Martin Scorsese, the acclaimed filmmaker, has completed a film about 17th-century, Portuguese Jesuits ministering in Japan, based on Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence. The film, to be released this month, stars Liam Neeson as Father Cristóvão Ferreira, a Jesuit who recants his faith after undergoing torture, and Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as two younger Jesuits, Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues and Francisco Garupe, respectively, whose mission is to find their mentor. They, too, find themselves submitted to torture and struggle with whether to apostatize.
This interview took place in Mr. Scorsese’s office in New York on Nov. 8 with James Martin, S.J., who served as an adviser to the film.
I’m Father Jim Martin. I’m editor at large at America Media, and I’m very happy to be here with Martin Scorsese, the esteemed filmmaker. We’re going to be speaking about his new film “Silence,” which is about 17th-century Jesuit missionaries who go to Japan. I won’t give the story away. Thanks for joining us.
To start out, can you tell us a little bit about your religious upbringing?
My first seven years of life I was living in a nice two-family house in Corona, Queens, with my eldest brother and my mother and father. They came from big families; they had brothers and sisters, maybe seven or eight on each side of the family, so it was a very big family. Corona was very nice. There were trees. It was like a small town, like a village, and I don’t remember anything about religion at that point in 1945, ‘46, ‘47. Because of some family problems we were evicted back to Elizabeth Street, where my mother and father were born, and in the building, 241 Elizabeth St., that still exists in the third-floor front, my father’s parents—my grandparents—and we lived for about six months in 1949 and 1950, until we found rooms, as they said, “down the block” at 253.
Thrown into that area at that point, having severe asthma, it was a difference of day and night. It was something in my mind that was idyllic: suddenly cast out of Paradise, so to speak, into the diaspora. Basically, it was like the “Dead-End Kids” running around the streets with garbage cans. It was an incredible, thriving, almost medieval village, in a way, with the grocery stores, fish stores, pork stores, all kinds of things going on: funeral parlors, luncheonettes, hard-working people, a criminal caste also, a criminal element. But the main thing was that there was the St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral around the corner. I was told I had to go to school. From a public school, I was sent to St. Patrick’s school. I was, by that point I think, in the second or third grade, and I was suddenly thrown into a very strict, well, mid-20th century New York Catholic environment. The nuns were the nuns of Mother Seton.
Sisters of Charity. Yes.
Sisters of Charity. Some of them were very austere, very tough nuns. The third-grade nun, I remember walking in that class, and I remember we had to wear blue knit ties and little blue jackets, that sort of thing. (They still wear them. It’s not a blue knit, but the jackets are still there.) In any event, it was Sister Gertrude. She was really tough. I had to learn a script by following her, because I hadn’t learned it so, “Just follow us whatever we do.” Other nuns were very sweet, but it was a very strict, very strict, mid-century, very Irish in terms of being in an Italian neighborhood, and particular Elizabeth Street, which was mainly composed of Sicilians, which were somewhat different from the Neapolitans on Mulberry. But we all were there, in that school, and the Cathedral, which is now a Basilica, was really the center of life for me there. I spent a lot of time in there.
You spent a lot of time praying in the church, or going to Mass?
Yes. In the church, and going to Mass.
By myself. My family wasn’t very religious that way, but I just found comfort there because the streets were pretty rough, and having the severe asthma, I was told I couldn’t do anything. If you’re told that repeatedly, and you have enough breathing problems, and you really believe it—I always think of Teddy Roosevelt as an example, who had severe asthma, but he fought it—but my parents in the mid to late ‘40s, uneducated and working class, they just didn’t know what to do. They just knew I couldn’t breathe. This was from three years old on, and so I was more or less protected because of that. But when you’re in the street you’re not really protected. There’s a testing all the time: tougher kids, younger kids, and then you try to make sense of it all. You try to make sense of the dynamic of the family. What a family means. What a family unit is. The extended family: The aunts and uncles, my grandmother and grandfather in 241 Elizabeth St., my grandmother and grandfather in Queens, my mother’s side of the family, the Cappa side, her brothers and sisters. Some of them were still living in the neighborhood on Prince Street and on Lafayette. So, it was like a living organism, and the church was the center.
