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You Talkin’ to Me?

Martin Scorsese wrestles with religious belief and philosophical inquiry in Silence, a work of stark cinematic power and moral vulnerability

Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), a coke-addled, downer-dumb comedy of snow-blind power surrounding the rise and fall of a gang of Long Island penny stock buccaneers, is a comparatively austere adaptation of Silence, a 1966 novel by Catholic author Shusaku Endo set in mid-17th-century Japan. Though Scorsese will forever be paired with gangsterdom in the popular imagination, his career is typified by such hard lateral cuts between disparate material—from masculine to feminine melodrama between Mean Streets (1973) and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), from Edith Wharton to Nicholas Pileggi to the Dalai Lama. Bringing together these far-flung destinations is a raucous humor, a searing moral vision applied with equal intensity to both the ostensibly upstanding and the reprobate, and a cinematographic vigor that remains unmatched in American pictures.

There is also the by-no-means-small matter of faith: before entering film school, the young Scorsese had seriously deliberated entering the priesthood, and the stamp of his Italian-Catholic upbringing is all over his filmography. You don’t have to look hard to find it in Silence, which joins The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) in the subset of Scorsese’s films that speak explicitly about the varieties of religious experience. Endo’s novel takes place during a period when Christianity was gravely imperiled in Japan. The Shogunate’s initial welcoming of foreign missionaries, allowing the establishment of seminaries and mass conversions, was followed by an official about-face after the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-38), and the persecution of both clergy and laymen. Facing threat of death, two Jesuit priests newly arrived from Portugal, Rodrigues and Garupe (played in the film by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, respectively), enter Japan in order to investigate reports that their onetime mentor, Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has apostatized under duress. There they witness firsthand the faith of the Japanese Christians—or the failed faith, as in the case of their guide, Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka)—as well as the persecution faced at the hands of the Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata), who oversees a formalized ceremony of renunciation in which Catholics are asked to trample on the graven image of Christ, the fumi-e.

Film Comment met with Scorsese as he was at the tail end of his own trial, the stations of the cross that is the press junket, where he immediately snapped to attention: “I haven’t done an interview with Film Comment in years… You guys didn’t come around.” We did our best to make up for lost time.

I know you tend to visualize films from your reading. Were there any particular images that you saw clearly when you first read Silence 20-odd years ago?

That’s one of the reasons why it took so long. I couldn’t get the Japanese films out of my mind. Where to put the camera? Tatami level? The old story of the Westerner in Japan. I’m not Japanese; I can’t shoot nature or roof tiles the way Kobayashi did in the opening credits of Samurai Rebellion, or in Harakiri. I’ll say it: I enjoy lining up medium shots and inserts. They call them inserts, but there’s no such thing. It’s a shot. If you have somebody else do your inserts, it’s not going to work. You have to do it. And that comes via Bresson and Hitchcock and Ozu. I enjoy thinking in those cuts.

In any event, the visualizing of it took a very long time, because I couldn’t quite figure out how to work out the last 15 minutes of the film. It eventually got a little more complicated, visually, than what I’d put on the page. I’d imagined editing a certain way—close-up, profile, reverse, foot, fumi-e, back to close-up, frontal, not side. And a lot of that was done, but I found I’d picked up other images in the same scenes too, that we incorporated in the cutting. I’d see them lined up in a certain way, or find there was a power to the way some of the people were just fitting themselves into the frame.

What set the gears in motion to finally make the movie?

Eventually I was able to feel I understood enough of the novel to be able to make another attempt at writing it with Jay Cocks. That was in 2006. By that point, the legal matters, chain of title, and ownership issues were very complicated. Some of the people involved in Italy had been incarcerated. Money had already been spent on the picture by producers, and I never really had the script finished, because I just didn’t know how to do it. I was constantly being asked by my managers and my agents: “Do you want to keep going with this project? Because it’s such a convoluted mess now.” [Producer] Irwin Winkler finally strategized everything, and then [producer] Emma Tillinger Koskoff came into it, and her job was to get that budget down. It’s about what I need, how much equipment I need, the director of photography, how much he or she needs. The way to get it down is to get it down. That meant everybody taking cuts in salary, or no salary. Just losing it. I think the whole thing was finally made for $46.5 million. Actually it was made for 22. The rest of that money went to lawyers and lawsuits.

