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Martin Scorsese has been trying to make Silence for almost thirty years. In 1988, Archbishop Paul Moore attended a screening of Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. “He said the film was ‘Christologically correct’,” says Scorsese. “First time I’d ever heard the word, but I’m glad it was correct – we had a remarkable conversation for a few hours, at the end of which he said, ‘I’m gonna give you a book. About faith.’”
Moore sent Scorsese a copy of Japanese Catholic author Shūsaku Endō’s book, Silence, a historical fiction novel about Jesuit missionaries who travel to Japan in the 17th century in search of their lost mentor, discovering the degree of persecution that the Kakure Kirishitan – hidden Christians – had to endure. The test was straightforward: trample on a fumie of Christ to renounce him or face horrific torture and death – hanging from crosses in the ocean as the tide came in, being burned with water from hot springs, or being hung upside down into a pit for days on end.
“I took the book with me to Japan to be in a film that Akira Kurosawa was directing called Dreams,” Scorsese remembers. “I finished the book on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, and I knew immediately I wanted to make the film. It went deeper than Last Temptation, and that’s where I wanted to go. The only problem was, I had no idea how.”
It took years to think about how to adapt the book for film, and years to even be ready to do that. “As you get older, your values start to change – well, I shouldn’t say change, but clarify.” But this book continued to obsess him all these years.
“My whole life I’ve been involved with Roman Catholicism, the church – more than the institution, really the message and tenets of Christianity, and how one could really be a Christian in this world. You read C.S. Lewis, you read Dorothy Day, you read some of Thomas Merton (I couldn’t read all of it) and Simone Weil… I always wanted to make a film about a modern-day saint, so to speak. I was aiming in the direction of Last Temptation of Christ, but when that was finished, along with all the controversy and discussion, I needed more. I don’t know, I just needed more.”
Scorsese wanted a film that wrestled with what faith was, and how you live it out in extreme and ordinary circumstances. “To have faith is such an extraordinary gift,” he says. “But it took me years to understand that doubt is part of that faith.”
It’s not surprising that when reaching for metaphors to explain faith, Scorsese turns to film. “It’s like the end of Bergman’s Winter Light, where the minister at the end turns to his congregation – he’s traveled all this way to do this ceremony – and he turns, and there’s no one in the church. But he does the ceremony. So, the act itself is sacred.”
And he sees this in his own films, as well: “Going back to Mean Streets, the opening line is: ‘You don’t make up for your sins in a church, you do it in the street, at home – all the rest is nonsense.’ Meaning that, you don’t separate religion – you don’t go into a building and then go outside and behave differently. Inside, you might get some support, from chanting, rituals, meditation, but the struggle is outside. It comes up to you when you walk out the door, see somebody in the street, or deal with your family. And maybe that’s why it took 25 years to be able to understand, a little bit, how to approach the script and the film. If there is no meaning then you give it meaning, your action gives meaning.”
He suggests that, in focusing in on the apostasy of the characters in the book or movie, one might better understand the nature of true Christianity. “[These men] give up truth to ultimately achieve the real truth of Christianity, which is a stripping away of the self, and emptying the self, and not having anything left to be proud of. Now that fascinated me – I said, how can you do that? How do you go there? You can go to mass, you can go to any kind of religious service, you could suddenly speak in tongues, but how do you go to that place?”
The movie premiered in Vatican City, and Scorsese took the chance to talk with several Jesuits, including priests from Japan and the Philippines. “One of the Filipino Jesuits pointed out – no matter how well-meaning the missionaries were, and how much zeal they had, how much violence the Japanese committed against them, the missionaries in their own way created a form of violence to the Asian.”
“So then ultimately,” says Scorsese, “in Asia, colonialism is linked constantly with the missionary. That’s a wound that still has yet to heal. So in terms of Christianity applying to the other, as Endo pointed out, first of all you have to begin to know the other culture. How do you do that? You meet the people, you learn something of the language, but you learn about the way they live, the way they think. You know, when [Ferreira] says – in Endo’s words – that the Japanese cannot conceive of anything that transcends the human, it’s very interesting. Now how do you do Christianity there, you know? There might be a way. Maybe the way to do it is by action – in other words, you go to a place, you do what you do, and eventually someone says, I’d like to be like that person was, in my life.”