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Martin Scorsese’s Unwavering Faith

‘Silence’ isn’t the first of the director’s films to explore the question at the root of all religion: What are the limits of one’s devotion?

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

“When did you make your last confession?” asked Playboy in 1991.

“Oh,” began Martin Scorsese, playfully, “1965, I think.”

In 1965, Scorsese was 23. He had yet to make a feature film. A student in New York, he was closer in age to the asthmatic Lower East Side shut-in with working-class parents than to the director of Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street — closer to being the altar boy at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mott Street, who wouldn’t have sex until he was married, and whose abstinence from neighborhood violence nurtured in him a lifelong curiosity about it, than to being Hollywood’s preeminent chronicler of the pleasures, and perils, of the flesh. “I’ve been confessing most of the time since then on film,” Scorsese said, “so it doesn’t matter.”

“Can’t you help yourself from Catholicizing everything?” was the eventual comeback.

The answer in 1991 was no — and it remains so today, when even a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street, with its swaggering office sermons and confessional verve, can make the wild ecstasy of making bank feel like a sacred rite. Scorsese’s new movie, Silence, is his most explicitly Catholic film to date. Faith is its very subject. It is the story of two Jesuit priests, played by Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield, who travel to Japan amid the 17th-century shogunate’s deliriously violent purge and persecution of Japanese Christians and the missionaries leading them. They are attempting to retrieve their mentor Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a missionary rumored to have apostatized while in Japan in order to stay alive.

It’s a passion project that has obsessed Scorsese for almost 30 years — which is how long it has taken the director to get it made. There are, accordingly, many stories about its trying spell in the pipeline: the numerous failed attempts of Scorsese and Gangs of New York collaborator Jay Cocks to nail down a dramatically satisfying script, the over $3.5 million spent on fees and lengthy court battles over rights to the material, and on and on. Scorsese’s insistence on making the movie has for some been viewed as a gesture of devotion. And that’s to say nothing of the mysteries of its actual production, stories like those of Garfield, who recalls immersing himself so completely in preparation for the role that even he began to long, like his character Father Rodrigues, to spread the word of Christ.

It was in the aftermath of making his first religious passion project, 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, that Scorsese was given Shusaku Endo’s book Silence, establishing a neat link between that film and his new one. This version of Scorsese’s history is attractive: It’s the stuff of myth, suggesting a faith in cinema — an utter spiritual dependence on it — that’s colored our perception of the director since almost the beginning. “In a country where the Protestant ethic doesn’t seem to have worked out too well,” wrote Pauline Kael early in his career, “it makes sense that directors of Catholic background” — Scorsese, as well as peers like Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman — “speak to the way Americans feel now.” A.O. Scott once described Scorsese’s “extracurricular good works” — his career-long lobbying for film preservation, his efforts to promote film history and the great works of other filmmakers — as a “testament to his abiding faith.” In the medium, that is.

“People say obsession,” said Scorsese recently of his devotion to movies. “I guess maybe it is obsession, where you can’t continue unless you do it.” Silence is a film about the perils of boundless devotion — to God, and also to movies. But it’s also a grand, enduring testament to them.

(Paramount Pictures)
(Paramount Pictures)

There really was a missionary named Cristóvão Ferreira. As Scorsese dramatizes and as Endo wrote, Ferreira was the first of the Portuguese priests to fall during the mass Christian purges of the 1600s. Christianity had arrived in Japan almost 100 years earlier, and had flourished — until wariness over encroaching imperialism settled in. That’s when the shogunate began to design extravagant spiritual and physical tortures to stamp out what the 1614 edict declaring Christianity’s expulsion from Japan called “the germ of a great disaster.”

Christians were forced to step on a fumi-e: a copper engraving of the image of Christ. To step on it or deface it is to apostatize and renounce one’s faith. In Silence, we see Japanese Christians doused with scalding water from a hot spring, cupful by excruciating cupful, while crucified, because they refused to step on the fumi-e — or because the magistrate doesn’t care that they did. We see them bound in straw bundles and burned alive — or tossed into the sea to drown. Some are strung up by their feet over pits filled with excrement and rotting meat and left to bleed out from small incisions behind each ear. Father Rodrigues’s special torture is that by stepping on the fumi-e he might save the lives of peasants — that by renouncing God himself, he might save the Japanese who are being killed for harboring him during his search. The worthiness of his own martyrdom is thrown into question.

What resonates in these moments is the characters’ faith, of course. But the true risk of Scorsese’s film is that it approaches folly — in part because, as an austere and intellectually ambitious religious film that raises sharp questions about the principles of faith, it risks not connecting with or, worse, alienating its potential audience. He’s been here before. The first time Scorsese made a straight-up religious picture, he caused such a ruckus among religious communities that theaters showing the movie were vandalized, even gassed, and protesters gathered by the hundreds to decry his art. That’s the story of The Last Temptation of Christ, which became a key text in the culture wars of the ’80s, as chronicled by Thomas R. Lindlof in Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars. The next time he made a religious film, Scorsese got himself banned from China. That’s the story of 1997’s Kundun, Scorsese’s passionate chronicle of the life of the Dalai Lama, including his exile from Tibet in the face of encroaching Chinese rule. The movie so thoroughly pissed off China that nearly 20 years later, Disney, which backed the film, had to denounce it in order to be allowed to build a theme park in Shanghai.

