Scorsese Gives Voice to the Challenges of Faith in "Silence"

April 13, 2017

Surrounded by walls listing the names of Jesuit priests of the past, audience members watched the spiritual journey of two Jesuits on screen in Martin Scorsese’s film Silence. The film, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, explores suffering, forgiveness, and faith during the peak of Christian persecution in seventeenth-century Japan and served as the subject of conversation between Martin Scorsese and Berkley Center Senior Fellow Paul Elie after the screening at Georgetown University’s April 11 event.

This movie tells the story of two Christian missionaries from Portugal, Fr. Sabastião Rodrigues and Fr. Francisco Garrpe, who travel to Japan in 1640 amidst violent Christian persecution in search of their mentor, who was rumored to have publicly denied his faith years before. As his struggled journey progresses, Fr. Rodrigues experiences the absolute silence of God—which Scorsese’s film is dedicated to explaining—and forces Rodrigues to question his faith entirely in a nation that outlawed Christianity for fear of losing its Japanese language, land, and culture.

Passion Project
Scorsese first discovered Endo’s Silence while on a bullet train bound for Kyoto, Japan, in 1989. It spoke to him, but years passed while he produced hits like Goodfellas, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street. But Silence was the picture he really wanted to create. Finally, 26 years later, filming began.

“It’s an amazing thing to be sitting here at my age and to have had this brewing in me for the past twenty-some odd years. More than that, really, since I was 8 years old,” Scorsese said.

Childhood Influence

Raised in an Italian family in New York, young Scorsese wanted to be a missionary. He spent time near St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral there, where he watched priests perform sacraments during Mass and witnessed the power of transubstantiation. To him, the Church pointed to a vast, open world. Movies did the same, and as a kid, his working-class parents often took him to see Italian classics like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City.

“With cinema itself—the movies—Hollywood films and Italian films, I was able to experience certain things that very often in the family we didn’t talk about openly. The medium of the movies just happens to be the way I ended up finding a way to express myself,” Scorsese said.

Knowing of Scorsese’s love for film and religion, a young priest introduced him to literature by Dwight Macdonald and Graham Greene in the 1950s.

“All those influences came together, but I found that certain films that I saw—certain experiences that I had—I lived by, I took with me, and they stayed with me.”

Silence Speaks Volumes

This film—a project that took decades to come to fruition—evokes Endo’s poignant message that faith may persist without institutional religion and confronts the internal conflict between professing and expressing faith amidst the crippling silence of God.

Of the film and his own emotional ties to it, Scorsese said, “I haven’t finished it. It’s not a movie I can finish.”

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