An Interview with Martin Scorsese

Faith, Film & 'Silence'
This story is included in these collections
Martin Scorsese / photo courtesy Paramount

On December 23, Paramount will release Silence, Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited film about the persecution of Christians in 17th-century Japan, based on the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo. One of the last century’s most celebrated Japanese novelists, Endo has been called “the Japanese Graham Greene.” Greene himself praised Silence as “one of the finest novels of our time;” John Updike judged it “somber, delicate, and startlingly empathetic;” and Robert Coles, writing in Commonweal after Endo’s death in 1996, called it “a major witness to Christian introspection.”

Endo was a Catholic, and his novel covers a brutal period in Japan’s history, in the time of the Togukawa shogunate, when feudal lords expelled Catholic missionaries and tortured or killed thousands of Japanese Catholics who refused to renounce their faith. Silence takes off from the history of an actual Portuguese Jesuit priest, Cristóvão Ferreira, who in 1633 apostatized after being tortured, then joined Japanese society, marrying, accepting Buddhism, and assuming a Japanese identity. It chronicles the travails of two fictional Jesuit priests sent to minister to the “hidden Christians” of Japan—“to give them courage,” their superior charges them, “and to ensure that the tiny flame of faith does not die out”—while investigating the fate of their former mentor, Ferreira.

Captured by samurai, the priests are forced to witness the cruel execution of a number of their congregants; the drama hinges on whether one of the priests, Rodrigues, will capitulate to a magistrate’s demand that he apostatize by stepping on a fumie, an engraved image of Christ’s face deployed by inquisitors to test the hidden Christians. Rodrigues’s dilemma raises the question: to save your life, and the lives of others, can you renounce your faith while remaining a Christian in your heart? Replete with crucifixions, burnings, and water tortures, Silence explores the persistence of faith amid fathomless hardship. It portrays the difficulty of sinking Christian roots in what Endo called “the swamp” of Japan, and explores the Judas-like figure of Kichijiro, the priest’s guide and translator—part cunning rogue, part cowardly wretch, and an apostatized Christian himself—who ultimately betrays them.

Martin Scorsese read Silence in the late 1980s, and has been trying to make a movie of it ever since. Having finally untied “an extraordinarily complex legal and financial Gordian knot,” the director began shooting the film in January 2015, from a script he co-wrote with Jay Cocks, his collaborator on Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence. Scorsese has been on a roll in recent years, with five of his last six films nominated for Best Picture Oscars, and Silence stars Liam Neeson as the lost Fr. Ferreira, with Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as Rodrigues and Garrpe, his pursuers.

Silence is a big departure for a director celebrated for chronicles of urban American mayhem—the wiseguy romps, set to raucous popular music, of such Scorsese classics as Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino. Shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros, Brokeback Mountain), his new film possesses a somber, brooding simplicity well suited to its austere subject matter. The meditative stillness of its remote natural settings amplifies Rodrigues’s solitude in captivity, highlighting his trials of doubt and his temptation to despair. “I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore,” the priest says in a voiceover. “Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God... the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish, God remains with folded arms, silent.” As William Cavanaugh wrote about Endo’s novel in Commonweal in 1998, “Silence probes the strangeness of the Incarnation and death of Christ, the mystery of a God who does not simply wipe away the world's suffering, but chooses to share in it.”

Commonweal contributing editor and film critic Rand Richards Cooper spoke with Martin Scorsese in New York in late November. The interview ranged from the director’s childhood on the Lower East Side of 1950s Manhattan and the priests who played a formative role; to his early dream of making a film about Jesus in New York City and his later dismay at the controversy over his 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ; to the ups and downs of a career in Hollywood; his work over the years with Robert DeNiro; and, with Silence, to his decades-long mission to bring to the screen a remarkable historical film about the trials and vicissitudes of faith. Their conversation follows in full below.

 

RAND RICHARDS COOPER: Martin Scorsese, thanks for sitting down today to talk about your film, Silence. You wrote the introduction to the new paperback edition of Shusaku Endo’s novel, and in it you say that Silence has been precious to you over the years, that it’s given you sustenance very few novels have given you.  Can you tell us how you came to the novel, and why it’s been so important to you?

MARTIN SCORSESE: Well, in August of 1988, we had a screening of Last Temptation of Christ, here in New York—a screening of the unfinished film, for religious groups that were complaining about it, or concerned about it, or angry about it. We screened the film, and that evening, a bunch of us got together at a hotel nearby: Tom Pollock, the head of Universal, and Casey Silver, I think Sean Daniels, myself, the producer, my editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and her husband Michael Powell, and a friend of mine, Fr. John Keenan, whom I was at Cathedral Prep with back in the 1950s—he’s a priest, a friend, from Chicago, but who now is stationed in Molokai.  Stationed may not be the right word.  I have to be careful with your magazine. [laughs.] Maybe fifteen people altogether. One gentleman came to the dinner wanting to talk to us, he said, because he believed that the film was “Christologically correct.” Christologically—I was not aware of that word! In any event, that gentleman was Paul Moore.

RRC:   The Episcopal Archbishop of New York at that time.

