By Kenneth J. Souza
FALL RIVER, Mass. — As editor-at-large of America magazine, a frequent guest on Fox News and Comedy Central, and the author of several best-selling books, including “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life” and “Jesus: A Pilgrimage,” Father James Martin, S.J., certainly isn’t one to shy away from the spotlight.
But the affable and down-to-earth priest who left a job with General Electric to answer God’s call and join the Society of Jesus probably never imagined collaborating with Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese on his film, “Silence.”
“To me, it’s just an outgrowth of my work as a Jesuit here at America magazine, where I deal with the media,” Father Martin recently told The Anchor. “It was very moving for me to accompany Marty and (his team) on this pilgrimage to help create this beautiful work of art. I think this really is Scorsese’s masterpiece. The film affected me very deeply and it was wonderful to see the realization of all their work.”
Scorsese’s latest motion picture is an adaptation of the novel “Silence” by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, which tells the story of 17th-century Portuguese Jesuits working as missionaries in Japan. The film, which opens in theaters this weekend, 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.
“Marty has been working on this project for 30 years,” Father Martin explained. “I had heard rumors over the years that he was thinking of filming it. It’s a very difficult novel (and), given the subject material, it’s not surprising that it’s also a difficult and challenging movie, but ultimately a rich one.”
In a candid interview between Father Martin and the director of such acclaimed films as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas,” Scorsese shared the process of how “Silence” went from page to screen.
“When he first encountered the novel, he was really captivated by it but there were some practical reasons why it took him so long to finally realize it, (and) there were also Spiritual reasons,” Father Martin said. “He told me that, in a sense, he didn’t understand the heart of the book and it took him a while to grasp it. (He explained it as) the stripped-down Spirituality of Father Rodrigues at the end of the novel.”
While “Silence” may seem an odd choice for the creative mind behind violent, gangster epics like “Mean Streets” and “Casino” to helm, Scorsese’s films have often hinged on religious themes. Beginning with an exploration of Christian doubt and guilt in his feature debut, “Who’s That Knocking At My Door?” in 1968, and carrying through to more overt questions of faith in movies like “Kundun” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” the director seems to be on his own lifelong pilgrimage in search of God.
And, like one of his many filmmaking idols, Alfred Hitchcock, Scorsese’s Catholic identity has become part and parcel of his cinematic language.
“Religion has always informed his work — from ‘Mean Streets’ to ‘Taxi Driver,’” Father Martin said.
In his interview with Father Martin, published in the Dec. 19-26, 2016 issue of America magazine, Scorsese himself noted:
“Well, ‘Mean Streets’ has a very strong religious content to the picture, and to a certain extent ‘Taxi Driver,’ and then certainly ‘Raging Bull,’ though I didn’t know it. I had gotten involved with (Nikos) 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 the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 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 (‘Silence’) a few days later, and by 1989, a year later, I read it.
“The experience of taking on ‘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 (Vincent) 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 (‘Silence’). Actually finished it on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto.”
Given the well-publicized controversy surrounding “The Last Temptation of Christ” during its initial release, it’s ironic that the movie became the catalyst that ultimately led Scorsese to making “Silence.”
“I never understood the critique of ‘Last Temptation of Christ,’” Father Martin said. “I thought the criticism was largely ridiculous for two reasons: one, Jesus is tempted in His life — we know this from the Gospels. The Gospels cannot be any clearer that He was tempted in the desert, specifically.
“And two, the movie shows what is an extended (series of) temptations — the desire to come down off the cross and get married — not what He did ultimately. At the end of the movie He decides to forgo them and He’s back on the cross. So I think the movie is totally orthodox and I think the criticisms against it were ridiculous.”
Father Martin’s involvement with “Silence” began about two years ago, when Scorsese’s researcher, Marianne Bower, first contacted him to find out about Jesuit Spirituality largely due to his book, “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.”
“Subsequently Martin Scorsese and his co-screenwriter, Jay Cocks, contacted me to help them with the script and to make sure the Jesuit portrayal and the Jesuit Spirituality were accurate,” Father Martin said. “Finally, I was contacted by the three American actors — Adam Driver, Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson — but I spent most of my time with Andrew, who I directed through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.”
Although Father Martin wasn’t present for any of the actual location filming on “Silence,” all of which was done in Taiwan, he was very much involved during the writing and pre-production phases.
“We did most of this preparation beforehand,” he said. “I worked with Marianne and helped her with a lot of the Jesuit research and also put her in touch with various historians like Father David Collins, S.J., of Georgetown University, and M. Antoni J. Ucerler, S.J., who lives in California. The script work was all done before they started shooting — I met with Marty and Jay in New York a couple of times and they were very open and receptive to my suggestions. I think I spent more than six months, maybe closer to a year with Andrew, just working on the Spiritual Exercises.”
Father Martin’s involvement and attention to Jesuit-specific details came to fruition during a special screening of the film for fellow members of the Society of Jesus held at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, a Jesuit University.
“What happened was they told me there was going to be a Vatican screening and I thought, well, would you be interested in a Jesuit screening as well and it all worked out great,” Father Martin said. “We had about 300 Jesuits there who were packed into two rooms. They saw the movie and loved it. We then had a question-and-answer session with Scorsese, which was fantastic for both parties.”
During that same trip, Scorsese also had a brief meeting with another high-profile Jesuit: Pope Francis, who told the director he had read Endo’s source novel.
“Marty got to meet with the pope; I didn’t,” Father Martin said, laughing. “I did shake his hand once. As far as I know, Pope Francis has not seen the film yet.”
Having seen “Silence” three times as of this writing, Father Martin said it is “very emotional for me to watch, but it’s also very moving.”
“I would say that adults going into the film should prepare to see a deeply Spiritual movie that is not always easy to watch or grasp, at first,” he added. “It will be something that one will need to meditate on.”
— For more information about “Silence,” visit www.silencemovie.com.
— For more information about Father James Martin, S.J., visit www.jamesmartinsj.com.