The ending in exile seemed to me so completely your work, something that you see time and time again in your films—a protagonist who’s been cast out to dwell east of Eden. So I was surprised to find later how much was already there in the novel.

That’s one of the reasons I couldn’t let it go. Ostracized seems worse than [killed]—it’s like the end of “Jungleland.” The Bruce Springsteen song. “They wind up wounded, not even dead.” That’s related to the ending of Mean Streets. They’re not dead, but they can never go back.

I think about Jordan Belfort in New Zealand or the nightclub purgatory in Raging Bull

Oh, yeah, exactly!

—Henry Hill in Goodfellas, living his suburban half-life—

That’s right, he’s living in the Witness Protection Program!

—Ace Rothstein in Casino

Oh, that’s right, he winds up in Boca Raton! Whoa! [Laughter] Very interesting! They’re cast out of Paradise!

Everybody winds up in Florida, or in the land of Nod.

Yeah, that’s why I love East of Eden.

The novel has a very interesting structure, moving from the epistolary form to the second person, and then to another narrator—how did you crack that?

That took time. For the first two sections, the epistolary and the second-person section, I didn’t feel they’d be any problem at all. The first is letter-writing. The second one is prayer. You pray to God, you pray to whatever it is. To a person who’s a cleric in the 17th century, that’s normal. That’s what you do, all day, all night. The inner voice is—you could be addressing God directly, but no matter what you think, it really takes the form of prayer. So for me that was pretty simple. The harder part was what to say, what to put in the voiceover. There was so much wonderful stuff in the book, but I knew, with Jay, putting in so much voiceover, that ultimately it was going to be melted away in the editing. Because if I was lucky enough, the images would hold. And then the last narrator—the clerk in the epilogue—we changed to a chronicler based on Engelbert Kaempfer, who’d gone around with the Dutch East India Company.

As we move along, Rodrigues’s thoughts become these little gasps of voiceover.

He’s breaking down. Things like: “Water tastes like vinegar in my mouth,” “I think of your son on the cross…” We started slipping and sliding the voiceover, and changing some of it to correspond to some of the images we had, which had their own story.

I first saw the film at your offices, passing this enormous On the Waterfront poster on the way in, and I thought about this while watching this movie where, as in the Hollywood blacklist, people are being forced into this symbolic recanting.

Yeah, I don’t know, but I do find the coincidence interesting. You are put to the test: how much can you take before you crack? How could you judge another person for falling out of grace, when you haven’t been put to the test? And even if you’ve been put to the test and you make it, in a true Christian sense, the Kichijiros have to be accepted too—they have to be “forgiven” by the priests and the people around him. If you’ve ever had a family member or a loved one who’s got an addiction of some kind… They clean up and they go back on. What do you do with them? They come back, they’ve cleaned up for a while. Next thing you know, they rob the house. They’re back on the stuff. Bail ’em out, you get ’em out again, they bring friends over to rob the house. Then what do you do?

It reminds me of when I was about 8 years old during the Cold War. The most frightening thing was the image of the POWs who had been brainwashed. Like, their souls were taken away. They came back and they were shunned by society. And was that the right thing to do to them? Where was the compassion? What about their suffering? This, for me, is something that is troubling, and I guess that’s why the material has always been so important to me. Maybe it’s for my own use of going deeper in the story of the concept of true Christianity. Because when Rodrigues makes the decision to apostatize, he denies the truth in order to attain, ultimately, the real truth of Christianity. So that’s what he finds, and that’s quite beautiful.

How was the Vatican screening?

We did it in what used to be an old chapel, Palazzo San Carlo. Above the screen was a beautiful life-sized crucifix—just the figure of Christ, no cross. We watched the whole film under the arms of Jesus. The day before we had shown it to Jesuits from all over the world, including a lot of Asian ones, and their reactions were pretty strong.