MS:     Yes. He came with his wife. We had a wonderful talk that night. He talked about his work with inmates in prison. He talked about the importance of ritual. I was talking against that; he pointed out certain issues that I should take into consideration. It was the kind of dialogue that I hoped that The Last Temptation of Christ would create. Anyway, the archbishop, as he was leaving, said, “I have a book that I’d like to give you. I’ll send it to you.” He explained a little about the Japanese Christians, about the apostasy and the fumie. So I got the book.

RRC:   What happened then?

MS:     A year went by, dealing with the ramifications of Last Temptation of Christ, and in August of ’89, I was shooting Goodfellas for Warner Brothers, and I was fifteen days over schedule. In the meantime, Francis Coppola had told [famed Japanese director] Akira Kurosawa that it would be okay to ask me to play the part of Van Gogh in his movie Dreams. Kurosawa had met me once; he liked the way I spoke, fast, and he imagined Van Gogh speaking that way. And I had a beard. And Francis said, “Sure! Write to Marty. He’ll do it.” Kurosawa wrote to me in a very respectful and apologetic way, and I agreed to do it. So I was studying his script while we were shooting Goodfellas, because it was a six- or seven-page scene, with lots of dialogue. And I’m not that kind of actor.  I do acting, but I usually play myself!

RRC:   Right.

MS:     In any event, as we went over schedule on Goodfellas, he was finishing shooting Dreams, and he’s waiting for me in Hokkaido. And he was eighty-one years old, and it’s Akira Kurosawa. So two days after our shooting was completed, we got on a plane to Japan. And that’s where I read Silence. In fact I finished reading the book on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. And I immediately felt that this was the road to take, in terms of a more profound understanding of faith. 

At the time I felt I’d said everything I could say, everything I wanted to say, with Last Temptation. Nikos Kazantzakis’s take on the story, the whole idea of Judas and Jesus, all the ideas of Last Temptation: I had explored it as much as I could, I thought. But the Endo novel took it all much further.  How and why? I wasn’t sure then, but I knew we should try to option the book, and see if I could ever come around to figuring a way to make it. How could I make a film in Japan, on Japanese culture, which I adore and learned a great deal from? That was 1989, and the script wasn’t finally written until 2006.

RRC:   Why did it take eighteen years? 

MS:     I didn’t know how to do it! One of the big issues is the apostasy, of course, and the voice of Jesus, and Rodrigues giving up his faith to gain his faith, the paradox of that. And the epilogue was difficult. We tried writing the script. I got the rights to the book —the Cecchi Goris got it for me, Vittorio and his father, Mario. They’re film producers. And Mario happened to be an authority on that period. So was Jacques Chirac, by the way. When I met him, he talked about this, said he couldn’t wait to see the film.

RRC:   Really? You met Jacques Chirac, the president of France, and he talked about this book? Or about this period?

MS:     The book and the period. This was around 2004 or 2005. I was in France for Aviator. Chirac wanted to meet us and say hello. He was the president at the time. And his wife was something of a Chinese and Japanese scholar. Actually, a lot of Japanese literature I read came through her giving me books—Donald Keene, Junichiro Tanzaki’s In Praise of Shadows, all his novels. Anyway, the Cecchi Goris got the option for us; it was ’90, or ’91, I think, in Cannes. And then Jay Cocks and I tried to write a version of it, and we got about a third of the way through, and I got too bogged down by the details.

RRC:   How so?

MS:     I didn’t know where to stop with it. Take nature, for example, and the priests’ landing on the island. It’s almost as if they land on another planet, and nature affects them differently. Well, how do I show that nature? After that failed attempt at writing the script, I got involved in making other films. 

RRC:   Just quickly, to tie up Last Temptation. Fr. Andrew Greeley wrote back then, in the Times, that those who protested your portraying a Jesus subject to doubt, fear, and desire were guilty of a heresy, the heresy of Docetism.

MS:     Docetism, yes. But I don’t know that stuff! [Laughs]

RRC:   Docetism essentially says that Jesus wasn’t really human at all.  Greeley called it a misguided attempt to protect Jesus from participating in human fallenness.

MS:     Exactly. The concept of Kazantzakis’s story was that the temptation was not power; it was just a simple human life. The beauty and the gift of our existence, the gift of our lives, is the temptation. And I always thought that was quite beautiful.

RRC:   What do you make, thirty years later, of the big flap over this film? What caused it?  

MS:     I think it started here in America. There’s a very good book written about it, called Hollywood Under Siege [by Thomas R. Lindlof], that goes through everything. It had to do with evangelical power at that time. Remember Tammy Faye Bakker and Jim Bakker? They had these theme parks going. They had television stations going. Jimmy Swaggart. All of them had great power, and a great influence on American culture. Then they fell from grace, and when they did, there was a period where it was a little easier for me to get the film made. But before that they in effect stopped the making of the film, back in 1983. They sent letters to Marvin Davis of Gulf & Western, who was above Barry Diller and Michael Eisner at Paramount. They stopped it. They stopped Salah Hassanein, who was the head of the UA theater chain, the biggest theater chain in America, from showing the film. Well, we had a $19 million budget—today that would be, what, $80 million? Do you blame Paramount for saying, “Why should we spend this money if the theaters won’t show it?”

