The first time Martin Scorsese read “Silence,” Shūsaku Endō’s novel about two 17th-century Jesuit priests who travel from Portugal to Japan in search of a mentor who has gone missing, he immediately decided he wanted to adapt the book into a movie.
That was 1989.
Since then, Scorsese has directed 12 feature films, several documentaries and two pilot episodes for HBO shows. He won a Best Director Oscar for 2006’s “The Departed.” He made cameos on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Entourage” and “30 Rock” and voiced a pufferfish in the animated “Shark Tale.”
But no “Silence” — not for 26 years.
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“Part of my whole process with this movie has been that I really couldn’t make it back then,” Scorsese says via telephone from New York. “I didn’t know how to make it. I had just made ‘The Last Temptation of Christ,’ and I knew I couldn’t approach this film that way. It needed to have its own style. I had to let it grow in me and think about it without thinking about it, meaning contemplation and meditation.”
Based on a screenplay he wrote with his friend and frequent collaborator Jay Cocks, the solemn, moving “Silence” does feel like a different sort of Martin Scorsese movie. Shot in Taiwan on a budget of roughly $50 million, the film stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as the two missionaries looking for their former teacher (Liam Neeson), who is rumored to have apostatized and is now living as a married man in 1636 Japan. Their quest is dangerous, since the country is under Tokugawa shogunate rule, Christianity has been outlawed and its followers are almost extinct.
Although he’s most usually identified with the crime-drama — “Mean Streets,” “Goodfellas,” “Casino” — Scorsese, 74, has spent his entire career pulling hairpin turns between genres. He followed the grit and grime of “Taxi Driver” with the musical artifice of “New York, New York.” “Raging Bull,” a brutal boxing picture that made literal the violence inherent in the male psyche, gave way to “The King of Comedy,” a funny, discomfiting satire about celebrity that was rated PG.
The gloriously lurid “Cape Fear,” a celebration of B-movie impudence, was followed by the elegance of “The Age of Innocence,” an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel about manners and repression. After the historical sweep of “Gangs of New York” came a Hollywood biopic, “The Aviator.” The horror-tinged “Shutter Island” led to “Hugo,” a children’s movie shot in 3D.
So the fact that Scorsese followed one of his wildest films — the three-hour carnival of debauchery “The Wolf of Wall Street” — with one of his most hushed and humane isn’t, by itself, any sort of departure.
You need to actually see “Silence” — and if you care about movies, you will — to appreciate how radical and profound Scorsese’s achievement is.
A groundbreaking movie
“To me, ‘Silence’ is like a combination of ‘Barry Lyndon’ and Bergman’s ‘Winter Light,’” says Cocks, who worked on several drafts of the screenplay with Scorsese over the decades. “It deals with themes that are not common currency these days: Faith, belief, conscience, culture and the clash of those two. That’s what makes the film feel unconventional. And when you start to analyze deeper and look at how Marty conveys these ideas through visuals and editing, you begin to get a deeper sense of the unconventional. It’s a totally groundbreaking, unexpected movie.”
Scorsese’s Italian-Catholic preoccupations reverberate through his entire body of work, from David Carradine’s crucifixion at the end of “Boxcar Bertha” to Jonah Hill’s Judas-like betrayal of Leonardo Di Caprio in “Wolf.” But “Silence” is the third installment in a trilogy of Scorsese films (after “Last Temptation” and “Kundun,” about the Dalai Lama) that are overtly spiritual in subject matter.
The more secular the world becomes, the more we deal with the issue of what spirituality is and what it means. But what does spirituality nourish?
‘Silence’ director Martin Scorsese
“Silence” also cuts deeper than those other two, because by bearing down so tightly on a priest who starts to question the value of his mission, Scorsese makes us consider religion and spirituality as a whole. You don’t need to be Catholic — you don’t need to believe, period — in order for the movie to wield its considerable power.
“I happened to come to [the novel] from a Roman Catholic point of view, so that’s what I felt most comfortable with: Trying to understand true Christianity,” Scorsese says. “It has to do with compassion and love and selflessness. How do you do it in this world? The more secular the world becomes, the more we deal with the issue of what spirituality is and what it means. We seem to need it, we seem to have it: It is part of the human condition. But what does spirituality nourish? [The movie] argues that maybe some ways were too institutionalized and that it needs to evolve and transform into something more pure.”
Using style for clarity
Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto keep the camera still through most of “Silence,” eschewing the visual pyrotechnics that are part of the director’s trademark style. The framing of the images is clean; the speed of the editing (by longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker) is noticeably slower.
Watching “Silence,” you get the sense Scorsese was trying to find a different cinematic language than he had used before in order to serve the profundity of the source material without letting the movie bog down into heady theological discourse.
“That’s certainly the case,” Scorsese says. “What you’re responding to, I think, is the result of my having done so many other films and trying to find another way to express myself visually. There was almost a minimalist feel to the shooting and the design of the editing. There was a very specific listing and drawing of shots. I tried to find the essential and take everything else out. What’s really important in the frame? Should the camera move? Does it need movement at this point in the story? What should be cross-cutting and what shouldn’t be?
“When Father Rodrigues (played by Garfield) is taken prisoner by the Japanese, I wanted to visualize what he was going through inside his cell. But because he’s being held behind wooden bars, it looked like you were always in the same place, even if you changed the camera position. So then the size of Rodrigues in the frame had to change.”
That careful attention to detail gives “Silence” an uncommon visual eloquence that gives voice to the plight of the persecuted Japanese Christians who risked their lives in order to practice their faith in secret. In another, lesser movie, the sight of poor, starving people weeping over a small token of their beliefs — a cross made of palm leaves, say, or a rosary bead — would not have registered so strongly.
But “Silence” makes you understand their plight, regardless of your personal stance on religion.
“The reverence with which these [religious objects] are received or handled — or the way they are perceived — was very important to me,” Scorsese says. “A cross may not have magical power, but it’s sacred because of all the suffering and the pain and the hopes and all the things that have been infused into it. It’s sacred because people have gathered around it and asked for a lightening of their burden in life.
“It’s not the worship of the object itself. It’s what the object represents to these people: That their lives are worth living, that they have souls, and that they matter.”