It’s been 28 years since Martin Scorsese ruffled the feathers of many Christians with the controversial Last Temptation of Christ, a film condemned by the Roman Catholic Church (of which Scorsese is a member) and a key moment in the history of the culture wars. A sincere if uneven exploration of the “fully man” side of Jesus, Last Temptation angered many believers because of its suggestion that Jesus experienced sexual desire for Mary Magdalene.
For filmmakers exploring the humanity of Jesus, a safer bet than pondering his sexuality is depicting his suffering (see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ). That’s the approach Scorsese takes in his new film, Silence, appropriately released during the season in which we ponder Christ’s incarnation.
A passion project in the works for nearly three decades (since around the time of Last Temptation), Silence is the work of a director whose faith—and artistry—has matured with age.
“Last Temptation was where I was at the time in my own search,” said Scorsese recently in an interview. “It went on one track; Silence went on another. It went deeper.”
Scorsese described the process of making Silence as a “pilgrimage,” a working-out of his Catholicism through the medium he knows best: cinema.
“My way into spirituality happens to be Roman Catholicism,” he said at the screening of Silence I attended in LA. “Over the years I have been concerned about just distilling it to the essence of how one should live one’s life in imitation of Christ, so to speak. This film enabled me to not only think about this but to work it. For me the film isn’t finished.”
Based on the acclaimed 1966 novel by Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo, Silence is a book about 17th century Jesuit missionaries trying to make inroads for the gospel in the inhospitable “swampland” of Japan, facing intense persecution by a Japanese shogunate determined to wipe out Christianity’s influence in their realm.
Sent from Portugal to seek the whereabouts of a fellow Jesuit priest (Liam Neeson) who had gone missing in Japan amidst intensifying persecution, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) go to Japan to minister to the persecuted Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”) community and see if they can find the missing priest. Their faith is tested as the Grand Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata) forces them to denounce their faith or watch Christians be tortured and killed.
In stark contrast to the response of the Catholic church to Last Temptation, Scorsese was recently invited to the Vatican to screen Silence and meet Pope Francis. According to Scorsese, the Pope told him he had read Endo’s novel and said, “I hope the story of the film, knowing the book, bears much fruit.”
A Meditation on Missiology
I am optimistic about the hope Pope Francis expressed. Silence presents a textured, realistic Christian faith, and has the potential to build the faith of the devout and the skeptical alike, bearing fruit in the church’s witness and mission in the world.
Dedicated to “Japanese Christians and their pastors,” Silence has a lot to say to the church about cross-cultural missions and contextualization. Father Rodrigues (Garfield) and Inoue (Ogata) frankly discuss the nature of Christianity and why it is unwelcome in Japan: “You missionaries do not seem to know Japan,” says Inoue, who insists the “tree” of Christianity won’t take root in the soil of Japan. It may be fruitful in Portugal and Europe, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t work in Japan. Rodrigues responds with a defense of the universality of truth: “If a doctrine wasn’t as true in Japan as it is in Portugal, we could not call it true.”