RRC:   Right.

MS:     So I realized that the picture had to be a cut-down budget. I was fine with that. And Mike Ovitz, my agent, was the one who really pulled it together in 1986. He had me meet Tom Pollock over at Universal. Tom made a deal with Garth Trebinski of Cineplex Odeon Theaters. He’s based in Canada. Garth said that his theaters would play the film, and that started it. The budget went down to $6 million—from $19 million to $6 million. 

RRC:   With all that in the background, is there nervousness now about a film as intensely religious as Silence?

MS:      I think nervousness only in the sense that, is there an audience for it? Getting back to Last Temptation, though, I think there may have been a kind of reflex action against the picture through rumor. We were shooting the film, and things were fine. Editing the film, and things were fine. But people were out there saying, “They’re blaspheming, they have no respect for the Christian religion, and they have no respect for you.” It was rumor.

RRC:   How did that strike you, to be accused of having no respect for the Christian religion?

MS:     I was pretty devastated. The press conference at the Venice Film Festival was quite an extraordinary experience. It was like a happening of some kind, from the ‘60s. People were yelling, demonstrations were going on, pro and against. Questions were being posed which were not questions but soliloquies [laughs]. It was Italy, you know!

RRC:   Did you appreciate being in the middle of all that, as a spectacle, or were you just annoyed and overwhelmed?

MS:     Look, I felt the conviction was there on my part. This could be ego speaking, but at that time I knew—how should I put it?—that I could argue the film’s take on Jesus. I felt I could argue it reasonably, with reasonable people, as long as they were open to serious discussion. Which wasn’t the case. But, not to be egotistical, I did feel strongly connected to that material, and to that way of thinking about it—and to changing the image of the Jesus that I had grown up watching. The popular representation of Jesus in the mind of the average moviegoer was coming out of Cecil B. DeMille. Pretty much all films made on religious subject matter were biblical epics. And the best one, of course, was Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew. My original idea was in the early ‘60s. I had realized you could start making films with 16-millimeter black-and-white, because of John Cassavetes doing Shadows, and I had a dream that I could maybe make a film someday. And immediately I thought of making a film of the Gospel, but set on the Lower East Side, in the tenements, in modern dress. And the crucifixion would be on the West Side docks, and in black-and-white. And then I saw Pasolini’s Gospel, and I said, “No, there’s no way for me to do it.”

RRC:   What was the attraction, the vision, of Jesus in New York?

MS:     Jesus said—when they complained about him, when they said, “Look, he’s hanging around with alcoholics, prostitutes, tax collectors,” and they asked him why he would do that—he said, “Well, the ones who are good, they don’t need the doctor, basically.” And so I always wondered: what about where I grew up, in the Bowery? What about the people who were dying in front of me, the alcoholics who were dying in the streets? What about the underworld? What about the people who wound up doing bad things, but they’re really genuinely good people? What if we do a film, and Jesus is here, on 8th Avenue? At that time, 8th and 9th Avenue was pretty bad. It’s where we shot Taxi Driver. It is a different planet now. But that was the city, and that’s what I grew up with. I heard things. I saw things. I was in the atmosphere. 

RRC:   So this idea of Jesus in contemporary New York—that never came to fruition?

MS:     No. Once I saw Gospel According to Matthew, it just changed everything. And then I saw Pasoloni’s Accattone, and that changed it too, because that’s Jesus, also. The scene where Franco Citti goes to visit his son, who’s about five years old, because he needs money. He’s a pimp, and he needs a lot of money. His wife is taken away by her family, to protect her, and they’re living in these shacks. There’s a pool of dirty water, and the little boy is sitting there by the water. It’s a great shot. The boy is on the right of the frame, and Citti’s on the left. And he kneels down. He says, “Hey, I’m your father.” And the truth of it was so overwhelming and so powerful, because he looks at the boy, who’s about four years old, playing in the dirt, and the boy has a little crucifix on, a gold crucifix. And he’s talking to the boy, and he goes, “Come!  Give your father a hug.  Give your father a hug.” And he steals the crucifix [laughs]. So that is the truth, and that’s what I kind of know, in a way. Who is that person? And how could Jesus love a wretch like this? In Silence that wretch is Kichijiro.

RRC:   You said about Last Temptation that the challenge was for you to get to know Jesus better and take his ideas seriously. Ideas about love, about loving God, loving your neighbor. What does Silence represent, in terms of perhaps a somewhat different or updated menu of challenges, compared with what you were after back then?

MS:      It’s been almost thirty years since that picture, so there’s been a long process—slamming around, making films, bouncing off the walls, dealing with certain themes, ideas, sometimes just the joy of creativity. Like a film like Aviator, for example, which was just a joy to make. Appreciating the moments of grace that I received during those years, to be able to make certain films and meet certain people. Careening and stumbling through a personal life, and still trying to deal with—how should I put it?—the moral issues in living every day, especially in a very complex society. You make cinema, you make films; they’re shown. “Hollywood” is a tough environment. The values are tough. So it helped crystallize what’s really ultimately important in life.

RRC:   Making Silence did that?