It was also the center for every group that was there. Mainly it was all working-class people trying to live a decent life. It was very dirty; they were tenements, but it wasn’t as dirty as it was when they were born there. Elizabeth Street at the turn-of-the-century was noted in New York as the highest rate of infant mortality, and that was because of cholera and all these diseases. They finally found a way to maintain the buildings where they lived, and I still can smell the bleach that was used to scrub the halls. My mother and everybody scrubbing the halls on the weekend, the windows, everything to keep it clean and to protect the family. And there was an underworld element that was there that was brought over from the old world.
The church sounded like it was a haven for you growing up?
Yes, it was. It really was a haven. I had to visit there yesterday actually, and it’s being restored back to its original form, including the statues, which I remember vividly: Saint Rocco and Mother Seton. There’s a Pieta, and it’s extraordinary. They’re doing such good work down there. The altar, everything has been restored except for the communion rail. The hovering crucifix just hanging from the ceiling. It’s extraordinary. The stained glass windows are quite beautiful. I spend so much time there, and I remember I was about eight or nine years old, when I was told I had to read Latin aloud in the center aisle for Vespers one night. They put a red bow on you, and that sort of thing, and I remember being frightened, but doing it.
It took me out of this—how should I put it?—the everyday world, the practical world of my parents, my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and their lives in a way. That there was something beyond that too, and that somehow what I thought I had perceived in the church, or what I was trying to, applied to how we lived. Yet, I don’t recall if there was anything specific, in other words, my father being very specific about religion in any way. But they were working out how one lives a good life on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis, with responsibilities, and obligations and decency. It was very important in a world that was pretty indecent.
Did that religiosity continue as an adolescent?
Yes, it did. I was in the altar boys for quite a while. I was in a choir also. At the archdiocese down there at that time, the priests and the monsignors were really there for the older Italian generation, the ones who hardly spoke English, that sort of thing. They were Italian, some were from Italy, and not even Italian-American, so they really didn’t relate to younger people.
Until there was one priest who was stationed there. It was his first parish, actually. It was Father Francis Principe. It was 1953. I was 10 or 11. He was there for about six years and in the formative years for me.
Really, he was the mentor in a way. He was in his early 20s and balanced out a kind of Old World mentality that was transplanted from Sicily and from Naples, and basically was the one who pointed the way through literature, cinema, music. He was the one who looked at us at one point, myself and my friends, and he said, “You don’t have to live this way.” What he meant was that there seemed to be a cycle. A cycle of [at the age of] 20 or 21, in order to separate from the parents, you marry. Then you have children, and then the same thing happens, and it goes on and on like this, and there might be something else in this country that offers you opportunities, and it could be a different life that also opens the mind and the heart.
That’s very interesting. How did he communicate that? Was he the head of the altar servers, or was he just kind of a mentor, or a teacher in the school?
No. He wasn’t even a teacher. There were two priests. I forget the name. Father Massaroni, I think. He was sort of in between the older and the newer, but Father Principe would tell us about Dwight Mcdonald. [He would] give us memoirs of a revolutionist to read, Lots of Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory particularly. All sorts of things. He loved Westerns, but he didn’t like Johnny Guitar.
So, he’s giving you Graham Greene at age what? How old were you?
12 or 13.
Quite an education.
Yeah. Well, what happened was that was very hard for me to read, because in my family there was no tradition of reading. There just wasn’t. There were no books in the apartment. I remember bringing in the first book. It was on the Russian Revolution, which alarmed them greatly. But the other books we just took out from the library. We had to go to Tompkins Square Library, that’s still there. It’s quite something. In any event, I struggled through the books somehow. There were others. James Baldwin was around at the time too in the early ‘60s. This changed somewhat because then the civil rights movement, all of that was happening, and I wound up at Washington Square College. But during the ‘50s was really his influence mainly. From 1953 to about 1960. Then he was stationed, I think, at Cardinal Hayes High School as Dean of Discipline, and now he’s I think at Cardinal Spellman High School.
Are you still in touch with him?
Well, I last spoke to him about a year ago. Yes.
So, you’re a religious person all the way throughout college as well?