Scorsese has never made it easy for himself, which is what Silence has in common with those earlier films: They are all trying to do the impossible. Imagine trying to depict the psychological history of the Dalai Lama, for example, whose inner life is said to be a reincarnation, meaning he’s a man for whom revelations of the self — which are fundamental to storytelling — are already known and taken for granted. In a way, Kundun exemplifies the challenge of the modernizing Tibet at its center, in that it is free-floating and independent but anchored down, too, in tradition. Last Temptation, meanwhile, had the challenge of living up to its title, giving dramatic heft to an idea many would rather not think about (hence the protests): that Jesus was tempted, while on the cross, to reject martyrdom and step down and live as a man (i.e., have sex with Mary Magdalene).

Like those films, Silence faces problems of representation. It’s a story that relies on rituals of brutal sacrifice, and on the Jesuit priests’ bearing witness to that sacrifice, to help us understand what is at stake in a true belief in God. How do you tell that story? In fact, it’s been told before — the first time in 1971, by Japanese New Wave director Masahiro Shinoda, who worked directly on his adaption with the author Endo, but whose version of the novel is less sympathetic to faith. Actually, Shinoda’s film, with its greater emphasis on the history of Japan and the reasoned, albeit cruel, logic behind Christian persecution, is more bewildered by faith than expressive of it. He depicts levels of pain and fear that make the refusal to renounce God for the sake of carrying on seem incredibly foolish.

Scorsese’s Silence depicts the same pain, and more violently, but his exploration of the faith behind the Christians’ endurance in some ways feels like a rebuttal to Shinoda’s effort. However, Scorsese’s film also risks leaving underexplored the inner lives of the Japanese Christians, who’ve sustained their religion despite ongoing political terror. Only one of them, Kichijiro, stands out with complexity, and it’s because he emblematizes weak faith. He steps on the fumi-e repeatedly — he makes it look comparatively easy — and eventually plays the Judas. Yet he’s a Christian, too, and we sense he’s as riddled with inner turmoil as Father Rodrigues and the others. The magistrate enacting all that terror, Inquisitor Inoue (played with wry comedic intelligence by Issey Ogata, who ought to be making a bigger splash in the Best Supporting Actor conversation), is the best character in the movie, carrying with him untold political cunning and cruelty. “Father,” he says to Rodrigues late in the movie, “you were not defeated by me. You were defeated by this swamp of Japan.”

Scorsese is perhaps less curious about the implications of this idea, and all it dredges up about Catholicism’s role in imperialism, than he could be. But his strategies as a filmmaker often open the movie up to cunning aesthetic extremes, from beautifully wide panoramas that undercut secularized violence with the grace of nature, to a penetrating voiceover (Garfield’s) that probes unanswerable questions. The filmmaker takes creative leaps that echo the weirder stretches of Last Temptation; there, it was a talking lion, the voice of the devil, and here it’s the voice of God himself. God’s image, lifted from icons, is set against a blank screen, singular and oddly large. It’s stark, calling out both the icon’s artifice and its singular beauty. Later, the same image gets transposed onto the face of Father Rodrigues — because he’s a martyr, or rather, because he seems to want to be. Is this a shortcoming of faith? Every moment like this has an inherent push-pull; the film, for all it has to say about devotion, revels in the ambiguity over what that means.

“Pictures that interest me as much as possible personally,” Scorsese told Playboy in 1991, “are experimental and stay within the system somehow so that they can be shown in theaters. I’ve always tried to blend ‘personal’ movies with being inside the industry.” But in Hollywood, money is the one true faith. (And the expensive auteur-driven failures proffered by Scorsese’s generation — including Scorsese’s own New York, New York — are in part to blame for that.) The actors worked for scale on Silence, as they did on Last Temptation and occasionally elsewhere. The movie may very well tank.

And yet it stands out as one of the most challenging films by a major Hollywood director in recent memory. The movie is an enriching confrontation with something almost too large to sink one’s teeth into; you spend two hours and 40 minutes mired in questions Scorsese has been working toward his entire life. It’s a tough watch. But imagine feeling that you couldn’t go on without seeing these images, without being the one who brings them to life. Scorsese understands better than anyone else that an undertaking this big risks falling short of grace. “The journey that the picture put us on meant something — or means something. And it also means it’s not finished,” he said recently, with a shrug. “It just isn’t finished. It means you don’t find it. It means you keep looking.”