The Silence of God

March 03 2017 | by

ON NOVEMBER 30 last year, Pope Francis received Martin Scorsese at the Vatican. The previous evening, the 74 year-old director’s latest movie, Silence, had its world premiere at the Pontifical Oriental Institute before 300 Jesuit priests and brothers who work or study in Rome. Scorsese, whose movies have won twenty Academy Awards, presented the Pontiff with a print of the Madonna and Child by an unknown Japanese artist of the 17th Century.

The warm reception for this movie contrasts with the protests that greeted his earlier Christian-themed movie, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), an ultra-liberal interpretation of the psychology of Jesus. It was following the controversy stirred up by this movie that a bishop asked Scorsese to read Shūsaku Endo’s novel, Silence, concerning the Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians) of Japan in the 1600s. The idea of bringing the historical novel to the big screen became something of a “passion project” for Scorsese. However, it was repeatedly shelved in favor of more commercially viable projects such as Goodfellas (1990), The Gangs of New York (2002) and, most recently, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).


A new mission


During the 1500s, sailors and merchantmen from Portugal established a ‘shoestring empire’ of coastal colonies in the Far East, trading in spices and other precious commodities. The religious orders that accompanied them, including the Augustinians and Dominicans, were quick to see the opportunities for missionary outreach. However it was the newest of the Roman Catholic orders, the Jesuits, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540, that proved to be most effective in winning converts. Their method, sometimes called inculturation, began from a position of dialogue with the existing religious traditions of Asia.

Among the best-known Jesuits was Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) who first studied the Confucian classics at Peking (Beijing), and then successfully preached the Gospel in China and Korea. Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660) devised a new Vietnamese script and used it to author a local catechism. In Japan, inculturation was pioneered by St. Francis Xavier, who made land there on August 15, 1549, with three Jesuit brothers.  In all some 100 Jesuit priests and brothers, from many European countries, would be sent to Japan to preach the ‘gospel of love,’ as it is called in this movie. By the late 1500s there were as many as 300,000 converts to Catholicism, including some daimyō (feudal lords) in southern Japan. Nagasaki became known as the ‘Rome of Japan.’


Beginnings of persecution


The accommodation of local religious traditions soon brought the Society of Jesus into conflict with the traditional European religious orders. The Vatican would eventually suppress the Jesuits, for a time, in the 18th and 19th centuries. This controversy was the context for the 1986 movie, The Mission, which was set among the indigenous people of Paraguay and included Liam Neeson as a tortured Jesuit priest. He plays a similar role in the present movie.

In Japan, the principal causes for the demise of the Jesuits were internal. By the mid-1500s, Japan had emerged from centuries of civil war. The Tokugawa shogunate, based in Edo (Tokyo), became ascendant and adopted an isolationist stance against all foreigners, including the European powers. Buddhism was adopted as the official religion, and Christianity was banned.

One of the bloodiest persecutions took place on February 5, 1597 at Nagasaki, when 26 Christians, including St. Paul Miki, a Japanese seminarian, and a number of Franciscan brothers, were crucified. The Church went underground and, in the absence of priests, village leaders continued to baptize and lead prayer services at secret locations, by night. It was only with the restoration of mainstream political rule in 1868 (the so-called Meiji Restoration), that Christianity was again permitted to organize.

The descendants of the Kakure Kirishitan then came into the open, to the amazement of the newly arrived missionaries. In many respects their spirituality had been amalgamated with local Buddhist and Shinto practices. They had, for example, the characteristically Japanese emphasis on devotion to one’s ancestors, which, for the Kakure Kirishitan, included their martyrs from the 16th century. The Europeans also noticed the distinctive iconography of the underground Church, which hid images of Jesus and Mary in other objets d’art. However, such was the historical persecution that to this day the Catholic Church has a minimal presence in Japan, with less than 0.5 percent of the population of 127 million being Roman Catholic.


Terrible dilemma


Silence opens in the year 1640, when the Christian faith had been all but eliminated. A letter reaches the Portuguese colony of Macau, in China, stating that one of the finest Jesuits, Fr. Cristóvão Ferriera (Liam Neeson), had publically apostatized (renounced his faith). The news shocks Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garrpe (Adam Driver), who had been mentored by Ferriera. They were sure that he would have chosen to be a martyr rather than reject Christianity. They determine to go to Japan, rescue Fr. Ferriera, and assist the remaining hidden Christians. At Macau, they meet a Christian refugee from Japan, Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kubozuka), a man of considerable guile, who helps them reach the shores of his homeland.

The hidden Christians greet the arrival of the two Jesuits with joy. They could again celebrate the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But their presence sparks a new wave of persecutions, which intensifies with the arrival of a Samurai inquisitor called Inoue, played by the veteran Japanese actor, Issei Ogata.

Frs. Rodrigues and Garrpe are faced with a terrible dilemma: “the price for your glory is their suffering,” the inquisitor tells them. He requires suspected Christians to “step on your Jesus” or to spit on holy images, which the Japanese call “fumi-e.” Those who refuse are threatened with execution by being boiled alive, crucified or made to bleed slowly while hanging upside down.




