Scorsese's 'Silence' is his most Catholic film

  • Andrew Garfield, left, plays Fr. Rodrigues, and Shinya Tsukamoto plays Mokichi in the film "Silence" by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films. (Kerry Brown)
  • Left to right: Yoshi Oida plays Ichizo, Shinya Tsukamoto plays Mokichi, Andrew Garfield plays Fr. Rodrigues and Adam Driver plays Fr. Garrpe in the film "Silence" by Paramount Pictures, SharpSword Films, and AI Films. (Kerry Brown)
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Shûsaku Endô (1923-1996) was a Japanese Catholic novelist whose extensive writings probed the conflicts and paradoxes of faith. He was born in Tokyo, lived in Manchuria, then returned to Japan and was baptized at about the age of 11. After university, he married, had a son and lived in France. The novelist Graham Greene, with whom Endo has often been compared, said he was "one of the finest living novelists" of his time.

In 1966, Endô published Silence (Chinmoku), a work of historical fiction about Jesuit missionaries to Japan in the 17th century. Most believe it is his masterpiece. At long last, 28 years after reading the novel, Oscar-winning director, writer, actor and producer Martin Scorsese is bringing this story to the screen.

Word reaches Portugal and then Rome that Fr. Cristóvão Ferriera (Liam Neeson), the Jesuit superior in Japan, has renounced his faith and apostatized. Many clergy and lay people have suffered martyrdom in the past few years when the authorities banished Christianity from the country and now the mission has floundered. Yet no one can believe Ferriera has apostatized and ceased to preach the Gospel. In 1635, two young Jesuit priests, Fr. Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), with the permission of their superior Fr. Alessandro Valignano (Ciarán Hinds), set sail for Japan to rescue their former seminary professor and mentor. Their fervor knows no limits.

After a long voyage and stop in Goa, their ship docks in Macao where the two priests meet a Japanese man, a drunk named Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), that they hope will guide them to Japan. He will not admit to being a Christian, but he does want to go home. The priests endure hardship but press forward with a guide who seems less than trustworthy.

After another long voyage with almost nothing to their names, they arrive at an island and wade to shore. Soon enough villagers recognize the "padres" and hide them away. The priests discover that Christians are living underground, baptizing their babies and praying in secret. They learn that Kichijiro is a Christian when he asks for absolution for his apostasy that had caused him to flee Japan.

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It is too much for the priests to stay hidden and they venture out. They meet Christians who are grateful for their return but fearful for the padres if they are caught. But word spreads and the authorities investigate. A cunning inquisitor, Inoue (Issei Ogata), insists that Christians make themselves known and apostatize or three will be taken and killed. Three men, one of them in his 80s, refuse to step on the image of Mother and Child. Inoue's men tie them to crosses and raise them up in the ocean where they are buffeted incessantly by the waves for days until they die. The priests watch from a cave, stunned at what their presence has provoked.

The two priests decide to separate in their search for Ferriera whom they believe is in Nagasaki. Rodrigues meets Christians and hands out all the crosses and religious items he has and even gives away the beads of his rosary, one by one. He wonders if the people have more faith in sacramentals than in Jesus.

Later, Rodrigues watches as Garrpe drowns while trying to save Christians who have been thrown into the sea wrapped in mats. Rodrigues is eventually captured and made to ride a horse through a village while the people jeer and throw stones at him. Kichijiro's fervor waxes and wanes; he denies his faith only to return for absolution that Rodrigues gives him — time and time again because he apostatizes whenever he is captured. It becomes clear to Rodrigues that the weak Kichijiro is a Judas-figure. Inoue is never far and directs the inquisition of Rodrigues, challenging the priest by saying Japan is a swamp where the Christian message cannot take root. Rodrigues, unbending, responds that the truth, whether in Europe or in Japan, is the same.

Rodrigues ministers to a small group of Christians who are jailed with him. Then Inoue threatens the priest with "the pit" torture where he, and the other Christians, will be hung upside down over an enclosed pit of excrement until death or until he apostatizes. But where, in all this, is Ferriera? And Rodrigues wonders, where is God in the suffering of the people and his own anguish? Why is God silent?

"Silence" is replete with layered human, theological, and spiritual themes that writers Jay Cocks and Scorsese imbue with respect for their subject. For those who know the book, there is time compression, and the character of Inoue is an amalgam of all the inquisitors or officials in the story. Monica, a Christian woman in the final part of the book, shows up in the early scenes. Scorsese has added something to the end of the story, the very end of the book, the inclusion of which I will leave for you to judge. The cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto is either atmospherically panoramic or intensely close-up and personal. This, along with the accomplished editing of Scorsese's frequent collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, reveals Scorsese's Catholic and sacramental imagination at its most refined, in haunting beauty. Garfield and Driver are very good, and Driver has the look of an El Greco Christ.

There are violent scenes in the film, but Scorsese stays close to the book and shows visual restraint, something that surprised me given the explicit gore in many of his previous films. Some day, when we have all processed this film, I think we will see that "Silence" marks the height of his artistry and storytelling as a Catholic filmmaker where the character of the saint and the sinner are always near.

