Don’t worry. I won’t spoil the ending. But you need to know (if you don’t already) that something extraordinary is coming soon to a theater near you.
Before the clock strikes 2017, legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese will deliver his passion project, a movie he’s been planning for decades. It’s based on a beloved novel by Shusaku Endo about a Portuguese missionary striving to serve persecuted Christians in Japan. And if Scorsese is true to his literary source, and brings his formidable powers to the occasion, he may well deliver one of cinema’s most excruciatingly intense films about faith.
It’s called Silence. And it corners Christians with a compelling question: Are there any circumstances under which a believer should openly apostatize? Is there any earthly authority who, if he commands a believer to publicly renounce his faith, should be obeyed?
I thought about Silence a lot this week as I revisited one of the most enduringly popular films about faith: A Man for All Seasons. How could I not? Here’s another beloved drama in which the word “silence” plays a prominent role, and in which a faithful Christian is commanded to deny Christ’s authority.
In both stories, silence is a matter of life and death. But in Endo’s narrative, the silence in question is God’s: Why will he not intervene and stop the persecution of Japanese believers? In A Man for All Seasons, silence plays a different—but equally important—role.
I recommend we prepare for Scorsese’s film by revisiting this classic. Directed by Fred Zinnemann from a script by Robert Bolt (adapting his own stage play), and starring the great Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons puts its Christian hero to a test that recalls the climax of Endo’s narrative. More—a man as famous for his moral integrity as for his intellect—is ordered by King Henry VIII to sign an oath granting the king authority over the church. In this way, the king hopes to escape a heirless marriage to Queen Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn, maid of honour to Queen Catherine and sister of Henry’s former mistress. More’s refusal turns the world against him. England wants an heir.
So More must outwit his enemies at every turn, mastering not only his anger, but also controlling the fury of faithful friends and family, whose protests might bring deadly consequences. A genius of political strategy, he knows his only hope lies in the legal sanctuary of silence.
Every time I watch this film, I’m impressed by Scofield’s seemingly effortless performance. Who else could so seamlessly weave together More’s tender affection for his daughter, his consternation toward her brash young suitor, his inspired bursts of righteous anger, and his tremors of grief and foreboding?
He’s surrounded by a cast of giants: quite literally, in the case of Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey. Robert Shaw plays Henry as both hilarious and heinous, and Vanessa Redgrave is his controversial mistress. Cromwell is played by Leo McKern, who would later play a champion of justice in the BBC’s series Rumpole of the Bailey. And Richard Rich, an impetuous Judas to More’s Christ figure, is played by none other than the great Jon Hurt.