root.

The breaking point is when Ferreira is brought into the picture as the apostate who has become a Buddhist, taken a Japanese name and the wife and children of an executed man. He relates how he was subjected to a slow bleeding torture while held upside down over a pit until he relented. As a group of Christians is similarly tortured, Ferreira challenges Rodrigues. Is further resistance not just hopeless but a mark of hubris? “You see Jesus in Gethsemane and believe your trial is the same as his. Those five in the pit are suffering too, just like Jesus, but they don’t have your pride. They would never compare themselves to Jesus. Do you have the right to make them suffer?”

An epilogue from a Dutch trader recounts the path of surrender and collaboration of the apostate priests. But there is always doubt about the endurance of faith through trials and denials. In his last meeting with Kichijiro, Rodrigues momentarily lets down his guard, confessing, “It was in the silence that I heard Your voice.” Indeed the ultimate truth is known only to God.

There is much to reflect on in this masterfully realized historical epic with its meticulous recreation of the atmosphere of feudal Japan and its attention to the voices of the Japanese, both persecuted and persecutors, as much as to the Europeans faced with the defeat of their mission. As Justin Chang wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “With ruthless wit and an incisive grasp of cultural and theological nuance, Silence subverts the familiar narrative of imperialist conquest and lays waste to the conventional Hollywood wisdom of East bowing to West. In particular, Scorsese grants his Japanese characters the full measure of their vivid, thorny humanity — something he manages with no small help from some exceptional acting talent.”

The making of the movie had a profound impact on the actors portraying the Jesuits. Liam Neeson, raised Irish Catholic, had three decades ago portrayed a Jesuit martyr in the 1986 film The Mission set in 18th century South America. Rev. Daniel Berrigan, the renowned Jesuit activist who died last year, was an adviser on that production and celebrated mass with the actors. As Neeson told Paul Elie: “I remember Father Dan saying, ‘Do you know that Stanislavski based his Exercises for actors on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius?’”

Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, who both lost almost a third of their body weight, undertook intense spiritual as well as physical preparations for their demanding roles. They spent time at a Jesuit retreat house in Wales, where Garfield completed the arduous Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola as if he were a Jesuit in training. As he described it: “It’s almost like a 12-step program. In fact, it’s the basis for a lot of 12-step programs, a long-form meditation and prayer spent imagining the life of Christ, story by story, gospel by gospel, and sitting with his teachings, sitting with him as he discovers who he is in the wilderness, and really meditating upon his life and even crucifixion.”

Garfield has come a long way since being cast as Spiderman in that superhero franchise. He has also been recognized for his 2016 role in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge as a genuinely heroic religious conscientious objector during the Second World War. For his character in Silence, he speaks of the acting process in transformational terms: “It became a very personal journey for me, a dual journey: It was me and Rodrigues, walking together, so that I could allow the events of the story to affect me in the way that a young, ambitious, intelligent, articulate, learned Jesuit would respond to being dropped into the front lines of the battle for Christianity. . . . I was filled up with all this information and all this longing to spread the teachings of Christ, which I truly started to adore.”

Rev. James Martin, SJ, an editor at large of the Jesuit magazine America, was an adviser on the movie, the first audience for which was in Rome Nov. 29, 2016, when it was screened for hundreds of Jesuit priests. During Scorsese’s subsequent meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican, the first Jesuit pontiff told him he had read the Endo novel.

In pursuing his vocation through a mastery of cinematic storytelling, Scorsese has created a work of art that probes some of the deepest questions of religious culture and belief. As New York critic Joshua Rothkopf observes, Silence’s “parable about faith under fire . . . ranks among the greatest achievements of spiritually minded cinema. . . . It’s a movie desperately needed at a moment when bluster must yield to self-reflection.” Amen.