BILLY SUTER reports on Silence, the new film by Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese. Based on Shusaku Endo’s award-winning 1966 novel of the same name, it examines the spiritual and religious question of God’s silence in the face of human suffering. The drama is scheduled for release on April 21.
IT WAS in 1988, at a special screening in New York for the city’s religious leaders, of his latest film The Last Temptation of Christ, that Martin Scorsese made the acquaintance of Archbishop Paul Moore.
It is on record that at that event, Moore, who was nearing the end of his tenure as the Episcopal Bishop of New York, presented the director with a copy of Shusaku Endo’s historical novel, Silence.
The book had been published in Japan in 1966 where it was highly praised, and was the subject, at the time, of the most intense, thorough and rigorous analysis. When an English edition of the book appeared some years later, the novel’s reputation as a profound examination of, and meditation upon, religious themes was further enhanced.
It tells the story of two 17th century Portuguese missionaries who undertake a perilous journey to Japan to search for their missing mentor, Father Christavao Ferreira, and to spread the gospel of Christianity.
The first time he read the book, Silence made a huge impression on Scorsese – it seemed to speak to him personally.
“The subject matter presented by Endo in his book has been in my life since I was very, very young,” Scorsese says in production notes for the film he has now made of Silence, opening on April 21.
“I was raised in a strong Catholic family and was very much involved in religion. The bedrock I still have is the spirituality of Roman Catholicism I was immersed in as a child, spirituality that had to do with faith.”
Scorsese goes on record to say that while reading the book he was astonished to discover it confronted the very deep and profound issues about Christianity that, as he puts it, “I still cope with constantly”.
He adds in production notes: “At this time in my life I continually think about –wonder about –faith and doubt, weakness, and the human condition, and these are the very themes that Endo’s book touches upon in a such a direct way.”
From the first time he read Silence, Scorsese was determined to make a movie of the book, he admits in the film’s production notes.
The novel, set in Japan in the era of Kakase Kirishitan (the ‘hidden Christians”), has been hailed as a supreme literary achievement and described by critics as one of the 20th century’s finest novels.
It takes as its starting point an historical Church scandal that had wide reverberations – the defection in Japan of a Jesuit Superior, Father Christovao Ferreira, who renounced his religion, became a Buddhist scholar and took a Japanese wife.
Scorsese’s great regard for Silence increased with further readings. As he had already begun working on a screen adaptation with his writing collaborator Jay Cocks in the late 1980s, he planned it as his next film project.Fate, however, had a different scenario in store.
To begin with, Scorsese says, “I wasn’t happy with the draft we came up with”.
He also encountered other problems, he says in production notes – not the least of which was finding the funding for such an undertaking. So he put the screenplay aside.
In the ensuing years, however, the director spent a great deal of time pondering the book’s themes and characters, continuing to work off on and off with Cocks on subsequent drafts of their screenplay.
Overall it took more than 15 years for the duo to complete what they both felt was a successful and workable script, one that gave expression and life to the novel’s deepest and most profound meanings.
With a screenplay finally completed to his satisfaction after so many years, Scorsese stepped up efforts to secure financing for the project.
Silence, filmed in Taiwan in 2015, stars Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider Man, Hacksaw Ridge), Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Paterson) and Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Taken).
The film follows the young missionaries, Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Driver), as they search for their missing teacher and mentor, and minister to the Christian villagers they encounter who are forced to worship in secret.
At that time in Japan, feudal lords and ruling Samurai were determined to eradicate Christianity in their midst; Christians were persecuted and tortured, forced to apostatise, that is, renounce their faith or face a prolonged and agonising death.
Co-starring in Silence is an ensemble cast featuring Ciarán Hinds (Munich) and some of Japan’s best-known actors – including Tadanobu Asano, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida Yosuke Kubozuka, Ryo Kase and Nana Komatsu.
While discussing the possibility of shooting in Taiwan, Scorsese reached out to director Ang Lee, who has extensive experience shooting in the country. Lee and his collaborators were integral to helping get the film made in Taiwan.
Discussing the movie, actor Garfield says: “The story confronts such deep and difficult material, timeless, huge in scope, huge in emotion”.
He adds: “It’s a lifetime the character goes through that we witness. He wrestles with the great and most important questions we all wrestle with – how to live a meaningful life, a life of faith, and does that require you to live in doubt as well. That’s just scratching the surface of why I was attracted to this story and this character.”