Scorsese to Adapt Jesuit-Drama "Silence"

Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.

-Paul Tillich

Martin Scorsese, following the release of the family-friendly adventure Hugo, will reportedly be adapting Shusaku Endo's Jesuit-drama Silence about missionaries in seventeenth century Japan. Scorsese said recently in an interview: "I’m hoping to do Endo’s book next, Silence… Not hoping, we’re literally pulling all the elements together at this point." Daniel-Day Lewis, Benicio Del Toro, and Gael Garcia Bernal are all reported to have major roles locked down.

This little-known novel has apparently been percolating in Scorsese's mind for over twenty years, and, according to Scorsese himself, "has given me a kind of sustenance that I have found in only a very few works of art."

So why does Scorsese want to tell this story? What is the draw?

"How do you tell the story of Christian faith? The difficulty, the crisis, of believing? How do you describe the struggle? There have been many great twentieth century novelists drawn to the subject – Graham Greene, of course, and François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos... 
[Shusaku Endo] understood the conflict of faith, the necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience. The voice that always urges the faithful – the questioning faithful – to adapt their beliefs to the world they inhabit, their culture...That’s a paradox, and it can be an extremely painful one: on the face of it, believing and questioning are antithetical. Yet I believe that they go hand in hand. One nourishes the other. Questioning may lead to great loneliness, but if it co-exists with faith – true faith, abiding faith – it can end in the most joyful sense of communion. It’s this painful, paradoxical passage – from certainty to doubt to loneliness to communion – that Endo understands so well, and renders so clearly, carefully and beautifully in Silence." 
Violence (as in many of Scorsese's films) abounds in Endo's "painful passage." In the story (which reflects true events), Japanese converts to Christianity suffer mass persecution - and, under the pressure of the ruling political party, either rush to meet martyrdom singing hymns of hope, or succumb to torture and trample on a "fumie" (a carved image of Christ) to formally forsake their faith. This violence, though troubling and dramatic in its own right, is subordinate to a deeper problem in Silence.

Endo is primarily interested in the spiritual torment of the missionaries who helped convert the hearts of the Japanese. These missionaries come to understand that many of their converts misunderstand Christian theology; they go to their deaths with a childish conception of heaven, and the wrong ideas about who and what God is. Worse still, God does not acknowledge the great suffering of the Japanese converts - instead, he seems distant and indifferent to their tremendous pain.

The missionaries, watching this "miserable and painful business," begin to doubt God's goodness, indeed God's very existence, because such an oceanic silence seems contradictory to total love and compassion: 
"Like the sea God was silent. His silence continued. No, no! I shook my head...From the deepest core of my being another voice made itself heard in a whisper. Supposing God does not absurd the whole thing becomes. What an absurd drama become the lives of Mokichi and Ichizo, bound to the stake and washed by the waves...The greatest sin against God was despair; but the silence of God was something I could not fathom."
This drama of faith and doubt culminates in the final scene, in which one of the missionaries is confronted with the fumie, and forced to choose between trampling on the face on which he's constructed his life's meaning and hope, or bearing the responsibility of the torture and martyrdom of a handful of helpless converts.  

Endo is often
referred to as the
"Japanese Graham Greene."
It has been noted that Scorsese's films, perhaps due in part to his stint as a seminarian, have spiritual complexions as well as psychological complexity. But an adaptation of Silence, which centers on the paradoxical character of the faltering priest (much like the works of Greene's The Power and the Glory and Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest), would certainly result in Scorsese's most spiritual film to date. 

More importantly, such a film would come at a time when potential for faith as a source of dramatic conflict has been all but forgotten in popular art. Modern movies and novels, when tackling faith at all, tend to either mock platitudes that no serious person holds, or treat it as a kind of harmless anesthesia that imbues the sunny stupor of mild detachment. (Easy A recently did both, with Amanda Bynes' vapid and cheery character.) Both approaches to faith are uninteresting for storytellers, because there exists no conflict, no human weakness or complexity.

Writers like Endo, Greene, and Bernanos, on the other hand, know that faith represents the potential for true conflict, because at its core, it plunges deeper into the enigma of existence. As soon as it provides answers, deeper questions and more complex doubts arise. It is a focus on this crisis, the "necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience" to use Scorsese's words, that makes Silence a universal and exciting drama. 

Whether or not Scorsese's film materializes - and we truly hope it does - we highly recommend you read Endo's masterpiece (available for purchase here on Amazon).    


  1. Thank you for posting. I look forward to the book AND the film!

  2. @Denise Morency Gannon

    You're very welcome! Let us know what you thought of the book.

  3. I do not believe that doubt is an element of Faith. Questioning,as the Virgin Mary did when she asked the angel: "How can this be, since I know not man?" was asked in a spirit of faith, wondering HOW she would become the Mother of God, not doubting that it COULD be done. That kind of questioning, in a spirit of obedience and faith, is honest and good.On the other hand, Zaccharias's questioning,when he was told by the Angel Gabriel, that his wife Elizabeth was going to have a son, was doubtful, and he was admonished by the Angel for it. Questioning what God has revealed in a spirit of doubt, which reveals a lack of faith, is always wrong. Questions can be posed(e.g. as we've all heard, expressed in the name of "Academic Freedom")
    in a spirit which is full of deceit and faithlessness. It is not the questioning that is the problem, it is the spirit of the question.

  4. @Anonymous

    In a sense - we totally agree.

    I would argue that involuntary questions, insecurities, hesitations - they are all risks that are, whether or not they materialize, courted by an act of faith. Faith is so special because it constitutes a unique way of knowing - one that has has the dark underbelly of involuntary doubt always beneath it, even if it stays hidden.

    On the other hand, voluntary, obstinate, stubborn doubt - I agree, that seems to directly conflict with faith, per se.

    But I think this first kind of doubt, involuntary doubt, is not only inevitable, but good - it makes faith dynamic, an evolutionary process rather than a static plateau. It helps faith grow stronger.

    For example: when you lift weights at the gym, you're technically breaking down and damaging your muscles. But, just days later, the muscle fibers heal and are built back up bigger and stronger than before. I think this is a good image for how doubt works on faith in a positive way - doubt breaks our faith down temporarily, but in conquering doubts and healing in their wake we grow "spiritual muscles."

  5. "Excuse me, do you know where the nearest church is?"

    "That way," he answered, as he flexed his spiritual biceps.

  6. Certainly doubt is a part of faith. "Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief," "Doubting Thomas," etc. St. Paul says we look through a cloudy glass. We do not have complete clarity. Certainly doubt is a part of faith.

    1. Thanks for your comment - I agree. In fact, I think we have a duty to recognize that in ourselves. I just read this great quote this morning by Gabriel Marcel:

      "If the believer has any duty at all, it is to become aware of all that is within him of the non-believer."

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