The missionaries adopt different responses to the persecution: Fr. Garrpe asks his flock not to deny their faith in public. Fr. Rodrigues, whose personal thoughts are the focus of the movie, encourages subtlety. He is tormented by the silence of God. Eventually, rather than witness people suffer, he tells them to “trample” (on the fumi-e), to meet the formalities of the inquisition, and then, privately, return to the faith. Then, in one of the most moving moments of the film, Christ assures the priest that He can bear the denial of His name, along with all the sins of the world. Or was that inner voice the priest’s own instinct for self-preservation? The extended length of the movie (161 minutes) means that the viewer can appreciate the gradual effects of persecution, and the way it undermines even the strongest of convictions.


Sacred space


There is a profound reverence for the religious quest at the heart of this movie, and for the Catholic Church as a vehicle for faith. The director’s Catholic upbringing in New York and his childhood fascination with the sacraments and the priesthood shine through. Scorsese sees the production of a movie as a “sacred space” and insists on silence on the set. Both the Japanese and Caucasian members of the cast were obviously inspired by his dedication. Adam Garfield prepared for the role by making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius at a Jesuit retreat house in Wales. The emaciated appearance of Adam Driver (he reportedly lost 20kg) is a measure of his dedication to the story.

Silence was largely shot in Taiwan, during the rainy season, using a traditional 35mm film that contributes to the movie’s lush ambience. The constant rain or fog is well used to reflect both the hidden nature of Christianity in Japan and the silence of God. The inquisitor refers to all the mud and slime as an image for the slippery toehold of the new faith in his country.


Beauty of martyrdom


In an interview with Fr. James Martin, SJ, published in America magazine (Fr. Martin served as a consultant to the film – see side bar) Scorsese said that the most moving scene of the shoot was the crucifixion at the sea-caves, “You could feel it,” he said, “the beauty and the spirituality. It was gut wrenching and sad and beautiful.” The choice of the word “beauty” to describe martyrdom may seem surprising. However there is indeed something admirable in the “witness” (the English meaning of the word ‘martyr’) shown by Christians everywhere who stand by their faith and its values, even under the threat of death.

The beauty of the lived Christian faith is also well portrayed. The Christian mission had brought with it a preferential option for the poor, which was evidently absent from Japanese society at that time. The contempt of the Japanese ruling class towards the ‘peasants,’ as they described them, is in marked contrast to the respect shown by the Jesuit priests, who wanted compassion, education and justice for all.


Hard choices


However the movie does not shirk from a deeper analysis of the socio-political context of the Jesuit mission. The Japanese authorities are motivated by a desire to defend and unite their country. They rightly perceive the Europeans as a threat to their ancient way of life. In Spain, a comparable Catholic inquisition was operational at that same time, with the aim of excluding all religious minorities from Europe.

Silence powerfully reveals the hard choices faced by Christians in societies that are hostile to the Gospel. While the movie is set in a distant time and place, its underlying story is still being told today in Syria, Pakistan, the Sudan and elsewhere. The movie left me with an uncomfortable question: Faced with the choice of life or death, would I too step on an image of Jesus?



Two years ago I received a surprising phone call from Martin Scorsese’s office, which is only a few hundred feet away from America magazine, where I work. His main researcher, Marianne Bower, wanted to know if she could ask me a few questions about the Jesuits. That started a long association with the production of what I believe to be Scorsese’s masterpiece, the new film Silence.

Essentially, I assisted in several ways. First, I helped Martin Scorsese and his co-screenwriter Jay Cocks with the script. The two screenwriters wanted to ensure that everything in the film about the Jesuits was accurate. So did I. For I knew that once his film was out it would be the primary way that most people would come to know the story of the Japanese Christians, and the Jesuits in Japan. So, I suggested changes and additions to reflect the way that a Jesuit would talk, think, act – and even pray.

For example, the Jesuits in the original script made little reference to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the lengthy retreat that all Jesuits undergo at least twice in their training. The spirituality of the Exercises would have been on the minds and in the hearts (and on the lips) of the Jesuits in the 17th century, as it is today. Now in the film you will see Andrew Garfield say, for example, a quote directly from the Exercises: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What will I do for Christ?” Overall, Marty and Jay were incredibly open to my suggestions. Often, after I made a suggestion, I would see it appear in the next version of the script.

Second, I helped the English-speaking actors to prepare for their roles as Jesuit priests. This was my main work with leading Andrew Garfield, who plays the lead, Father Rodrigues, through the entire Spiritual Exercises over the course of several months. When I first met Andrew, I was happy to tell him all he wanted to know about the Jesuits, and even teach him about Jesuit prayer, but I was quite naturally reluctant to involve him in the Exercises, since that is something for the experienced person of prayer. When I first met Andrew, he had little experience with what you could call ‘formal’ prayer. But soon it became evident that God – whether I was hesitant or not – was drawing him into the Exercises. So, for roughly seven or eight months, we met in person in my office, or spoke over Skype, every week, sometimes daily. It was amazing to see how God so quickly drew him into the experience. I’ve directed many people and I can say that Andrew gave himself to the experience as generously as fully as anyone.

Andrew, however, wasn’t the only actor who wanted help. I also worked with Adam Driver (who, with Andrew, ended up spending some time in a Jesuit retreat house in Wales) and with Liam Neeson (who had worked with Daniel Berrigan, SJ, in an earlier film about the Jesuits The Mission.)

From start to finish, it was an enjoyable project. I knew that, along with other Jesuits who were consulted, we were helping to make a masterpiece more accurate, more accessible, and more ‘Jesuit.’

  • Fr. James Martin, SJ


Updated on March 03 2017