An Interview with Martin Scorsese

Part 3: Apostasy, Faith & Film
Martin Scorsese / photo by Siebbi - Wikimedia

Today we're featuring the third and final part of Rand Richards Cooper's conversation with Martin Scorsese; you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Rand Richards Cooper: 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.” 

Martin Scorsese:  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.

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. 

Also by this author
Wham!

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Culture
Collections
Collections