I have a letter from someone from the Philippines who wrote about it. He’s interested that the Jesuits came with great zeal and passion, and unknowingly perhaps with violence as well, because of their disregard of the truth that the Japanese had lived on for centuries. And it is not surprising that this well-intentioned but insensitive zeal was perceived as arrogance, something that violated and disrespected the Japanese. He goes on: “I don’t think Rodrigues was able to respond adequately to the parable and the questions of the Inquisitor… The link of the Christian gospel with the violence of colonialism is a wound that Asian Christianity has not yet recovered from. And all of this makes the apostasy of Rodrigues so much more powerful, rich, he steps on the fumi-e in order to save others, he ‘denies the truth’ in order to affirm compassion, which in the end is the deepest truth of Christianity and Jesus. Dying as a martyr would have been some kind of trophy.”

It’s the most beautiful apostatizing that you’ll ever see—apostatizing as apotheosis, in this sensual slow motion that I don’t think is anywhere else in the film.

No, it isn’t. I thought about not doing it in slow motion, but I just felt that finally, maybe something would happen with slow motion. Maybe there’s a quality that you would perceive in seeing every little movement, that would absorb the moment, absorb more of the depth of the moment, make you experience it more. The way you think of something that would happen in an instant yet you remember in slow motion.

The book doesn’t necessarily read “funny,” whereas there’s a real sense of the absurd that runs through the movie: the running joke of Kichijiro’s absolution, or Issey Ogata as the Inquisitor. How did Ogata’s character become this wily, menacing comic heavy?

A lot of it had to do with Issey’s striking audition. I said, “He’s going to give us something different and maybe that will have even more value than the way it’s portrayed in the book.” He knew the history of Inoue, and knew the play that Endo had written, The Golden Country, which was about Inoue and Ferreira apostatizing, because Inoue was baptized. Inoue and Ferreira are real people who lived. I thought that he was fascinating in where he would take this character: his body language, the way he formed the words in English, the sound of some of the words and the way some of the syllables were twisted out and elongated. It was interesting to me; it made me watch him, it made me try to feel what’s going on here with this guy, who is he? He’s really trying not to torture Rodrigues, he’s trying to put an end to it all. But it’s not going to happen. There’s the reaction shot where he just does that complete relaxation, sort of like deflating completely. He did that. I just said, “Go.”

The movie has some of the best use of old-fashioned shot/reverse shot I’ve seen in ages.

I knew that we had to go that way. I tried to fit in a four shot, for example, in the scene with Liam and Andrew and [Tadanobu] Asano, the interpreter, and the old monk who’s sitting there. I tried to get all four in the frame, and I did, but it wasn’t quite right for me. There was something about their positioning and the nature of the situation itself. The wide shot lost emotional impact. It just did. We tried cutting it in a few times. So I did the whole thing in close-up. I knew it would be okay. I thought it would be okay. Other scenes, too. It all became about the nature of the way they sit and the room itself—it just dictates a certain angle, for me, and I kind of like head-on shots, frontals. I get very nervous with too much profile. I want to see their eyes.

I think the first time that hit me was in the scene in Kurosawa’s Rashomon where the dead man speaks to the shaman. It’s the courtroom scene in the courtyard—the shot of the people sitting in the foreground, center frame. Somehow that always stayed in my mind. But the difference would then become the size of the frame. I try to stay away from big close-ups because everything around the actor in close-up is working too. If a person in the background is a guard and he’s not working, that actor is working. A tree out there? That’s working. It’s very different from Macao earlier in the film.

In that first scene in Macao where the priests are receiving their briefing from the Ciarán Hinds character, the cutting of the dialogue puts you very off-balance.

Yeah, with [production designer] Dante Ferretti, we did the chapel that way, we put them all the way at the end. And then I said, “What does this afford us?” Let’s tilt, in a sense, the idea of shot/counter shot. Often Ciarán Hinds would be speaking to Adam and then he’d be speaking to Andrew, and I wanted to see the eyes looking directly, so we’d cut from Ciarán here to Ciarán there. [Editor] Thelma Schoonmaker said at one point, “This is a strange cut.” I said, “Let’s try it. It’s kind of interesting, it kind of works.”

