The Modern Lessons Of Martin Scorsese's 17th-Century Epic, 'Silence'

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Shinya Tsukamoto (right) plays Christian convert Mokichi and Andrew Garfield plays Father Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest who has traveled to Japan in search of his mentor.

Martin Scorsese's new film, Silence, is steeped in religious thought and questions. Set in Japan in the 17th century, it follows a pair of Portuguese Jesuit priests who sneak into the country to find their mentor, a priest who has reportedly given up the faith and apostatized. The Japan they find themselves in is pushing back violently against interference from outside influences.

Scorsese tells NPR's Steve Inskeep, "At first, they martyred a great many of the Japanese Christians. ... But the key was to have the priests themselves, the Jesuits themselves, apostatize and give up the faith to give example to the rest of the Japanese Christians that it's not worth pursuing."

The film is based on a novel by Japanese writer Shusaku Endo. Scorsese says he's been trying to make it into a film since he first read the book in the late 1980s.

Interview Highlights

On what the story says about the need for compassion

I kept thinking to when I was about 8 years old. It was the height of the Cold War, beginning 1950. And I remember the Korean War very well, and I remember the soldiers who were POWs who supposedly were "brainwashed," who gave in, so to speak. And when they came back they were treated like pariahs and traitors. ... It made you feel as if they had lost their souls, that they were walking zombies in a way — moral wastelands.

But shouldn't there be compassion for that person? Instead of saying, you know: I prefer people who don't get caught; and then if they do get caught, I prefer people who don't give in. Can you stand that test? How can you judge another person when you haven't gone through that test yourself?

On how the film relates to the current political climate in the U.S.

The political tone is against that kind of compassion and understanding. And also, I think, a closing the mind to understanding, or attempting to understand, the way other people think. ... It's, you know, a time where it seems that it's more separation than a coming together.

On whether movies are a religion for him

This is what I do. If I could paint, it might be better; or if I could write, it might be better. But this is what I know and what I do. And so in a sense they are religious acts and you could, you know, ridicule that or you could take offense at it, but they are religious acts, even the profane ones. ... I'm trying to find out who we are.

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