MS:     Yeah.  It kept me going, because I knew that stripping away everything ultimately comes down to God and you. The priest can be there to help, to guide, to sustain; an institution of the church. It can be very helpful. But what if there isn’t any? What if you’re alone? In Silence ultimately it’s him alone, God and him. That’s what it comes down to. And it comes down to the examination of what is God, who is God? The silence of God; your voice is in the silence, which also is in the Old Testament, I believe. Is it Isaiah?

RRC:   Loneliness and solitude in this film are very intense.

MS:     Very. Very.

RRC:   It’s not something I’d normally associate with a Martin Scorsese film.

MS:     Well, I usually spend a lot of my time alone. I was terrified of being alone for such a long time, because of my asthma. And there were periods in the ’70s where I was terrified of being alone. I had to have people around me all the time. At any rate, Silence kept me on track over the years. I had to do different things along the way. I had to do different pictures. We were fortunate to have a child, Helen and I, in 1999.  She’s seventeen now. That changed things. I have two older daughters and a granddaughter.  I just wondered what was really important in life.

RRC:    Silence has been called one of the great historical novels of our time. What are the challenges of making a story set four hundred years ago? History isn’t just a record of what happened in the past; it’s an inquiry into what human beings were like. Watching your film, I found myself wondering, what are the humps that a twenty-first century American viewer has to get over in order to comprehend this very different mindset? Did you think about this?

MS:     Oh, yes. In my mind it was very clear. The priests in Silence belonged to the Society of Jesus, so they belonged to a group, a religious institution. Something has happened to their mentor. They go to look for him. And it’s as if we were to go to another planet today. They go to a place that couldn’t be more different from where they live, both physically—I mean, the actual landscape itself—and culturally. That means the way people speak, and their body language, and every aspect of how they live: how they write, if they do write; how they drink water, inside a kind of bamboo thermos, so to speak. How they live with nature around them. And their perception of the world and the universe around them. I couldn’t really try to explain any of that; I just had to let it happen. I had to let it happen through, for example, the behavior of the inquisitor and the behavior of the interpreter. The interpreter has no name. Is he even really an interpreter? When he’s asked certain questions, he says, “I cannot comment on things from the inquisitor’s office.” Now, in making the film, I knew what their hierarchy was, from the research we did. But if you’re stuck there, like Rodrigues, you’re caught, you don’t know who’s coming into that jail cell or that hut of twigs. You just don’t know. I did get bogged down at first in trying to write this script, and trying to explain a different world and different time, but I realized I had to let it play out. A lot of it is though the pacing. How to find the pacing that is appropriate for that world, without losing an audience?

RRC:   How did you do that? 

MS:     Two ways. In writing the script with Jay Cocks, I cut away as much as possible, in terms of visuals. For example, the two priests are waiting in the hut, and they’re having a problem with lice. To show the hut, I just shot the thatched roof with the rain hitting it. That’s it. There’s very little camera movement. It’s really the stillness of everything around them, and the life that that stillness contains, too. The life we’re not aware of. The life of the animals, the life of the insects, the subconscious harmony of the world. The only thing to do is to hold it, and let it sink in a bit, the way it had to sink into them. 

RRC:   Things like that make the film seem very carefully composed, and there’s a meditative feeling that comes out of it. But that’s an ambiguous quality, because meditative moments in this film often take place in confinement.

MS:     That’s right.

RRC:   With terrible things happening beyond. So a meditative reality can be lacerating.

MS:     True, but it’s still meditative. That’s why it was very important to shoot the atrocities and the horrors occurring around Rodrigues only from his point of view. As you say, why does God allow evil things to happen, and we can’t do anything about it? It’s the helplessness that is life. Rodrigues is in the cell, and he’s looking out. The samurai attacks one of the Christians, and he can’t do anything about it. And he may even be responsible. In any event, we got all of this first through the visualizing of the picture on the page, in a hotel.

RRC:   Visualizing what? Which picture?

MS:     Silence, every scene! Visualizing even where the light was coming from, what source of light. Because I’m not a rustic person. I really don’t understand nature. I have asthma, and I was always kept in rooms, and I saw brick walls, and that’s it. So when it says they land on the beach—well, in my mind, they land. The boat pulls up to docks near the beach, and they walk over, right? Well, it turns out that big boats cannot do that. They have to get in a little boat, then get in the water, and then walk through the water and swim to shore, which changes everything, in terms of my visual concepts. I also had to be very aware of having enough in the frame to tell the story, to explain to the viewer the narrative action of that moment. It was down to basics, down to the basics of how you tell a story. I had designed editing sequences, all edited beforehand. All of this stuff, even the width of the boat, the deck of the small boat Rodrigues is in when he puts his hand in the water and says “the water tastes like vinegar, and I think of Your Son on the cross.” That’s all designed. The wide shot, with the floor in front of him. We even lengthened it, to isolate him more, to show the boatman that way. It was concentrated. It was almost claustrophobic, in a way. And then he lands on the beach, and it’s heaven, and it’s paradise. It opens up.

RRC:   Paraiso, the Japanese Christians call it.

MS:     Paraiso. It opens up, and there’s this landscape, and the sea behind him. It was amazing. So when we got to the tops of these mountains, very often I had some shots planned. I tried to work out the thought, and I thought about it with my cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto. I’d bring it up to him, and say, “Here’s the angle.”

