Below we're featuring Part 2 of Rand Richards Cooper's conversation with Martin Scorsese; you can read Part 1 here. Part 3 is here.

Rand Richards CooperSilence 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?

Martin Scorsese: 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.

Part 3 of "An Interview with Martin Scorsese" appears here.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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