Silence: Why It Took Martin Scorsese Almost 30 Years to Make His Most Personal Movie

Martin Scorsese tells us about the nearly three-decade adaptation process that brought Silence to the screen.

There’s a scene midway through Silence, Martin Scorsese’s intimate drama about the persecution of Kakure Krishitan (“Hidden Christians”) in 17th century Japan, wherein Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) is forced to endure the cruelest of ironies. Before him are four Japanese farmers who have gladly converted to the Roman Catholic teachings of Christ. As they bake in an unforgiving summer sun, a beautiful silver carving of Jesus on the Cross lies in the sand and by their feet. It’s an idol. If they could just each place their foot on it, supplanting their savior and renouncing His authority, they would go free. If they do not, they’ll suffer one of a variety of heinous tortures.

The most despairing aspect of this scenario is that it matters not at all to their leaders and inquisitors if they elect to apostatize their faith; it’s really a test for Rodrigues. If he also would just place his foot on Jesus’ likeness, he could spare his flock. But if he chooses to not renounce his faith—as his mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has already abandoned under mysterious circumstances—more Christians will die. For him. It’s a vicious Gordian Knot of spirituality, and it is one that Scorsese has been trying to unravel as a storyteller for nearly 30 years.

Scorsese told a group of journalists, including myself, as much during a press conference in a gilded Manhattan hotel near Central Park. This story, a fictional account of the real-life apostate priest Father Ferreira and the Jesuit students who investigated his disgrace, has haunted the filmmaker ever since the last film he made that was drenched in Catholicism, The Last Temptation of the Christ (1988). It was at that point when he’d read the Shūsaku Endō book that Silence is based on for the first time. In the ensuing years, Scorsese’s mind has searched again and again for meaning in that battle between the spiritual and the desire to be Christ-like that occurred within Rodrigues’ soul.

“A lot of the Roman Catholic Christian iconography sort of came out of my system in a way in Last Temptation of Christ,” the filmmaker said while considering the contrast between Silence’s stately and measured pace to much of his past work, including the extravagantly sinful previous effort, The Wolf of Wall Street. “That’s when I read this book. When the film was finished, Archbishop Paul Moore of the Episcopal Church in New York at St. John, gave me this book. He said, ‘Take a look at this one,’ because he liked Last Temptation. And I found it went deeper, and that is where I wanted to go, but I didn’t know how to go there.”

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Exploring the complexities of a faith—and being forced to either apostatize so others might live or all die—stayed with Scorsese for the next three decades.

“That was 1989, by the time I read the book. So between ’89 and doing Goodfellas, where the style was developed for the very quick, fast-paced, I don’t know what you would call it—but you go from Goodfellas to Casino, and trying again to find another way to express myself visually with Age of Innocence… and then ultimately, revisiting it again in Wolf of Wall Street. In between, a lot of that way of seeing the world and telling a story simply worked itself out.”

The Taxi Driver director went on to consider the specific struggles he had with adapting the story of real apostate priests living in banishment in Japan, particularly in the third act when such a fate could await Rodrigues while his faith is most brutally, and morally, tested.

“I knew I wanted to make it, but I didn’t know how,” Scorsese said. “I didn’t really understand how to translate it into the images—the structure of the story is one thing. How to structure it. It took many years to reread the book, make notes, all the way through, and ultimately make a lot of other pictures, and it seemed to refine itself as the years went by.” This included first attempting the screenplay with co-writer Jay Cocks in 2006. It was only then that he began to understand how to tackle the last 30 pages of the novel.

The grapple of Rodrigues’ final trials has been something that in itself seems to have tortured the filmmaker over as much time. He even cited it as one of the reasons he made Kundun in 1997, a biopic about the 14th Dalai Lama who was confronted by Maoism. Yet, returning to Rodrigues, who was confronted with either renouncing his faith or facing the same trial that Ferreira did (where you are hanged upside down above a cesspool, slowly watching your blood drip down from a cut in your neck) became a necessity for the filmmaker.

“That’s a road into what true faith is, or what true Christianity is, which has always been—foremost in my mind in my whole life, no matter what I’ve done, even going back to Mean Streets where the opening line is, ‘You don’t make up for your sins in the church, you do it in the street and at home. All the rest is nonsense.’”

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For Scorsese, this meant that “you don’t separate religion and go into a building, and then you go outside and behave differently. The struggle’s outside. Inside, you might get some support, or you might find it through chanting, through ritual, through meditation, all those… the real truth of Christianity, which is a stripping away of the self, and emptying the self, and not having anything left to be proud of. That fascinated me. How do you do that? How do you go there? That fascinated me. You can go to mass, you can go to any kind of religious service, I don’t know. You could suddenly speak in tongues. But how do you go to that place?”

Personally, I can vouch that the third act and resolution of Silence is something that will linger in your mind for days. And days. Who knows, it might still be there in 30 years for audiences too?

Silence opens in limited release on Dec. 23.