At a 1988 dinner following the premiere of Martin Scorsese's controversial testament of faith, "The Last Temptation of Christ," Paul Moore, then the Episcopal bishop of New York, told Scorsese about a book he should read. Within a day or two, Moore sent the filmmaker a copy of "Silence," Shusaku Endo's novel about two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in 1639 to find their mentor, a man rumored to have renounced his beliefs under torture.
When Scorsese began reading the novel a year later, he found he couldn't shake the story of its conflicted main character, Father Sebastiao Rodrigues, a man working through his own pride and doubts in his quest to serve his God. Scorsese came close to making "Silence" several times in the intervening decades. Now that he has, he views the finished film as a "stripping away of everything extraneous to get to the essence, the spiritual."
We sat down with the 74-year-old director to talk about that essence and what he calls the "never-ending pilgrimage" of making "Silence" and understanding the truth found in Endo's cherished novel.
Q: There's a through line between "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "Silence." Both movies raise questions about the foundations of faith and both speak to people who have doubt and despair ...
A: Which is everybody. Everybody! We're weak! That's why I loved the westerns when I was a kid. We were stronger. Shane is strong. Watching them compensated for my own feelings of weakness. Of course, it depends on what you describe as real strength and character. You can hit someone and they stay hit ... for a while. (Laughs) But that kind of strength is deceptive and not real.
Q: We see that brutality often in your films. Does working through depravity and darkness help you find a path to decency?
A: Yes. The negative aspects of being human very often involve brutality and violence and the capability of violence. And you have to understand it. Or at least be ready to understand it. That's all kinds. And I don't mean, "Let's be outre and say 'The Age of Innocence' is violent." But a Jesuit in Rome the other day said it was a terribly violent film. You turn a card over and it's all these different signs and signals of this tribe, which you're ostracized from and it's devastating.
Q: Betrayal -- another element found in so many of your movies. In the foreword to a recent edition of "Silence," you said that in order for Christianity to live, it needs "not just the figure of Christ but the figure of Judas as well." What do you mean by that?
A: Judas was God's instrument for the sacrifice of Jesus. Did he want to betray Jesus? I don't think so. That's what we were trying to get across in "Last Temptation." History labels him as the ultimate betrayer, but he was just doing the job that God had assigned him.
Q: In "Silence," the Judas figure, Kichijiro, keeps popping up -- so often, in fact, his appearances become a form of comic relief.