RRC:   Where were you shooting?

MS:     All over Taiwan, which is a very similar landscape to Kyushu.

RRC:   Can you talk about the importance of devotional objects in the movie? I was struck by how much time the camera spends on rosary beads, hand-fashioned crosses, and of course the fumie. Given the meditative quality we’re talking about, and also the stripped-down world of eighteenth-century Japanese peasants, what were you trying to do with devotional objects?

MS:     Well, the people have nothing. This is something that’s carefully described in the novel. Rodrigues observes that they really want devotional objects, and he provides what he can. “They may give more importance to them than they should,” he says; “but who are we to deny them?” Because that’s all they have. They are nowhere, and have nothing. I realized, for instance, that in the farmhouse where we wanted to have tatami mats, well, they’re too poor for tatami. And is a bowl of rice good? No, they’re too poor to have rice. So to have an image that makes these people understand that, as human beings, they have value—that they have souls, and that the trials of this life are something that will pass—and that there is such a thing as salvation: well, this image reminds them of that. There’s nothing else there for them; there are no priests, you see. So the Madonna of the Snows has become very important, and the Madonna herself is very important, because as Endo writes in A Life of Jesus, the Japanese fear four things: earthquakes, lightning—oh, God; I forget. Earthquakes, lighting, fire, and fathers.

RRC:   And fathers?

MS:     Yes. A punitive God, they didn’t need that; it was the nurturing and merciful God that spoke to them. And the Madonna of the Snows is very important to Japanese painting.  So for a copy of that to be hidden in the mats—that’s something that really comforted them. Toward the beginning of the film, when they’re doing confession, we see it. At one point, one of the Christians, Ichizo, lifts some sort of a straw mat, and under it is a picture, and he lifts it up. And then it’s placed over the altar, and they say the Mass.

RRC:   I’m struck by the persistence of Christian faith among people who are isolated and impoverished, hardly have the vocabulary for that faith, and have no priestly person on hand. And I know that the faith continued in Japan, if you follow the arc of history after the close of the story you tell in Silence.

MS:     Yes!

RRC:   Japan is closed for two hundred years, and then comes the nineteenth century.

MS:     Gunboats are sent in to do trade.

RRC:   And it turns out that at least some permutation of Christian faith has persisted for two hundred years?

MS:     That’s right! The hidden Christians, out on Goto and those islands. But the other important point about the objects, like the cross that Rodrigues gives Mokichi in the beginning of the film: it’s more about the hands, and how the hands enfold upon each other when he passes it to him.

RRC:   Right. You have a very long close-up of that. What were you trying to do with that?

MS:     Well, it’s the connection. It’s the compassion, and it’s the—how should I put it? The unifying element of being human, that we’re all one. The reverence of it, I think, is really important. They had nothing else, but they had this faith.

RRC:   I’m interested in the ambivalence that Fr. Rodrigues has toward these people. He’s awed by the power of their faith, but at times he wonders what that faith amounts to; he wonders if it’s real Christian faith. He has difficulty communicating with them. There are moments when he even seems physically repulsed by them.   

MS:     Well, part of this is a story I always wanted to make about a priest, a young man who becomes a priest. I always talk about the one priest who had a great influence on me, Francis Principe, who was a diocesan priest at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. He was very young. This was in 1953. I was eleven, so from eleven to seventeen, he was a very important figure. He gave us Graham Greene’s books to read.

RRC:   And there’s more than a little Graham Greene in the Endo.

MS:     Yes. The Power and the Glory. I reread that while we were shooting the picture. Fr. Principe gave us Greene to read, he gave us Dwight Macdonald, the critic. He made us really think differently. He was a formative figure for us during those very formative years. I wanted to be a priest; I wanted to be like him. And I wound up in a prep seminary, but I was thrown out.

RRC:   Why?

MS:     I realized I didn’t have a vocation. Like they say, many are called, but few are chosen. You need a deeper commitment, and I didn’t quite understand that.  And that led me to think about the modern-day saint. How could you be a saint in the modern world? Can being a cleric be closer to sainthood? You’re an inside man, so to speak. Now, if that’s the case, then, how does one deal with ego and pride? How does one become selfless, in a world like this? That has always stayed with me, and I think that’s part of what Rodrigues is going through in Silence. He’s dealing with his own pride. At one point Ferreira tells him, You know, they have humility. They don’t think of themselves as Jesus. You do.

RRC:   It’s interesting that Ferreira is given powerful points to make. He’s speaking from a position of having abandoned the faith, but he’s pretty persuasive in many ways. Do you view this as another kind of temptation? As a voice of truth?

MS:     I think it’s a provocation.

RRC:   A provocation. Hmm.

MS:     It’s a provocation. You have to deal with it. He did give in. Now we don’t know how or when Ferreira died. There was talk in that century that he came back; that he renounced his apostasy on his deathbed. But no one’s sure, and no one really knows. Ferreira was the strong man there; he was the scout. And if he gave in, that’s a problem, for all the aegises of Catholic Europe.

RRC:   There’s a Heart of Darkness-like structure to this story. Is that something you were consciously thinking of?