Well, for a long period of time, I was fascinated by stories of the missionaries when I was about eight or nine, ten years old, and I wanted to become a Maryknoll missionary.
Is that right?
What appealed to you about the Maryknoll missionaries?
I liked what they had to say.
Did you know many Maryknolls missionaries?
No. No. We just read the stories.
Through the Maryknoll Magazine?
Yes. The Maryknoll Magazine. Exactly. I loved what they had to say: the courage, the testing and the helping. I thought this was something that would be extraordinary. The nuns really liked that. The next thing I know, I meet this Father Principe. I said, "Well, I want to be like this," and so I wound up at Cathedral Prep, I think it was called, a kind of a preparatory seminary here in New York. I was about 14 or 15, and that’s the age when everything clicks another way, and I realized that many are called but few are chosen, so you don’t dedicate your life to Jesus and a sense of being a cleric unless you really have the calling.
In other words, it isn’t to be like somebody else. It has to come from you. It’s a very serious and very sacred calling, and are you up for it? Is that in you? No, and if it isn’t then how do you try to live a good life while being on the outside in a sense? Not being in the church as someone who is a priest, or a cleric in the church,ow do you do that? I was really crushed when I was thrown out of there, but I didn’t study. I was behaving badly. The Monsignor, I forget his name, called my father in and said this kid basically is trouble.
That’s interesting. Was it your decision, or their decision?
Well, also mine, I think, because I backed out. I stopped doing the work, and I behaved badly. I behaved very badly at that time.
But you’ve always been interested, it sounds like, in missionary work?
When did you run across Silence, the book?
By that time, I wound up at Cardinal Hayes, which actually within two to three years, gave me a structure and a focus, and somehow at that time also, around ’59 and ’60, the possibility of making films became very real. The whole industry changed. You could make independent films on the East Coast, it wasn’t that way before, and so I wound up at Washington Square College, and somehow the passion found its way into the films. Well, “Mean Streets” has a very strong religious content to the picture, and premise really, and to a certain extent “Taxi Driver,” and then certainly “Raging Bull,” though I didn’t know it.
Then right around that time, I had gotten involved with Kazantzakis’ book The Last Temptation of Christ. I wanted to make that. By 1988 when that was finally made, and it was about to be released, there was a great deal of an uproar, and we had to show the film, what was the film at that moment anyway, to different religious groups to show what it was rather than arguing about it without having seen it. One of the people there was Archbishop Paul Moore of New York, Episcopal, and he came to a little meeting afterwards at a small dinner we had. He felt that the film, as he said, was “Christologically correct.” He told us many stories. He was a very interesting man.
He said, “I’m going to send you a book.” And he described some of the stories in the book, and he described the confrontation, the choices, the concept of apostasy and faith. I received the book a few days later, and by ’89, a year later, I read it. The experience of taking “The Last Temptation of Christ”, and then doing “Goodfellas” was so extraordinarily exhausting and pummeling, in a way, fighting very strong arguments and discussions. Really, it was around the world. By the time I did “Goodfellas,” I had promised the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to be in a film of his called “Dreams.” He wanted me to play van Gogh.
I was 15 days over schedule on “Goodfellas.” The studio was furious. My cameraman left because he had another picture to do. Somebody else came in. We were just scurrying to finish, and Kurosawa was waiting for me in Japan. He was 82 years old, and he had just finished the majority of the shooting, and he had only my scene to shoot, and he was waiting. It was very nerve-racking. Within two days after shooting that film, we flew to Tokyo, and then to Hokkaido, and while I was there I read the book. Actually finished it on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto.
You read Silence in Japan?
This is ’89?
1989. August or September. That’s when I thought, “This would be an amazing picture to make at some point.” At first, I didn’t think so. At first, I didn’t really immediately know, while I was reading the book, how to realize it, make it real, stage it, because I didn’t know the heart of it. In other words, I didn’t quite, if not understand, then really interpret it. I think it took all these years because I tried writing a script right away, like around 1990. Jay Cox and myself in ’91 we were able to get Vittorio and his father Vittorio Cecchi Gori to get us to buy the rights, and we were going to make the film right away, and we got halfway through the script. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just didn’t know.
