When Martin Scorsese’s new film, “Silence,” appeared, I was reminded of the first Scorsese film I saw, “Mean Streets,” in 1973, and also how closely I have followed the director’s career during the last 44 years. I can recall my excitement when I saw “Mean Streets” because I thought that the filmmaker’s conscience was strongly influenced by Catholicism. Through many interviews that he has given over the years, I learned that when he was growing up on the Lower East Side, the two great influences in his life were movies and the Catholic Church. Suffering from asthma as a child, Scorsese could not engage in some of the activities of his contemporaries. So his father brought him to films. This began a love affair between Scorsese and cinema that has lasted to this day.
All of this has been on my mind since “Silence” opened. Even one viewing of “Mean Streets” revealed to me that Scorsese was a special talent. That talent has so developed in the mastery of all the technical aspects connected with making a film that some critics believe that Scorsese is the greatest living American filmmaker. Though I believe that Scorsese has made some excellent films, I have been waiting for a profound expression in some film of his Catholic faith. That has happened with “Silence,” which I think is a masterpiece.
The film is based on a novel by Shisaku Endo, who has been called the Japanese Graham Greene. When the novel appeared, Greene commented, “In my opinion one of the finest novels of our time.” Scorsese read the novel in 1989 and has wanted to film the story for several years. In an interview conducted by Father James Martin, S.J., that appeared in the Jesuit weekly America (Dec. 19-26, 2016), Father Martin asked Scorsese how he would describe the heart of the book. This is Scorsese’s response:
“Well, 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 can be very helpful. So, the church – the institution of the church, the sacraments – this all can be very helpful. 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.” (p. 18)
I have heard that “Silence” is not doing that well at the box office. I read that the film cost about $50 million to make, but that it has grossed only one million. As I am writing this column, the nominations for Academy Awards have not been announced. Because of a television show that I have to do later this month on NET-TV dealing with the Academy Awards, I have seen several of the films that will probably be nominated. Some are very fine films. However, I think “Silence” is special. Why is it not yet doing well at the box office?
Several years ago, novelists Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor called attention to a special difficulty that storytellers who deal with religious themes can have in our society, namely, will such stories be understood by contemporary readers? I think this is a serious problem. A few years ago a feature film for theatrical release was made of Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Brideshead Revisited.” While the television series based on Waugh’s book was magnificent, the film completely missed the religious dimension of the story. Whether the creators of the film did not understand the novel or decided the religious dimension would hurt the box office, I can only guess!
One of the reasons that I have conducted film festivals for the last 24 years is that I believe art can play an important role in our lives. Artists often see what the rest of us miss, and through their creations, they can help us to see more deeply. Because of the power of great films, I think this art form can play a special role today. Christians believe that God can be encountered in many ways. Scorsese’s film dramatizes the mystery of faith. It is a great film. I am hoping that it reaches a very large audience and provokes serious reflection and discussion about the meaning and mystery of faith.