I love Ferretti’s prison set. You see that the Inquisitor is in the business of stagecraft. His prison is set up for the purpose of putting on this show with good sight lines and everything. I thought of the monologue by Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York: “the spectacle of fearsome acts” as a means of holding onto power.

Well, look at the world we’re in now. This is where we are. It always has been, unfortunately. Tragically. For the prison I decided to go with the woodcuts I saw of that period from Japan, and even some actual designs of Japanese prisons, what they were like. In the book Rodrigues is in a cell with a small window, but I decided to have the cell with wooden bars. So he’s almost on display like an animal in a cage.

Such a big part of the film’s central section is the alignment of the camera with these confined subjective viewpoints.

You know, it’s like a thriller in an elevator, in a sense. Where does one place the camera? How many angles does that space afford you? What’s in the frame? The frame is his face and his figure. He’s not sitting on a chair, he’s always on the floor level, and that creates a certain kind of mood and atmosphere for me. If you watch it again, you’ll see pretty much every cut inside that cell is a different angle or the angle of the lens is on the ground and another part is through the bars. I always go back to Ozu and Bresson, both of whom I admire a great deal. I like the way Bresson frames midriff: a person going across the room but you’re just seeing the half, the midriff of the body. The scene in Pickpocket at the racetrack. And Hitchcock, any of the inserts: the scene in The Wrong Man where Fonda is booked and Hitchcock shows you the detail, each step of the process. It has such a sense of isolation and helplessness, because these objects, these inserts, they speak to you. They tell you how to look at them. They direct the viewer.

Talking of the emotional heft of objects, one of the things that I found immediately moving about the film is the sense it has of a world where images are scarce, and where something like a rosary bead can be invested with so much longing.

That was the enjoyment of stripping things away. Because that’s what you had to shoot! You had only this bowl of rice to shoot in the jail cell. You have the rosary beads he’s making with the rice grain, and a little crucifix here. The little altar they made in the farmhouse, that portable chalice setup for mass. And that’s all. There was nothing else. It’s all very, very simple, and therefore the framing and the editing really became something like meditation. I really enjoyed that. It forced you to see things a different way.

It’s in moments like these that you really feel the year 1640. Because who has the ability to carry the face of Christ around the way that Rodrigues does, to attach that level of importance to a single image in an image-glutted world?

Yeah, exactly. But he just has that face in his mind. That’s one of the reasons that I felt we could do the film, we could strip it down. Meaning that I knew it’d make itself evident as to what I didn’t need in the frame—which could then reduce the budget. The problem was getting to the place to do that. I mean getting all the equipment there.

I don’t know why this should be, but Christianity always becomes incredibly poignant when in the underdog role—the clandestine, catacomb Christianity.

I think so too. And I found it in the Japanese actors. Shinya Tsukamoto playing Mokichi; Yoshi Oida, who plays Ichizo: he’s 83 years old. There’s something about people understanding that they matter, that they have a spirit, that they have a soul. And that they’re not just chattel. Something that, as a concept, was one of the things that undid the ancient world system of slavery. It was a new concept, that everyone was equal in that sense of their having a soul, their lives being of value. And I think that’s what gave the Japanese Christians something special. Even if at times, it was misinterpreted, it still gave them something special that they did not have before. I’m not one of them, so I can’t speak of it in definitive terms. The way Endo presents it—Rodrigues says it in the voiceover: they work like beasts, but Christ did not die for the beautiful, he died for the ugly; he died for the evil ones, too. It’s easy to die for the beautiful and the good. So, that’s really interesting. That changes our way of seeing the world. Beyond revolution. That’s what I found in the making of the picture, too.

Closer Look: Silence opened on December 23.

Nick Pinkerton is a regular contributor to Film Comment and a member of the New York Film Critics Circle.