Arts / Entertainment

New details on Scorsese’s “meditative and brutal” missionary drama “Silence”

The film about persecuted Catholic missionaries in Japan looks like it will be worth the wait

 

It’s been over a year since we first learned some of the details about Scorsese’s long-awaited adaptation of Silence, a 1966 book by Shusaku Endo about Catholic missionaries facing persecution – and a crisis of faith – in 17th-century Japan.

Since then, the film has remained (perhaps fittingly) shrouded in mystery. Aside from an official release date (limited release on December 23, wide release in January) a few more stills (such as this one of an emaciated Liam Neeson or these pictures of pictures), and reports of an original runtime of over 3 hours that has since been cut down to 2 hours and 39 minutes, we’ve learned very little about Scorsese’s decades-long passion project. (That hasn’t quelled the hype; Silence has already generated plenty of Oscar buzz, and producer Irwin Winkler calls it Scorsese’s “best movie”).

But a few new film stills and a new Fandango interview with star Andrew Garfield really start to bring things into focus.

“It’s meditative and brutal simultaneously,” Garfield explains. “It’s a very mysterious film and I can’t quite put it into words. Every time me and Marty would try to get to the bottom of its themes and what the character is going through, we would wind up talking for two to three hours, and every time there would be five minutes of silence at the end because we had exhausted the conversation and had no answers, only more questions. Then he’d look at me and go, ‘Okay kid, until next time.’”

Of course, Scorsese’s reputation for violent movies precedes him, and while Endo’s novel is ultimately a meditation on God, faith, and suffering, the force behind those questions is a tidal wave of anti-Christian violence against missionaries and converts at that time in Japan. Fandango asked Garfield to elaborate on the film’s brutality, noting that Silence describes (among other things) a kind of torture called anazuri, which involved hanging Christians upside down and slowly bleeding them to death. “There is a lot of violence in it, but it’s done in a very different way,” Garfield responded. “It’s a very specific type of brutality that was being done reluctantly, and yet with this Japanese eloquence – it had a real seduction about it. It’s really fascinating… but I don’t want to say too much until you see it. You see it and then we’ll talk about it.”

Garfield goes on to talk about the filming process and some of the instruction he received from Jesuit priests while working on the film – instruction he carried over to his role as Desmond Doss in another highly anticipated film, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge.

“I had a whole year to spend preparing for [Silence],” he said. “I got to spend a lot of time with Marty and with Jesuit priests; one in particular being Father James Martin, who’s become a real mentor to me and a spiritual director for me, basically. Teaching me about all things Jesuit in a visceral way, not just an intellectual way. In a ‘lived’ way. I just fell in love with the whole process of what it is to be a Jesuit priest, and I took that experience directly into working with Mel [Gibson] and in trying to get under the skin and into the heart of Desmond Doss.”

There is still no trailer to share just eight weeks before the official release, so it’s a safe assumption that the studio is not expecting Silence to be a commercial hit. But after so many years of thought and attention, Endo’s groundwork and Scorsese’s direction will likely yield something far greater: a profound, unsettling, and timely vision of the human soul from two master storytellers.

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Matthew Becklo

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.