Arts and Culture

Great Art Can Be a Powerful Vehicle

Third and last in a series

WHEN I DECIDED to write about Martin Scorsese’s film, “Silence,” based on the Shisaku Endo novel with the same name, I had no idea that reflecting on the film would lead me to reflect on so many related topics that interest me, and that I hope interest readers of this column.

I first saw the film at a special screening prior to its theatrical release. The screening was attended by Scorsese, actors Liam Neeson and Adam Driver, who portray Jesuit priests in the film, and others who worked on the film, among whom was one of the film’s producers. I had the chance to sit with some people involved in the film industry, and so when the film ended, I asked if they thought the film would be a commercial success. One replied: “No and they knew that when they made it.”

The answer reminded me of the risk that artists take when they try to create a film that is serious and deals with an important topic that might have a limited appeal and might even disturb viewers.

“Silence” Opens Film Festival

The plot of “Silence” centers around Jesuit priests who go to Japan in the early 1600s to preach Christianity. How many moviegoers would be drawn to such a film? I don’t know, but I was greatly disappointed that the film was a commercial failure. The fact that so many people I know did not have an opportunity to see the film is one reason I am screening it at the Friday Film Festival at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston on Sept. 8.

After the screening I attended, Scorsese, Neeson and Driver spoke about their experience of religious faith. The remarks of all three were interesting, but I was especially interested in what Scorsese said. I have read many interviews that Scorsese has given in the past in which he discussed his Catholic faith. Often I found his remarks not as clear as I would have wished. This time, he was quite articulate.

He referred to Father James Martin, S.J., whom he had enlisted as an adviser on the film. He also mentioned Thomas Merton’s books along with other spiritual books he had read to help him create the film. Scorsese wanted to create this film for more than 20 years, but for various reasons, among them other film projects with which he was involved, “Silence” was put on the backburner.

When the producer spoke, he said something like the following: “Two years ago, I asked Marty what happened to ‘Silence,’ and the way he answered me, I knew that he had to make this film.” So “Silence” was a very personal project for Scorsese.

Came to Know, Love Jesus

It was also a personal film for Andrew Garfield, who plays the Jesuit priest, who is the main character in the film. In order to prepare for the part, Garfield, whose background is not Christian, made a seven-day silent retreat modeled on the writings of the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola. While on the silent retreat, Garfield saw Adam Driver, who in preparation for his roll, was also making the silent retreat. Garfield claims that through the retreat and playing the Jesuit priest, he met and came to love Jesus.

When the cast and crew were leaving to film in Taiwan, Scorsese said to Father Martin: “Too bad you can’t come to Taiwan with us. Now we won’t have an expert on Ignatian spirituality.” Father Martin replied, “Yes you will. Andrew Garfield.”

Talking about his experience with the retreat based on Ignatian spiritual exercises, and his experience making of the film, Garfield has said the following:

“I was brought to my knees by these Exercises . . . The act of making the film was secondary to going through the Exercises . . . The depth of the experience of the Exercises was enough. And then making the film felt very, very deep, deeper than any other artistic experience I’ve ever had . . . .”

Plumb the Depths of Faith

In interviewing Scorsese for America magazine, Father Martin asked him what he took the heart of the novel, “Silence,” to be. Scorsese replied in this way:

“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 toward 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 that faith, or you have to find a relationship with Jesus with yourself really, because ultimately that’s the one you face.” (p. 18, America, Dec. 19-26, 2016)

I am hoping that a large crowd of people come to see “Silence” on Sept. 8, and also attend the lecture on both the novel and film on Monday, Sept. 11 at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston. Both events begin at 7:30 p.m. Discussing a novel and film in which God is the main character should provide for an interesting evening.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).