MS:     No. [laughs] No! Because I think there’s such beauty in the landscape and the people on the way to find Ferreira, whereas Heart of Darkness is so terrifying. I reread that about ten years ago. It’s absolutely terrifying. Anyway, Ferreira is provocative; there’s no doubt. Did Ferreira really lose his faith? We talked about that a lot. I think, you know, in a sense Ferreira didn’t hear Jesus. But Rodrigues does.

RRC:    Let’s talk about the act of apostatizing, which is so central to the drama of your film.  That drama hinges on whether the priest will renounce his religion by stepping on the fumie, on the image of Christ. And he’s very reluctant to do so, even when lives are at stake. Meanwhile, his tormentors are urging him on, saying, “This means nothing.” 

MS:     Yes, they say it’s “just a formality.”

RRC:   And perhaps some viewers are going to think, “Well, absolutely! That’s all it is.”  Because he can do it and still reserve his own inner sense of actual faith.

MS:     They don’t know that. They don’t know that.

RRC:   But he will save people, and moreover we understand, in effect, that a gun is being held to his head. It’s a little bit like when statements are coerced out of hostages. We understand those statements are meaningless. A gun is being held to your head; it is a formality. So how do you address this problem?

MS:     I think it points us toward what the depth of the religion, the depth of the faith, really is. If you strip away everything, what really matters? Your belief, your faith, and how that faith has you relate to the people around you. And if you fall—if you commit what the Japanese called korobu—you have to learn to forgive yourself. Which is a problem. The implication in Endo’s epilogue is that Rodrigues consistently had to sign oaths of apostasy and renunciation because he may have continued administering to Christians within the prison compound. This is what’s implied by the scene where we see him signing, which means he never gave—

RRC:   I thought that was just a gratuitous humiliation of him.

MS:     No, no. Kichijiro says, “What happened? I saw the inquisitor’s men were here. Was it just another?” All of it—the implications with the woman that Rodrigues was married to, the body language—all of it was based upon the epilogue, which we finally distilled down until it made it clear to us that Rodrigues still had his faith. He still tried. He got to the very heart of what Christianity is, and Jesus. I think he really did.

RRC:   By doing what?

MS:     [long pause] Well, being part of an organized group has certain dogma and rules, right? Ultimately, those are taken away. What’s left? I’m not saying it’s bad to have dogma and rules, if you can live your life according to that and help other people according to that. But what if it’s stripped away from you? There’s a Frenchman named Jacques Lusseyran, who was blind. He was in the Resistance during the war, and was sent to Buchenwald. Here was a man who was blind and yet somehow was able to comfort the other prisoners. How do you do that in a concentration camp? How do you comfort so many others around you? How do you give them hope when there is none? That’s really what it’s about. When Rodrigues hears the confession of Kichijiro again, near the end, he tells him, “I’m a fallen priest. I can’t do it.” And Kichijiro says, “But you’re the only one here.” It’s still the same confession.

RRC:   In the priestly dilemma set up by Silence, there’s the challenge of comforting people who are inspired by, and depend on, not only your priestly function but your own show of faith. On the other hand, there’s the prospect of those same people being tortured and killed if you don’t publicly renounce that faith. Contemporary viewers are liable to resolve this pragmatically—that you do whatever you have to do to save these people. But the mindset you’re summoning is one in which it’s not that simple, because to publicly renounce something carries enormous weight. The early Christians saw apostasy as a grave sin, even possibly as the “speaking against the Holy Spirit” that Jesus in Matthew says can’t be forgiven. That can be hard for us to understand, how that public declarative aspect is so important a part of the faith.

MS:     Right, and was the faith being introduced into a culture with the specifics of that culture in mind? Do they know enough about the people? Do they know enough about how they think? That is a big issue. How do we set up some ideal over there, where people have lived a different way? The mind works so differently. There’s the scene where Ferreira tells Rodrigues that the Japanese can’t conceive of anything that transcends the human.

RRC:   And he points to the sun. He says, “That’s the son.” He’s implying an unintentional mockery of Christianity. Maybe that’s another aspect of Ferreira’s provocation. Because it potentially introduces a powerful note of futility into the mission.

MS:     Yes, but that makes it stronger. That makes it more important to proceed. That’s the end of Winter Light, right? Did you ever see Bergman’s Winter Light? Max von Sydow is in it, and Gunnar Björnstrand. Do you remember the ending? The main character’s a minister; he has doubts. He’s traveling to go do a service in a country church. They argue about all these different things, including God, throughout the picture, which was shot, by the way within the two-hour frame of winter light, the real winter light, in Sweden—Bergman went every day and shot in those two hours. Anyway, at the end, the pastor comes out with his robes, and he approaches the altar. He turns around; there’s nobody in the church. And what does he do? He begins the ceremony. There you have it. That’s the end of the film.

RRC:   I understand the implications of what you’re saying for Silence, and I’m interested in the close of the movie, when Rodrigues—after all the silence of God that he has noted and endured—receives a voice.

MS:     That’s right.

RRC:   And the voice gives him permission, in effect a theological permission, to apostatize. It says, “It is to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.” What’s interesting is that this permission doesn’t provide, for Rodrigues or for the end of the film itself, any kind of real catharsis. I mean, you might think, okay, he’s being let off the hook, it all makes sense.

