Martin Scorsese’s Radical Act of Turning Theology Into Art

Rarely do mainstream films treat religious questions with seriousness and specificity. Silence, a movie about 17th-century Jesuit missionaries, shows what that can look like.

The filmmaker Martin Scorsese meets Pope Francis in a hall filled with stained glass in Rome in November.
The filmmaker Martin Scorsese meets Pope Francis in Rome in November. (Osservatore Romano / Reuters)

The face of Jesus appears early in Silence, Martin Scorsese’s new film about 17th-century Jesuits in Japan. The missionary priest Sebastião Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, is speaking at length about his faith and feeling God’s call. Instead of cutting to metaphorical imagery, or to scenes of an actor playing Jesus, Scorsese displays an ancient-looking portrait. Jesus, expressionless in his crown of thorns, stares straight at the audience for what feels like 10 seconds or more. It’s a striking cinematographic choice and an apt metaphor for Scorsese’s depiction of faith: Humans can attempt to describe, emulate, and revere God, but ultimately, this is only imitation, the director seems to say. As the priests discover, sometimes it is impossible to know what this imitation should look like. Yet, no matter how they implore God to speak and show them the way, he is often as loud as a painting. He is, in other words, silent.

Scorsese has been wanting to make Silence for a long time—Paul Elie wrote in The New York Times Magazine that since 1989, when the director read the Shusaku Endo novel upon which the movie is based, “hardly a day [has gone] by without his mentioning the project to the people around him: actors, friends, and even his old parish priest.” The Catholic filmmaker certainly hasn’t stuck to piety in previous projects: Movies like Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street are almost gratuitously violent and graphic. Scorsese brings the same sensibility to Silence: We see the blood trail of a decapitated head as it rolls across soft sand; we hear a woman’s screams as she is burned alive. In the context of a movie about faith, though, these gory details create a sense of theological seriousness: Silence is about faith in a world that is broken and appalling, not uplifting and kind.

This is what makes Scorsese’s film so radical, and so unlike many other movies about religion: It’s actually art. The high-quality production, rich with color and historical detail, doesn’t hurt—so often, films with religious themes look hack-y, making them difficult to enjoy.

More importantly, though, Silence engages with ambiguity. “Faith-based film” is the label typically used to describe movies with an agenda: Some, like 2016’s Risen, exist to proselytize, while others, like 2014’s God’s Not Dead, seek to make a narrow argument about politics or culture. For some audiences, this kind of work may be satisfying, and that’s fine. But ultimately, movies in this genre usually aren’t designed to complicate or challenge people’s worldviews; they’re not created to deepen people’s understanding of themselves and the world. Silence, by contrast, treats faith not as a simple point to be made, but as a heart-wrenching puzzle.

The film tells the story of two Portuguese priests who travel to Japan in the 17th century to discover what happened to their missing mentor—Cristóvão Ferreira, played by Liam Neeson—who reportedly committed apostasy after being tortured by the Japanese government. (At that time, Christianity was outlawed in Japan.) Along the way, they find villages full of peasants who had converted under the guidance of previous missionaries, all of whom had died or been driven from the country. Because it is so dangerous to openly practice the religion, the two priests must minister to these nascent Christians in the dead of night, hearing confession and celebrating mass under the cover of darkness.

Rodrigues and his companion, Francisco Garupe, played by Adam Driver, witness the incredible price these converts must pay for their newfound faith. Imperial officers routinely come through the villages and challenge residents to denounce Christianity by stepping on a plate depicting Jesus. The priests are divided on how the peasants should respond: At one point, Rodrigues instructs them to give in and “trample,” while Garupe urges them to resist. The two priests watch as peasants are murdered in gruesome ways—three are hung from crucifixes built by the shore so that waves can pummel them as they slowly succumb to exposure and dehydration. Eventually, both men are apprehended, and they, too, are asked to renounce their savior. As long as they resist, the Japanese officials keep murdering more peasants.

“Fake spirituality is the kind of stuff you see on Hallmark or Lifetime, where if you only believe in God, everything will be fine.”

Scorsese went out of his way to frame these conflicts not as generic crises of faith, but as questions to be explored in a specifically Catholic, Jesuit frame. He hired Father James Martin—the priest who serves as editor-at-large of America magazine, the longstanding Jesuit magazine, and who famously pastored to the comedian Stephen Colbert—to consult on the theological language in the script and to work with Garfield. “Andrew came in interested in the Jesuit spirituality, and had asked about Jesuit prayer, and I had given him some introductory prayers,” Martin told me. “It became obvious to me very quickly that this man was being drawn into the Spiritual Exercises, which was a surprise.”

The Spiritual Exercises are central to Jesuit training: The series of prayers and meditations is drawn from the experiences of the order’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, as he discerned his relationship with God. Although lay people do go through the Exercises, it’s not a typical feature of method acting. “To see someone who had had little formal training in prayer enter into the most demanding retreat experiences and give himself to it, and come out on the other side fulfilled and changed, I would say, is something of a miracle,” Martin said.

As Garfield immersed himself in Jesuit spirituality, Martin also reviewed the script for errors of tone and of theology—to more accurately describe the way a Jesuit priest might relate to suffering, for example. The result is a rare deep dive into the Catholic order, whose priests became known in the 17th and 18th centuries for their ability to venture into foreign territories and establish relationships with scholars and dignitaries. It’s catnip for anyone who is interested in Jesuit history or teachings; in late November, the Vatican screened the movie for 300 Jesuit priests, and Scorsese even met the pope.

But to Martin, the appeal wasn’t just in seeing his Jesuit brothers depicted on screen. As a priest, he appreciated that the film does not offer a rosy or simplistic view of religion. “This is real spirituality, not fake spirituality,” he said. “Fake spirituality is the kind of stuff you see on Hallmark or Lifetime, where if you only believe in God, everything will be fine, and no need to worry.” As the characters find out, bad things do happen, even to people who are intensely devoted to their faith, and it’s not always clear what they should do.

The coup is that Scorsese legitimized these questions as fair game for mainstream art.

Among the many questions Silence raises is one concerning the moral ambiguity of mission work: The priests must grapple with the violence they bring upon the peasants. Throughout the film, characters subtly question whether Christianity can truly travel across cultural borders. Imperial officials insist that Christianity cannot “take root” in Japan, and eventually, Ferreira and Rodrigues come to see the country as a “swamp,” a place where the religion could never thrive.

Rather than using Silence as a bully pulpit for a critique of colonial power, though, Scorsese probes the missionary question for ambiguity, portraying the priests’ choices as morally complex. In the end, it isn’t clear that the missionaries, who treated the peasants with dignity, did more harm than good, even though their actions inadvertently resulted in many people’s deaths. Even after some of the peasants chose to step on the plate, imperial soldiers often continued to torture them—the priests brought their faith into a country whose state forces were already, in many ways, hostile to the well-being of the poor. It’s also not clear what they accomplished: Ferreira, the so-called “fallen priest,” offers up the fact that the peasants understood “son of God” to literally mean “sun” as evidence of their misapprehensions about Christianity. This is the power of Silence: It leaves no protagonists free of moral burden, and proposes no firm conclusions to the ambitious questions it takes on.

Artistically, it’s difficult to pull off—to architect a nuanced, respectful interrogation of moral, religious questions in a way that’s compelling and accessible. But the truly counter-cultural coup is that Scorsese has legitimized these questions as fair game for sophisticated, mainstream art. God’s silence is not just a matter for church halls and cathedrals, Scorsese has declared. Any moviegoer can grapple with the meaning of Jesus’s blank stare.