Then I got sidetracked doing other films: “Age of Innocence,” I owed a film to Universal, I had to do “Casino,” and wound up doing “Kundun,” which also was a way of working some of this out. In the meantime, [I was] always going back to the book. What’s important to understand is that from 1989 or 1990 to 2014 or 2015, when we finally got to shoot the picture, there were many legal problems, and it was kind of a Gordian knot of intricacies—a complicated, legal mess—and so it became more forbidding to do the picture. Some of the people involved wound up in jail, not for reasons of dealing with “Silence,” but other business practices.
When I’d look at my managers, and my agents, and say, “I really want to make this film.” They’d go in. They’d inquire where it stood at that moment in time, and they’d come back in horror, and say, “Well, this person has to get this, and the amount of money against it,” back and forth, and, finally, there were a number of people who really worked it out. But it took many years to try to understand or feel comfortable with how to visualize the picture, and how to deal with the last sequences of the film. The last sequences. Not just the confrontation at the end, but the epilogue.
Which is a letter.
Right. Now, you said that it took you a while to understand the heart of the book. How would you describe the heart of the book?
Well, I think it's the depth of faith. It’s the struggle for the very essence of faith, stripping away everything else around it.
The vehicle that one takes towards faith, which can be very helpful—the institution of the church, the sacraments—this all can be very, but ultimately it has to be yourself, and you have to find it. You have to find that faith, or you have to find a relationship with Jesus with yourself, really, because ultimately that’s the one you face.
Right. He’s very free by the end.
Yeah. He is, but it doesn’t negate, in my mind, those who choose to have, I should say, lived a life according to the rules of an institution, [like] the institution of the Catholic Church, or however one proceeds in their life with their own beliefs, but ultimately they can’t do it for you. You’ve got to do it yourself. That’s the problem.
And the invitation.
And the invitation, and it keeps calling you.
It does. Yes. Every day.
It keeps calling you, and it’s in the other people around you. It's the people closest to you. This is what it is, and you suddenly get slapped in the face by it, and say, “Wake up.” You know?
The shock is, without describing the ending or the movie, that the character finds that what he is about to do or what he does is antithetical to what probably all of Christian culture in Europe thinks should be done.
That’s right. Yes. That’s what was so compelling about telling this story because how could you support that, or how could you champion his choice, his decision? Then you say, “Well, you put yourself in that place. Think about the weakness of the human spirit, weakness of humanity,” and, how should I put it? Well, I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it over the years myself, too,experienced it with people making the same mistakes over and over again, and there’s only certain people around them who are going to help them or be with them. It’s a test. The problem is, like in “Mean Streets,” the character Charlie chooses his own penance. You can’t do that.
Right. Often God gives it to you, or life gives it to you.
Yeah. When you least expect it.
And it becomes an annoyance, and you really [have to say], “No. That’s it.”
Right. My spiritual director, I said to him once, “This is not the cross that I would choose,” and he said, “Well if it’s the cross you choose, it's hardly a cross.”
That’s right, because it’s comfortable to you.
That’s what fascinated me about the decision he makes.
It’s such a sweeping decision too. It’s very clear what he does. Yet, he has it still in him. It’s there in his heart, and it’s there in the book. I know.
As viewers will realize, it’s a very Jesuit movie. He’s free as a Jesuit to make this choice. Did you know much about the Jesuit history or Jesuit spirituality before “Silence”?
No. I mean, I did to a certain extent, but don’t forget I’m, you know, a “Street Catholic.”
[Mine were] diocesan priests. In the middle of gang fights, the priests saying, “Stop that, you kids!”
Right. Right. Yeah.
My friends, some of them, went to Xavier College, and some, I couldn’t get in, went to Fordham. [There were] a number of other places. A number of my friends who were able to, with their grades and their minds, have that education. My grades weren't very good at that time because of the mess I made at the preparatory seminary. It took about two to three years at Hayes to at least try to take the work seriously, anyway. When I got to Washington Square College, which was NYU at the time—it doesn’t exist anymore; it was a small college in the Village—it was interesting, because they really didn’t care if you studied. It was up to you. You don’t want to come in? Don’t come in. Then I realized, “Well, there’s something here,” and there were some interesting religion courses. One, taught by a Jesuit, I forget his name, who wrote a book called The Two-Edged Sword [John L. McKenzie, SJ, a biblical scholar.]