MS:     But it doesn’t.

RRC:   It all fits together theologically. I’m saving people. I’m maintaining my faith.

MS:     But faith is a continual process, as we see with Kichijiro. You lose it; you gain it. There is no catharsis. That’s why we like to read a book, or listen to music, or see a really interesting film, where you feel a catharsis: it is play-acting, in a way, for us. But in life, there is none of that. The moment you try to grasp the moment, it’s gone.

RRC:   Kichijiro is an important figure in Silence, and you write in your introduction to the novel that “Endo understood that in order for Christianity to live, it needs not just the figure of Christ, but the figure of Judas as well.” Discuss what you tried to do with Kichijiro in this film.

MS:     The phrase that comes to mind is the quote from Jesus about “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me; whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” And Kichijiro is the least, in a sense. This is who we are. And Kichijiro teaches Rodrigues—he’s the teacher for Rodrigues, ultimately, the vehicle for compassion, and for the understanding of weakness. It’s very important, weakness. Yes, there are many people who are strong. But there are more who are weak. What do you do with that?

RRC:   Kichijiro makes that into a lament. He asks in lamentation, what place is there in this world for someone who’s not strong, who can’t be heroic or saintly?

MS:     Yeah, but not only that. Why was I born now? he asks. Why wasn’t I born before, when there was no persecution? I would have been a good Christian.

RRC:   This idea also affects the priests, Rodrigues and Garrpe. You bring to bear an implicit notion of serendipity of place and time. If Rodrigues and Garrpe had stayed in Europe, they would have had a certain kind of career.

MS:     Yes, it would have been a great career. They would have been fine.

RRC:   So faith is a lot easier in some circumstances than in others.

MS:     It may be, and if those circumstances are taken away, we confront ourselves, and it’s frightening. We have to know ourselves. We probably never will, but it seems to me if we don’t try, then everything else we’re doing is just artifice. 

RRC:   There’s an insistence in Endo’s novel on how Kichijiro—or anyone who gives up his faith—becomes doglike and servile. Ferreira is described as having a servile smile. Rodrigues is afraid of groveling contemptibly like a dog for his life. And there’s an almost zombie-like quality to him after he apostatizes. He’s a shell of a person, even though he’s done the right thing. Can you shed some light?

MS:     Yes.  I’m seventy-four, so in the early 1950s I was very aware of the Red Scare, and the Cold War, and the possibility of nuclear war. There were many films at that time with this Red-Scare theme, and particularly frightening was the idea of the Communists taking your soul. Almost like Protestants and Catholics in the Thirty Years War. It wasn’t just different belief; it was becoming like prisoners of war in North Korea, like American POWs who were brainwashed. You’d see films about them and how they were reviled, and—I was very young—they were frightening. They were frightening because it looked like they had lost their hearts, that they were no longer able to love. And they had lost their souls; they became soulless. I think there’s a certain attitude in Silence towards the ones who seriously apostatize. There is that attitude towards them, I think. Toward the weak. 

RRC:   I’d like to turn to religious themes in your work generally. You said once, “I’m not a theologian.” Your early films have a rich backdrop of religious imagery, and a kind of cultural Catholicism. A cross, for instance, glimpsed on a rooftop—

MS:     Yeah, that’s a shot of my old neighborhood.

RRC:   Or Harvey Keitel’s outrage, in Who’s That Knocking at my Door?, when his girlfriend uses devotional candles for romantic mood lighteners. “Hey, you can’t do that with religious candles!” Or the scene at the beginning of that same movie, with your mother making what appears to be a calzone, and serving it with an almost sacramental somberness.

MS:     It was actually a dough, kind of a pie made with sausage. That was for the Immaculate Conception. December 8, I think it is, yeah.

RRC:   Right. Or the way in Mean Streets that Keitel’s character has a curious habit of quoting Scripture.

MS:     Yes, well, we did. We did.

RRC:   In Last Temptation and Silence, on the other hand, concerns of faith are explicit. They’re the subject. So how, over the many decades of your filmmaking, do you see your films reflecting issues of faith and religion? And how important has Catholicism in particular been to you as a movie maker?

MS:     Well. [laughs]

RRC:   A massive question, I know.

MS:     Yes! Well, there’s no doubt that the subject matter I’ve been attracted to has been material that always somehow relates to those things I found important growing up in the ’50s, on the Lower East Side, in a very tough place. Issues of right and wrong, and how that shifts under certain circumstances. Issues of responsibility, where you try, you fail, and then you try to deal with that. I saw my father and my other relatives dealing with issues of obligation and family and responsibility. The whole idea of “my brother’s keeper” was very important. I saw it acted out all the time. My father and his younger brother—it took years for me to realize that Mean Streets is really about them. Because he had a relationship with his brother that was similar, where the younger brother was problematic—in and out of jail, all kinds of things—and my father would be the one to take care of it.

