Silence Programme Note


‘On the face of it, believing and questioning are antithetical. Yet I believe that they go hand in hand.’ [1]

‘I’m saying that the voice that sparks you is your voice - that’s the inner light, as the Quakers put it. That’s you. That’s the truth.’ [2]

Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel Silence is a film about faith, arguably exclusively for people of faith. It’s a continuation of the director’s life-long struggle with his own and represents a conscious evolution of themes overtly explored earlier in his career. Anyone with a passing interest in Scorsese’s filmography will know the importance of religious themes to his work. Catholic themes of guilt and redemption run through his entire filmography, and, alongside a preoccupation with criminality, extreme violence and profanity, are hallmarks of his directorial identity. Although he has described himself as lapsed Catholic, Scorsese was raised in the church and almost entered the seminary as a young man. Only rarely, however, have such religious themes been foregrounded in his films.

Unlike Mean Streets (1973), in which Harvey Keitel’s lapsed Catholic struggles for redemption through self-sacrifice, or Bringing Out The Dead (1999), for which screenwriter Paul Schrader actively minimized the religious themes of the source text[3], Silence is a film about faith which arguably presupposes such faith in the audience. If there was any doubt, consider that Silence premiered at the Vatican with the Pope in attendance; and that Jesuit priest James Martin SJ, a consultant on the film, reported a fellow Jesuit saying, ‘This will be shown in Jesuit schools until the end of time.’[4] Scorsese himself has said, ‘We know there are a lot of people who are going to be scathing [of the film], I would think. Those without faith.’[5]

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Scorsese, whose childhood fascination with the Maryknoll missionaries (the so-called ‘Marines of the Catholic Church’), led to an ill-fated spell in a New York preparatory seminary, was introduced to Endō’s novel following an advance screening of his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' already controversial novel The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Scorsese’s work had provoked further controversy, including boycotts and even attacks on theatres by fundamentalist groups, necessitating such screenings ‘to show what it was rather than arguing about it without having seen it.’[6] A New York Archbishop subsequently sent him a copy of Silence, which, having read, Scorsese decided to adapt straightaway.

However, after securing the rights and engaging screenwriter Jay Cocks, Scorsese’s Silence stalled. ‘I didn’t really immediately know,’ the director has explained, ‘how to realise it, make it real, stage it, because I didn’t know the heart of it.’[7] Nevertheless, though he was ‘sidetracked’ again and again into other projects, through the years, the filmmaker inevitably returned to Silence. Beyond the challenge of realising the novel on screen, Scorsese has said, ‘it has given me a kind of sustenance that I have found in only a very few works of art.’[8] Scorsese now considers the making of the film ‘a pilgrimage. We are still on the road, and it’s never going to end.’[9]

What Scorsese struggled with was what he describes as ‘the heart of the book’, that ‘the vehicle that one takes towards faith, which can be very helpful - the institution of the church, the sacraments … ultimately it has to be yourself.’ He explains, ‘you have to find a relationship with Jesus with yourself, really, because ultimately that’s the one you face.’[10] For James Martin, Silence is superior to The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986), Hollywood’s last high-profile Jesuit project, in that it’s ‘less of a portrayal of the missionary from the outside in, and it’s more from the inside out.’[11]

For all the explicit religiosity of the project, at the heart of Scorsese’s film is the same thing that may also address the faithless, since the struggle depicted is essentially an existential one, challenging the consolation of unwavering, institutional faith. Andrew Garfield’s Rodrigues believes, ‘with all his heart, that he will be the hero of a Western story that we all know very well: the Christian allegory. He will be the Christ figure, with…his own Judas, a miserable wretch named Kichijiro.’[12] Scorsese explains, ‘the problem is, like in Mean Streets, the character Charlie chooses his own penance. You can’t do that.’[13] You must put your ego aside, the director asserts. ‘Once you do that, there’s only need - the needs of others - and questions of choosing penance or what compassion is or isn’t fall away. They become meaningless.’[14]

Sean Welsh
www.physicalimpossibility.com

[1] Martin Scorsese, Introduction to Shusaku Endo’s Silence (http://www.picador.com/blog/november-2016/martin-scorsese-on-silence) accessed 20/12/16

[2] Martin Scorsese, ‘A Letter To My Daughter’, 2 January 2014 (http://espresso.repubblica.it/visioni/2014/01/02/news/martin-scorsese-a-letter-to-my-daughter-1.147512) accessed 20/12/16

[3] Schrader explained, ‘I intentionally took out a lot of the religious references of the book we adapted, because I knew Marty and I had done this so much. It was time to lay off it, because it was going to find its way in anyway.’ (http://creativescreenwriting.com/transformation-in-art-the-films-of-paul-schrader/) accessed 20/12/16

[4] Father James Martin, ‘The Making of Silence, part I’ (https://thejesuitpost.org/2016/12/the-making-of-silence-part-i/) accessed 20/12/16

[5] Martin Scorsese, interviewed by James Martin SJ, for America Magazine (http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/full-transcript-interview-martin-scorsese) accessed 20/12/16

[6] Martin Scorsese, ibid.

[7] Martin Scorsese, ibid.

[8] Martin Scorsese, Introduction to Shusaku Endo’s Silence (http://www.picador.com/blog/november-2016/martin-scorsese-on-silence) accessed 20/12/16

[9] Martin Scorsese, interviewed by Emma Green, ‘Martin Scorsese’s Radical Act of Turning Theology Into Art’ (https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/12/martin-scorsese-silence-theology-art-jesuits/510827/) accessed 21/12/16

[10] Martin Scorsese, interviewed by James Martin SJ, for America Magazine (http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/full-transcript-interview-martin-scorsese) accessed 20/12/16

[11] James Martin SJ, America Magazine (http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/full-transcript-interview-martin-scorsese) accessed 20/12/16

[12] Martin Scorsese, Introduction to Shusaku Endo’s Silence (http://www.picador.com/blog/november-2016/martin-scorsese-on-silence) accessed 20/12/16

[13] Martin Scorsese, interviewed by James Martin SJ, for America Magazine (http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/full-transcript-interview-martin-scorsese) accessed 20/12/16

[14] Martin Scorsese, interviewed by Antonio Spadaro for La Civiltà Cattolica (http://www.laciviltacattolica.it/articolo/silence-interview-with-martin-scorsese/) accessed 20/12/16

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