[The courses were] very interesting. Yeah, and so it was a revelation, and all the other cultural issues too, Greeks and Armenians, and it was just an eye-opener. No, I got to know some Jesuit priests later on, but I never really encountered [them].
Well, you know a lot about them now.
Yes, I do.
But there was this interest in the missionaries and what they suffered. There’s another part of the film which is the story of the Japanese Christians. It’s obviously not just about the Jesuits. How do you think moviegoers will grapple with this idea of people who are willing to undergo so much suffering for their faith? Do you think that's something that’s understood today or appreciated? Because, in a sense, that could be a foreign thing for people to appreciate just as much as a foreign culture.
It depends on which culture we’re talking about. I mean, do we have that kind of faith here in America? Does our culture reflect that? I don’t know if it does. I think faith here now is our technology, but when they pull the plug from the technology, there's still got to be something. There’s going to be that realization or that confrontation of yourself, really, and I do think those who died for their convictions and their belief—that decision, and that choice, is something that has to be respected. I think it does. It was individual. The suffering was individual. In other words, it wasn't a situation where they go into a place and kill 100 people with them. This is something where they just would not [reject Christianity]. Also, they were afraid to lose Paradise. In the picture, it said this Christianity brought love, because they were living almost like beasts, in a way. This is the take that Rodrigues has in the book. He said they were living where they were facing a spiritual life of emptiness or nothingness, in a way.
And so this [Christianity] gave them something special about each individual, about each human being: the sacredness of their lives, and each one being equal that way, in their souls. Which is very different, I gain, from Shinto.
Sure. Is there a parallel? You described Catholicism or Christianity as a kind of haven for them, and earlier you described Christianity and Catholicism as a haven for you out of the mean streets. Do you see any parallel between what it offers the Japanese [in “Silence”], and what Christianity offered you?
I think I can. Again, I think we have to respect that culture, though. I was there a few weeks ago, and one of the actors said he wasn’t a very religious person, but, he said, “I do feel that my ancestors are looking out for me.” I was surprised. It’s another way of thinking. I think we have to respect that way of thinking. We have to respect that culture somehow. How can we introduce the elements of Christian faith in a culture that is so different, that is so completely the opposite of who we are?
Yet, [both] the book and you, in the film, show the Jesuits trying hard.
Trying. Absolutely trying, and [with] the best intentions. The question is ultimately, was that the best approach?
That was the question. It’s inevitably tied in with the economics and the politics. Inevitably. Especially at that time, the 17th century, between England, and Holland, and Portugal, and Spain. Catholic versus Protestant.
Right. Well, the priests were seen as being imported with the rest of the culture.
Absolutely. Yeah, and particularly when the Shimabara Rebellion [1637-1638] took place. Don’t forget, Japan had just come out of about a few hundred years of civil war, and they were just settling down, and it’s a long story, but somehow the Christians found themselves on the side of one shogun who was fomenting a kind of a rebellion. It was really about the land outside of Nagasaki, and so rather than take any more chances, they said, “Let’s close down the borders. Stop everybody. Nobody comes in. Nobody goes out.” That was until the Meiji. 200 years.
Speaking of which, there’s a lot of opposition and torture in the book. Was it hard, or were you worried about, portraying the Japanese culture as oppressive?
Well, they were on an island. There was this big country called China. China was always trying to take over Japan. There was the kamikaze, the divine wind, that destroyed all the boats of Kublai Khan when they tried to take over. I mean, this is a sacred place, this is all they have, and they have to protect their culture. They have to protect their way of life and their way of thinking, and once it starts to be eroded, there will be no more Japan. There will be no more Japanese culture, and so, harshly, they had to make it very clear, and it’s a very simple thing; we see it today; they make it very clear; they kill people in a certainly graphic fashion as part of a public spectacle, in a way.
But the concept there, ultimately, was to have the ones who brought the doctrine deny the doctrine, and that would take care of all the rest, rather than killing the people, and going through all this torture and stuff. It’s a very repressive, and it's not to be excused, but they were really concerned about losing their identity and losing that island. It’s a very small place. They live with nature. We don’t think that way, in terms of nature. It’s tragic, because the worst part of being a human being comes out.