The stories from Mean Streets to Raging Bull really deal with all of that. It all culminated in Raging Bull, all these themes, and about the man who—well, you know the line in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, “God is not a torturer. He wants us to be merciful with ourselves.” With Jake LaMotta ultimately, in Raging Bull—I don’t mean Jake in reality, but in the film—I began to understand a little bit, after having my own problems in life, what Bob DeNiro saw in it. About Jake punishing all the people around him, and basically punishing himself, because he couldn’t forgive himself. Until the very end.

RRC:   There’s that moment toward the end when he’s alone, that nadir of hopelessness.

MS:     He says, “I’m not an animal.”

RRC:   And he’s punching the wall. That same predicament, in a different key, is in Silence. It’s a very similar confinement. And an absolute bottoming-out of despair.

MS:     I know. It was just awful.

RRC:   That scene is still hard to watch.

MS:     It was hard to shoot. Even for Bob. I had two cameras, and we worked it out so that we just felt when we could start rolling. We didn’t say, “Action!” you know, put a slate in there. We just started rolling the cameras, Michael Chapman, my cameraman, and I.  And Bob just went into his thing. We felt that was the nadir. And then later Jake is able to look at himself in the mirror. He’s able to accept himself, somewhat. 

RRC:   That great ending, when he’s in the dressing room—

MS:     “I am the boss!” [laughs]

RRC:   That’s a beautiful ending—you have a way of offering some sort of reconciliation and hope that’s also humorous, and it’s not over-determined.

MS:     No. He’s looking himself in the mirror, and he says, “It was you.”

RRC:   It was great! Quoting the scene from On the Waterfront.

MS:     “It was you, Charlie.” He’s talking to himself. Charlie happens to be my father’s name. So all these things connect over the years. And those are the stories I’ve really been attracted to. The next film for me after Raging Bull was going to be Last Temptation. But we ended up doing King of Comedy. That was Bobby again. He wanted me to do that. It was supposed to be something we did quickly, but it didn’t turn out that way.

RRC:   I read somewhere about the two of you sometimes doing nineteen takes of a scene.

MS:     Sometimes forty!

RRC:   By the way, I think that’s a great movie. It was terribly underappreciated.

MS:     Oh, they hated it! There were three or four good reviews in the major papers, the Times, and Time Magazine, and even the LA Times. There was a critic there named Sheila Benson, and the film came out in February, and she said, “This is the best American film this year.” Well, that’s only four weeks! [laughs] Thanks! I’m not complaining! But after making King of Comedy I realized I could only stay with the themes that I want to stay with, and that was Temptation of Christ. So I was going on to that, but at the end of that year, 1983—on Thanksgiving Day—it was cancelled. And so I was adrift, cast out. Cast out of Hollywood, out of the American cinema, so to speak. Everything was changing. The bigger pictures came in, the spectacles, the theme-park films. The money wasn’t there anymore for the kind of picture I made. Bob went off on his own things. And so I started all over again. I made After Hours, which was a totally independent film, and it was completely ignored by the industry.

RRC:   What was the budget on that film?

MS:     I think $5 million. Then, with Color of Money, Mike Ovitz came into my life, and he changed everything. I was able to work with Paul Newman, Tom Cruise. And that got me back into a kind of acceptance by the people in the studios—that I could make a film on budget, on time, as much as possible, and wasn’t too erratic in my behavior, being a little older. After Color of Money is when Ovitz connected with Last Temptation, so I was back on track there.  

RRC:   Do you see yourself making movies ten years from now?

MS:     I don’t know. Even though there’s an enjoyment with filmmaking, and it’s an obsession every time, right now I just finished a film two days ago and I’m exhausted. It’s like, I’ll never make another film! But I’m getting ready. DeNiro is talking to me. You know, it’s the old story: DeNiro and I, we’ve had this project in mind about an old hit man—a true story. He was about seventy-four years old; we happen to be seventy-four. It takes place in the 1960s. It’s about the price you pay for a life that you lead, and a sense of good and evil. So here we are.

With any movie, the question is, do you really want to be there? You really have to have a story that you want to tell and that you feel you could tell. And also people that you want to be with. That’s the main thing. Life gets to be too short. Ultimately, the one thing I thought I could do in life was—how should I put it? I thought I could nurture the gift I was given by God, the gift of creativity.  Now, in terms of the results, whether they’re good, mediocre, bad—I don’t know. But it turns out it doesn’t matter. It’s about growing as a person, and in your creative work, if you can grow any further. Is there anything more to mine there? Take the analogy about fishing and the intellectual waters. How deep can you fish, you know? How deep can you do it? 

RRC:   Okay. If there’s one thing that people who watch Silence take away from it, what do you hope it is? What do you want this film to do to people?

MS:     In the world I’m in, there’s an attitude of—well, it’s like with the George Harrison film I made [in 2011], Living in the Material World. That’s why I did the film. It’s a matter of not accepting the certitude of scientific thinking, or even philosophical thinking. Yes, there are many problems with organized religions. But the certitude of who we are, and what this universe is, and this life—it just can’t be. This is an old man talking, but we might be in a world where younger people won’t even consider that which is not material, that which one can’t see, taste, or feel. And ultimately, when everything is stripped away in Silence, that’s really what’s left. It is the spiritual.

RRC:   Thank you.

MS:     Thank you.

Published in the January 27, 2017 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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