Paul Elie in Conversation with Martin Scorsese: Exploring Silence, Religion, and Art

November 14, 2017

In April 2017, Paul Elie, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center, engaged in a public conversation with renowned film director Martin Scorsese, discussing Scorsese’s latest film, Silence, as part of Georgetown’s Faith and Culture Series. Since then, Elie has been Scorsese’s interlocutor in a similar discussion at the Catholic Media Conference in Quebec, and will join the director for a third conversation arranged for the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference on November 19.

The Beauty of Silence

Elie, author of two acclaimed books and an expert on religion, literature, and culture, wrote about Scorsese for the New York Times Magazine, which sparked his idea to invite the director to the Faith and Culture Series, after which Scorsese himself chose Elie as his interlocutor for future events. 

Scorsese’s Silence is an adaptation of the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo that explores complex and provocative religious themes by telling the story of three Jesuit missionaries in seventeenth century Japan and of the ways they are violently encouraged to renounce their faith. 

Elie, who has taught Endo’s novel for the past four years in a seminar course at Georgetown in anticipation of Scorsese’s adaptation, spoke about Scorsese’s talent for putting the vivid images of the novel on a screen. 

"To see how Scorsese imagines scenes from the novel is to see the paucity of the visual imagination that most readers—I mean myself—bring to the novel. Scorsese is also a virtuoso of violence. The book is extraordinarily violent, but I hadn't grasped how violent until seeing Scorsese dramatize the violence with the techniques he has developed through his long career,” Elie said. 

Different Audiences, Unique Conversations 

The discussions between Scorsese and Elie about Silence have taken place at distinctly different venues, each with its own audience, creating a unique experience and conversation every time, despite the consistent topic. 

For Elie, the conversation at Georgetown was particularly meaningful, as a result of the convergence of values in Scorsese’s works and Georgetown’s own mission and identity. 

"To speak with Scorsese at a Catholic university, in an auditorium with the names of Jesuit missionaries on the walls, was a powerful and affirmative experience,” Elie said. “The Catholic tradition is very present at Georgetown, and it’s a tradition that has had very powerful positive effects in Scorsese's life, and of course in my own life, too." 

At the Catholic Media Conference in Quebec, the discussion was framed in terms of questions that were addressed throughout the conference, such as How do you make religious belief believable for both believers and for people who might be suspicious of belief? and How do you use today's communication methods and technology to represent a tradition that's 2,000 years old

At the American Academy of Religion conference, Scorsese will be receiving the Religion and the Arts Award for Silence, with several thousand scholars of religion looking on through the lens of their own scholarly concerns. 

Silence is a brilliant novel, and now a brilliant movie, because it dramatizes the issues that are at the heart of most serious reflection on the role of religious faith today: questions of agency and power, of ownership and appropriation,” observed Elie. “That Scorsese could make a movie that is relevant in both an appreciative Jesuit culture and a hermeneutically suspicious scholarly culture is truly remarkable." 

A Culminating Project 

These conversations, while valuable on their own, are also contributing to a personal project Elie has been working on. 

Elie is writing a book about how religion, art, literature, and controversy all fit together in the late 1980s, which was when Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ came out and was the target of a boycott by fundamentalist Christians. “There will definitely be a chapter in the book about the film and the tempest surrounding it,” he said. 

Interacting with Scorsese has helped Elie gain a better understanding of the director’s methods and visions as a filmmaker, important for understanding all of his works. 

“What I have taken away from these conversations is Scorsese's extraordinary commitment to his films. This is what an artist does: he sees the picture in his mind and does what it takes to get the picture made, even if it takes years—even decades, as with Silence,” Elie said. “I am in awe by his commitment to this picture.”

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