Right. It’s very interesting for me. This is a personal question: you have this book that means so much to you spiritually, you’re able to work on it and now you see the result. What’s that process like for you spiritually?
Ultimately, what happened is it becomes like a pilgrimage. It’s a pilgrimage. We are still on the road, and it’s never going to end. I thought it would for a little while, but once I was there, I realized: No. Even in the editing, it’s unfinished.
Even when you have it locked.
That’s it. It will always be unfinished. My wife’s brother just went on the Camino de Santiago, who’s not religious, by the way, but made that pilgrimage. I just sort of feel, to a certain extent, it’s easy to make a pilgrimage the way I want to make a pilgrimage, but it wasn’t easy to make the pilgrimage. I’ll put that way. It’s not easy to make the film, and there were a lot of sacrifices, and still are. They can't even be fixed, some of the things that happened personally, so there was a lot of sacrifice to make the picture. Whether it’s a good picture or not it’s up to other people, but the thing is, for me, spirituality helped, to a certain extent, and it’s something that I would want my children to feel comfortable with in the future.
Christian spirituality in general?
What you mean by saying the movie is still unfinished? I’m not sure I understand you.
Well, there are parts of the book I wish I could have shot that we chose not to, but it’s a different form. Literature is very different from the visual image and the moving image. Could I have done page by page almost? It’s almost trying to reach a point in which you pull things away rather than putting things in, and hopefully the things that are in resonate. The resonating is [powerful]; I’d like to make a film just on one of those vibrations, so to speak. So for me, I don’t think I wanted to finish it. It’s been way over schedule too. I can say that now, but it’s time to finish it. It’s just time to let it go out there, and let people see it. That’ll be good, and [I’ll] take what comes, but it’s almost a very private thing.
Sure. Of course. Now, when you read the book there some scenes I’m sure that are very moving to you, and that really affected you on a very deep level. When you see your film what kind of reaction do you have to those scenes? Is it the same? Is it different?
There’s a few scenes in the film that affect me. There's no doubt. [Especially] the one of the martyrs in the ocean.
That’s a beautiful scene.
While we were there you could feel it. When we were shooting it, I’m telling you, you could feel it.
What could you feel?
You felt the beauty and the spirituality of what was trying to be enacted. You could do it through the actors. Through Shinya Tsukamoto, and Yoshi Oida, who play Ichizo, through Andrew and Adam. It was gut wrenching, and sad, and beautiful. Those caves were beautiful. When we went on location just to check those caves, we were in there, there was a woman in there meditating. It’s a special place. We spent a lot of time there, and it was comforting in an odd way. It was very moving. When I see it on film, yes, I think I get some of that, depending on the screening. Who’s in the room. Who’s shifting in front of me.
[I can] tell the person who’s shifting too much doesn’t like the picture. You know what I’m saying?
You know, looking, “Who is that person?” But if I’m watching, and I allow myself, especially when trimming the picture down, and cutting it away, some of things come out really strongly. I didn’t expect [that].
And also the confession scenes. One in particular where Kichijiro is in the jail, when Rodrigues turns to him, and he says, “Do you even understand what absolution is?” and Kichijiro turns to him and says, “Do you understand what I’m saying? I have to confess. It’s the same sins, I know, but I’ve got to say it, and you have to listen to me.”
It’s a very real scene.
And the looks on their faces, and the inner monologue of Rodrigues when he says, “How could Jesus love a wretch like this?” Well, who are you to say that?
Yeah. Yeah. Well, when I heard him say that, or when I read it in the script, I thought, “That’s kind of typically Jesuit.”
Well, there’s a little Jesuit pride that comes across.
Oh, I know. That poor guy.
I feel bad for Rodrigues. I feel bad for Kichijiro. What they’re going through, and then poor Kichijiro has to apostatize again, a step on the fumie. It just goes on and on. Then the last confession too is quite beautiful, and the monologue that he has, and the inner thoughts that Rodrigues has when he says, “Your voice was in the silence.”
That’s a beautiful line.
What do you think someone without faith would take from this film?
