There will be no red carpet, and almost certainly none of the usual glamour. But when Martin Scorsese’s new film, Silence, has its world premiere at the Vatican on Tuesday, it will be the culmination of a 27-year project that the director has described as “an obsession”.
Pope Francis is not expected to attend the screening at the Pontifical Oriental Institute for the Jesuits, but Scorsese will join about 400 priests and other guests to watch the 159-minute movie. The director may meet the pontiff separately.
A two-minute trailer released this week suggested a film of much anguish and violence. It has already been tipped as an Oscar contender, an accolade for which Scorsese has been nominated a dozen times and won once, in 2007 for The Departed.
Silence is based on the acclaimed 1966 novel of the same name by the Japanese author Shusaku Endo. It is the 17th-century story of two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, Rodrigues and Garrpe – played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver – who travel to Japan to track down their mentor, Father Ferreira.
At the time, Christianity was banned in Japan, and those who practised the faith were tortured and executed. Faced with this, Ferreira (played by Liam Neeson) apparently renounced his religion through a ritual known as fumie – in which Christians were forced to trample over a religious icon such as a crucifix in order to prove repudiation of their faith.
Tens of thousands of Japanese Christians were persecuted, tortured and killed over the 250 years that the religion was outlawed. The ban was lifted in 1873, but Christians are still a tiny minority – less than 1% – in a country dominated by Shinto and Buddhism.
In Silence, the two priests end up in the same situation as Ferreira. Rodrigues is forced to choose between apostasy and death – not just his own, but the execution of converts. He prays for guidance but God is silent, until at last he hears a single word: “trample”.
Scorsese read Endo’s novel in 1989, a year after his film The Last Temptation of Christ triggered a storm of controversy over a dream sequence in which Jesus has sex with Mary Magdalene. Religious themes and subtexts have run through other movies made by Scorsese, who considered the priesthood as a youngster.
The director was determined to turn the novel into a movie (a Japanese film version appeared in 1971, which Endo apparently considered a travesty of his book), but the project ran into repeated difficulties and delays. Finally, filming began last year in Taiwan.
Three years ago, Scorsese told the online movie magazine Deadline that his quest to make the film had been an obsession. Saying he had been “steeped in the Roman Catholic religion” as a young man, he added: “As you get older, ideas come and go. Questions, answers, loss of the answer again and more questions, and this is what really interests me …
“Silence is just something I’m drawn to in that way. It’s been an obsession, it has to be done and now is the time to do it. It’s a strong, wonderful true story, a thriller in a way, but it deals with those questions.”
Scorsese hired the Rev James Martin, a Jesuit priest and writer, as a consultant, and his stars prepared themselves for their roles by undertaking a seven-day silent retreat at St Beuno’s, a Jesuit spiritual centre with spectacular views of Snowdonia in north Wales.
“Andrew [Garfield] got to the point where he could out-Jesuit a Jesuit,” Martin told the New York Times. “There were places in the script where he would stop and say, ‘A Jesuit wouldn’t say that’, and we would come up with something else.”
Mark Williams, professor of Japanese studies at Leeds University and an expert on Endo’s novels, said the main theme of Silence was the unique nature of each individual’s spiritual journey. “It’s difficult to get this across in a film, but if anyone can do it, it’s Scorsese,” he said.
A key test would be how the director handled the final section of the book, following the climactic scene in which Rodrigues “betrays everything his life has stood for”. In the novel, the priest is overtaken by guilt and does not abandon his faith but spends the rest of his life in and out of prison.
The book had sold well in Japan, although the “hardcore Catholic community view it as heretical and blasphemous”, said Williams.
“Endo was persona non grata among Japanese Catholics. You can’t find the book in any Christian bookshops, but it’s widely talked about in Japan – and I’m sure the film will be popular.”
Silence opens in the US on 23 December, in the UK on 1 January and in Japan later that month.
It is not the first film to have a Vatican premiere. The Pope Francis biopic Call Me Francesco was first shown there last December to an audience of refugees and homeless, and in 2006 Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story had its world premiere at the Vatican.
The Vatican has also screened films of special interest to the church, including Angelina Jolie’s prisoner of war movie, Unbroken, and Tom McCarthy’s film about sexual abuse by Catholic priests, Spotlight.
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