At the top of the thematic list are faith and doubt as partners in a dangerous dance from the moment the priests first find out about Ferriera's apostasy. They leave Portugal and Rome, their gaze focused on a land far away, bolstered by a faith yet untested. Rodrigues especially carries in his heart the image of Jesus so dear to him as a child and in the seminary. Once imprisoned it comes to him in the suffering of the people and in the night. It is this Jesus with whom he converses about his doubts, his questions and the choice he faces.

The high-pitched whine of the highly intelligent and informed inquisitor Inoue, with his polite manners and saccharine but sinister smile, do not mask his intent to break the resolve of the Christians. He challenges Rodrigues, as does Ferriera when he and Rodrigues finally meet, saying that Christianity is too Western and cannot adapt to Japan. Rodrigues says that the church is the source of truth and is unable to move off the script he learned growing up in Catholic Portugal. His responses to Inoue are noble perhaps, but ineffective. The inculturation of the Gospel and adaptation, even today, remains a challenge to those who evangelize, at home or afar.

Kichijiro, absolved again and again for his apostasy, is emblematic of sinners who are self-aware of their sin and just as cognizant of God's mercy. Kichijiro disgusts Rodrigues, and it takes the priest a long time to realize that he, too, is a weak human not so different from this dirty beggar of a sinner who cannot help himself.

On Dec. 5 Scorsese, along with members of the cast and crew, spoke to a packed audience after a screening of "Silence" at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Days have passed, and I and my sister, Libby Weatherfield, cannot stop thinking about the film. The first thing Libby said, however, as the lights came up was, "Well, this isn't a crowd pleaser." In truth, it's not meant to be.

Even director George Lucas, who introduced the film, said, "The best way I can describe it to you is that it is interesting, because it is definitely a Martin Scorsese movie." Then he seemed to think about it a little more and said, "It's pretty extraordinary. It's one of those movies from the last century where we made all kinds of … independent, not mainstream movies. That he even got it made is a big deal. I hope you enjoy it. It's very emotional. And there's blood in it. It's Martin."

During the question-and-answer session after, Scorsese recounted his life growing up as a Roman Catholic in Manhattan and spending a year in a high school minor seminary from which he was invited to leave.

He spoke about making his 1988 film "The Last Temptation of Christ" and how people either hated it or loved it and that he spent a year going around the world either discussing or arguing about it. But there was an Episcopal priest in New York, Paul Moore, who didn't hate the film. He gave Scorsese Silence and suggested he read it. He put it aside for a year, but when in Japan in 1989 acting in the film "Dreams" for Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, Scorsese read Silence and determined to make it into a film.

Actor Andrew Garfield, who has described himself as Jewish, said that making "Silence" "transcended filmmaking" for him:

How do we show a man living a question on a movie screen, a man living in a prayer for two and a half hours? I gave myself a good year to immerse myself in all things Jesuit to understand what the word God means to me on a personal level and I made the Spiritual Exercises that St. Ignatius created, that are a rite of passage for Jesuits and members of the Catholic faith … and the idea of the active imagination. The Exercises create a transformative process in the person that makes them. Then I would talk to Marty, often at length, and we would always end up with five or six minutes of silence at the end of the conversation because we knew we had gotten as close to the core of the answer to the question possible yet we were so many light years away from the answer. He would say, 'Okay kid, until next time,' and we would never get beyond this. We would always go deeper and deeper yet further and further away from the answer.

Preparing for this film was a profound journey in that way and that's the beauty and the agony of the book, the beauty and the agony of the story, the beauty and the agony of living a life of faith because it means living a life of doubt. It's the same thing as showing up on the film set every day, you have no idea of what you are doing and if you think you do, you are in trouble. What we see in all Marty's films, but in this film especially is that something deep and profound and transformative is happening in the film and within the audience absorbing it.

Adam Driver, who grew up in a Christian home, said that: "An anguished faith seemed to make sense to me. I don't know if it's because I was raised in a religious household but it's like any relationship with your parents or your kids. It's not as easy as making a decision and that's it. ... It is filled with doubt and second-guessing yourself; there's insecurity and misery. Getting ready for this I kept in mind St. Peter because this image made sense to me, as someone who is very committed but who cannot help but question and doubt every step of the way."

A man in the audience asked Scorsese, " 'The Last Temptation of Christ' and 'Silence' — in your art and mind where do these two films find each other?"

He replied, giving away part of the film's ending:

'The Last Temptation of Christ' took me to a certain point in my journey. It had to do with the Incarnation and my belief that Christ being fully divine, fully human and what this could mean. ... There seemed to be further to go [on that journey] after. But it's just isn't as simple as that. It's not a simple film and it's not a simple book. … But for myself, as a believer, unbeliever, doubter, have faith, not have faith, go through life, making mistakes, I don't know. Trying to make life better, to feel your way through to live in a better way for yourself and others primarily, 'The Last Temptation of Christ' didn't take me that far. ...

I knew [Silence] was for me, at this point in my life, the beckoning, the call. It said, 'Figure me out,' or at least try to. ... I am not Thomas Merton, I'm not Dorothy Day… so you admire them and everything else but … how can you be like them? ... How do you live it in your daily life? That is to get to the essence, I think, for me, as a Roman Catholic, true Christianity. Because when [Fr. Rodrigues] does apostatize, he gives up anything he's proud of and he's got nothing left except service, except compassion. So, he gives up his religion, he gives up his faith in order to gain his faith. Wow. How do you do that? That's amazing. Could you do that?

[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]

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