Well, look, we know there are a lot of people who are going to be scathing, I would think. Those without faith. The problem is the certitude, I think, particularly in the modern world, because with technology. I imagine that no matter what point in time, particularly from the Industrial Revolution on, you must have thought that this was the best we can ever do.
In other words, this is the best of all possible worlds, and we're so advanced. Maybe we're not, but with the technology, and the possibility of explaining spirituality through chemistry of the brain, all of this, I think, some people would be extremely hostile to it; or, at least, point out the negative aspects of the mission, so to speak. And there have been so many films, so many books: “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” or the film that came last year that was a French film, I think it was, black and white about the Amazon. It was quite good. It was up for an Academy Award. In any event, this goes beyond that. This goes to the very essence of the gift that they brought.
Well, my sense is for someone without faith they are brought along on Father Rodrigues’ journey, and he’s a good person, and the Japanese Christians are good people.
They are. Yeah.
My sense is that by the end the viewer is with Father Rodrigues, and in a sense experiencing it with him, and suffering with him, so it’s less of a portrayal of the missionary from the outside in, and it’s more from the inside out.
I think when you talk about why did it take me so long to attempt to put it on the screen, that’s the issue: the inside out. It wasn’t the obvious story. It really was deeper, and I was saying yesterday to somebody, that they’d asked again about “Last Temptation,” I said, “Yes. I know,” and they said, “Well, do you think this was a direct offshoot?” I said, “Well, no. “Last Temptation” was where I was at that time in my own search, and that left off on one track, and this took up another track. This went deeper.” I realized after that film, for myself, I’m just talking about it as a person on my own, that I had to go deeper, and it wasn’t going to be easy. I don’t say I have gone deeper. I’m just saying that I had to try.
That’s interesting. You mean deeper in terms of it being more stripped away?
Yes, but also to the very understanding of what compassion is about.
Right, because in the end, it is the relationship between him and Jesus.
Yes. I tried it in “Bringing out the Dead” too. That book [was] by Joe Connelly. Paul Schrader wrote the script, and Nick Cage is in it, and it was about the EMS guys. The men and women at night in the night shift in the emergency medical service. They’re like saints, going through the streets at night, dealing with the people who are right on the edge of life and death [as well as] the chronic, they call them the “frequent flyers,” who are constantly in and out of the emergency room from drugs, or alcohol, or madness. At one point the character Frank—that Connelly wrote, who by the way is an EMS guy—he talks about it having been three days and nights, and he hadn’t brought anybody back to life. He was able to.
Then it becomes the sense of being God, you know, “I can save a life. I can bring people back to life. I’ve done it. Their heart stopped, and I can bring them back, but it’s been three days and nights.” He’s having a breakdown, and he faces his own pride that way, but ultimately at one point he says, “I realize now what it is. Maybe I’m just a grief mop. We’re there to share the grief, and there’s grief on every street corner, and every step you take in this city all night. All day and all night.”
Well, in a sense that’s Rodrigues’ story too. He's sharing in their grief.
It’s interesting. You had an early fascination with missionaries. You come into contact with this book about missionaries. You planned to do it for years and years, and now you finally realize this beautiful project. How has the making of the film influenced your faith life or your spirituality?
Well, I think it’s forced me to contemplate it and to accept. If I’ve gotten to a certain point, it's mainly because my life may be ending. It’s as you're older. Also, there are people around me that are very close to me, and I’m finding that they, not intentionally, but they, plus this story, seem to clarify for me what life is, and it’s like a gift. Can I live up to it? I don’t know. I honestly don’t think so, but what you do is you keep trying. Just keep trying. That’s the thing.
I thought for years about other ways of thinking, other political systems, economics, other religions, but my roots are here, so I hope that there was a place that I could explore those roots, and those feelings, and those contradictions in an intelligent way that’s still within the Christian faith, that still is something that I won’t be condemned for, or be attacked for. I think these are serious issues we got to talk about.
They are. I agree. Well, I want to thank you for joining us here at America Media. Congratulations on a beautiful movie.
Oh, thank you. Thank you.
For America Media, I’m Father Jim Martin, editor at large and Jesuit priest, with Martin Scorsese. God bless you.