The Modern Lessons Of Martin Scorsese's 17th-Century Epic, 'Silence' The director's new film follows a pair of Portuguese Jesuit priests in Japan. He says he's been trying to make it since the late 1980s.

The Modern Lessons Of Martin Scorsese's 17th-Century Epic, 'Silence'

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In the 1940s and '50s, Martin Scorsese was a kid growing up in New York. He had an ambition that was common in Italian-American families.

Is this true you wanted to be a priest as a kid before you...

MARTIN SCORSESE: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I tried for about two semesters in a preparatory seminary. But I was about 15 and didn't fully understand what a vocation means.

INSKEEP: Scorsese realized he just admired a particular priest, not that he should be one.

SCORSESE: So the idea then was, how do you live your life outside the clergy in a way that reflects the tenets of Christianity?

INSKEEP: He went into movies. And though he's famous for films about violent men - "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas" - there's another strand of Scorsese's filmmaking. He made "The Last Temptation Of Christ" and a film about the Dalai Lama.

And now he is the director of "Silence." It's set in Japan in the 1600s. European missionaries have been trying to spread Christianity there. Japanese authorities find them a threat. Andrew Garfield stars as Father Rodrigues who, along with another priest played by Adam Driver, sneak in hoping to rescue a lost missionary. They slip through scenic seaside villages where Christians, a religious minority, are hunted down, tortured and killed. Father Rodrigues writes home, there is evil all around in this place. I sense its strength, even its beauty.

Scorsese wanted for decades to make this film, which was inspired by a real period in Japan's history.

SCORSESE: Suddenly, they had this foreign, cultural, ideological movement that threatens the very culture and the essence of what Japan is and who they are. And ultimately, the way to do it was to just forbid Christianity completely. At first, they martyred a great many of the Japanese Christians. But the key was to have the priest themselves, the Jesuits themselves, apostatize and give up the faith to give example to the rest of the Japanese Christians that it's not worth pursuing.

INSKEEP: Now I can see what makes this a suspenseful movie because you've got these two guys who are slipping into Japan. It's essentially a closed society, an island nation. It's become much more oppressive than it used to be. People are being tortured left and right, and they're trying to survive. But I suspect that there's something else that made you hold onto this story for so many years and want to make it so long.

SCORSESE: Well, I think what it was is that at the moment that Rodrigues has his great trial...

INSKEEP: He's under enormous...

SCORSESE: ...The choice he makes.

INSKEEP: He's under enormous pressure to give up his religion.

SCORSESE: Yeah, he's under enormous pressure to give up that religion. And why, when he does that, does he ultimately find the true religion - if he does. (Laughter) I don't want to blow the movie in that sense.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

SCORSESE: You know - I mean, if he did, he would empty himself - right? He'd have nothing left to be proud of and he becomes, like, pure compassion, pure service, pure gift, in a way. And this is the real truth, I thought, in terms of what faith is and what Christianity is.

INSKEEP: What do you think about the political moment in which this movie has arrived on screens?

SCORSESE: I think it's interesting because, you know, it took years to get this picture put together for many different reasons. And so it's interesting that the film will be released at this time because - I kept thinking, too, when I was about 8 years old, it was the height of the Cold War - the beginning, 1950. And I remember the Korean War very well. And I remember the soldiers who were POWs who supposedly were "brainwashed," quote, unquote, who gave in, so to speak. And when they came back, they were treated like pariahs and traitors.

INSKEEP: Oh - because they had denounced the United States while they were prisoners of war.

SCORSESE: Denounced the United States - and, you know, it made you feel as if they had lost their souls - that they were walking zombies in a way, moral wastelands. But shouldn't there be compassion for that person? Instead of saying - you know, I prefer people who don't get caught, and if they do get caught, I prefer people who don't give in. Can you stand that test? How can you judge another person when you haven't gone through that test yourself?

INSKEEP: But how does the movie, do you think, relate to the political moment of now? Because it sounds like you think there is a...

SCORSESE: Well, because the philosophy now is against that.

INSKEEP: Our philosophy now is against forgiving people?

SCORSESE: Political - yeah. The political tone is against that kind of compassion and understanding. And also, I think, a closing off - a closing of the mind to understanding or attempting to understand the way other people think. In order to do that, you've got to get to know about them a little bit, maybe even know a little of the language and then get to meet them to understand the cultures, you know. It's, you know, a time where it seems that it's more separation than a coming together.

INSKEEP: I'm even thinking more overtly than that. You have a country in this film that feels threatened by an outside religion, isn't sure what to do about it. And so torturing people...

SCORSESE: Oh, yes - that's true. I mean - as again, I say, after we stumble through for years, we stumble through the film. You know, you land on the ground. You get up. The dust is settling, and the picture opens now (laughter). So we didn't plan it. But there is that resonance. There is no doubt there is that resonance.

INSKEEP: I want to ask you about a couple of other things.


INSKEEP: As I'm watching this movie, there are a number of overhead shots. We see the two Jesuit priests walking down some marble steps, and we see them from above, hiding in high grass in a field. And in thinking about that, I'm realizing you're kind of shooting it from a God's-eye view.

SCORSESE: Well, I guess you could look at it that way. I - quite honestly, when I saw those steps, I said I have to be above them. But I do think if you say God's point of view, well, I guess so. Part of it, too, happens to be - when I grew up in the Lower East Side, I was in a third-floor front tenement apartment. And I saw a lot of things from the window - a lot of things. So (laughter)...

INSKEEP: And that's influenced you ever since when positioning cameras?

SCORSESE: Yes, yes. Absolutely, absolutely. There were all kinds of dramas and comedies going on and life. And it was quite, quite extraordinary - a little scary at times, funny other times and just actually quite nice.

INSKEEP: So we were actually seeing Martin Scorsese's youthful Lower East Side view of things...

SCORSESE: Possibly.

INSKEEP: ...Looking down in the world.

SCORSESE: Yeah. I wouldn't presume to be God's point of view. I mean, that's ridiculous. I just - I kind of see it that way. I find the higher angles down. I do - look, you can go back to the staircase shots in "Third Man" or the staircase in "La Dolce Vita." So I just find that visual construction in a frame.

INSKEEP: So let me ask another question, which may be phrased in a slightly sacrilegious way. Are movies a religion for you?

SCORSESE: Well, look, I think if you think of yourself as religious and if you're given a gift, some may not think it's that great a gift - some critics. But others might, you know. So you say, look - whether it's good, bad or indifferent, this is what I do. This is what I do. If I could paint, it might be better (laughter). If I could write, it might have been better. But this is what I know and what I do. And so in a sense, they are religious acts. And you could, you know, ridicule that, or you could take offense at it. But they are religious acts, even the profane ones.

INSKEEP: You're expressing something real. That's what feels religious to you.

SCORSESE: That's what I feel - because I'm trying to find out what the hell we - who we are (laughter).

INSKEEP: Director Martin Scorsese. His new film is called "Silence."

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