01/19/2017, 10.08
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"Silence" by Martin Scorsese: God is never put off by our lack of faith

by Xin Yage

Interview with Fr. Emilio Zanetti, a Jesuit who works at Kuangchi Program Service, the Society of Jesus television production house on the island. Zanetti is a friend of the American director and has worked as an advisor, and even as an extra in the film which deals with the persecution of Christians in Japan in the seventeenth century. Director and actors worked for free.


Taipei (AsiaNews) - "God is not put off by our (apparent) lack of faith". What’s more: "God is capable of a love so great that He is never shocked by the choices we make or mistakes we commit." This is the message at the heart of Martin Scorsese’s film "Silence" according to Jesuit Emilio Zanetti, who works at Kuangchi Program Service, the Society of Jesus’ television production house in Taipei. Fr. Zanetti is also a personal friend of Scorsese and worked with the film director and even as an extra! The film, based on the book of the same title by Japanese writer Shusako Endo, tells the tale of two young Jesuits who go in search of their superior, a missionary in Japan, because it is feared that he recanted the faith. The "silence" of which it speaks is the silence of God in the face of the suffering of the Japanese Christians, and before  the difficult choices the two missionaries and persecuted believers must make. Below Fr. Emilio Zanetti’s interview with AsiaNews.

What led Scorsese to shoot a film about the Jesuits in Japan?

When Martin Scorsese filmed "The Last Temptation of Christ"  it stirred some controversy. I was a teenager and I remember that most of the Catholic Church hierarchy billed this film as an affront. However Scorsese's intentions, and that of Kazantzakis’ novel on which it was based, was that the film would only be an opportunity for people to deepen their faith. Only one bishop argued in favor of Martin, advertising his film and even promoting its projection. This bishop gave Scorsese the book "Silence" by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, which faithfully recounts the persecution suffered by Christians in Japan during the Tokugawa period in the first half of the seventeenth century. Scorsese read the story and liked it a lot. So he decided to turn it into a movie. But, it was 1987, and he couldn’t find anyone to finance the project. So it was shelved. But it could not end there, not for a guy like Scorsese. This is why it is important to understand something about this directors life story. Fortunately he has released detailed interviews in which he has explored his past, especially to our mutual friend Antonio Spadaro, who I convinced months ago to move from New York to interview him. Back to us, since that distant 1987 Scorsese has never given up on the project, but could not find the funds. After years, when he reached the pinnacle of his career, he managed to put together a minimal budget to start production. I say minimum because neither he nor his actors have taken a penny from the film. The actors were paid living expenses, but they did not receive a salary. I must also say that it is a miracle that the film was completed because so many things have happened on the set. Not least the death of a worker crushed by a roof. The investigation into this death could have stopped production making the costs too high to continue filming. Only the intervention of the president of Taiwan helped speed up investigations and allow for filming to resume. This saved the  production.

The main scenes were filmed from January to May 2015 in three locations in Taiwan: in Taipei studios, for the interior scenes; on the east coast, for scenes at  sea; some short scenes were also filmed in central Taiwan on the same set made by the Taiwanese director Ang Lee to shoot "The Life of Pi." That set is a large swimming pool, built in a former airport, which reproduces the effects of the sea.

Can you tell us a little about the pre-production phase?

The story centers on the adventures of three Jesuits and, because Jesuits were involved, Scorsese also decided to ask the Society of Jesus to advise. His reference point became James Martin, a well-known Jesuit  rom his work with "America", the Jesuit magazine in the US. He was entrusted with the spiritual preparation of the actors so they could fully understand Ignatian spirituality. Andrew Garfield, one of the leaders, made a journey of faith which lasted a year, which also led him to make a retreat in Wales.

Father James Martin in turn, knowing that the filming would take place in Taiwan, alerted Father Jerry Martinson, my director at Kuangchi Program Service in Taipei. Thus it a pool of the Jesuits in support of the director was born which I too was part of. We advised on all aspects related to the history, the liturgy and the sacraments. Alberto Nunez, a Spanish Jesuit who teaches at Fujen University, paid particular attention to this aspect. Scorsese remembers all the liturgy in Latin and was very attentive to the accuracy of detail. The film was then contextualized in seventeenth-century Japan, when Portuguese Jesuit missionaries were there. This required a profound historical expertise. Thus the Antoni Üçerler was called, a Jesuit of Turkish origin, who has a great knowledge of the history of Japan. He was later joined by other Jesuits.

Working with a director of Scorsese’s stature means working with one of the greatest directors of all time. Not to mention the stellar cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yosuke Kubozuka, Issei Ogata, Yoshi Oida, Nana Komatsu.  "The Last Temptation of Christ" was a mainstay of my vocational journey. Thirty years ago I had promised myself to go see Martin in the United States. But I had never had the opportunity, until now.  Not only, he arrived in Taiwan, where I live, with this cast and this project. It really was a most beautiful adventure of all involved. In the end I was the only Jesuit in the film, I mean: present in a scene as an extra. A beautiful experience. Besides knowing the actors of the film, it was fun to get in touch with the world of film extras. A world of hope (to be chosen by the crew) and waiting (because you never know when you're shooting your scene).

What is the point of the film?

In a broad sense the novel and the film deal with the main issues of following of Jesus Christ and, in particular, of the mysterious path on which Jesus Himself leads us. The story is about two young Jesuits who go in search of their superior, a missionary in Japan, because it is feared that he has recanted. The two young Jesuits go to Japan to understand why their teacher had repudiated the faith. When they arrive in the archipelago they are faced with the severe repression of Christians by the Japanese authorities. The persecution does not arrive at killing the Jesuits, but their friends. It is a form of subtle and cruel psychological pressure. So the question arises: Do my actions proclaim God even if they cause the death of innocent people? What is God’s mission? It is in this dilemma that the film evolves.

There are so many things that come to mind, but I would like to repeat, as others have pointed out, that the love of God is at the root of it all. I am fascinated by what Fr. Üçerler said. God is capable of a love so great that He is never shocked by the choices we make or mistakes we commit. God is not put off by our (apparent) lack of faith. Where is the faith? Is recanting failing in faith? You have to understand the context in which one recants and you must trust in God. And, in any case, confronted with other cultures, other traditions, other faiths undermines preconceptions. In the film this encounter / clash of cultures is evident. Simply look at the complexity of the set on which there were Asians, Europeans, Africans (who represented the slaves brought by the Portuguese).

What was it like to work with Scorsese?

In the end one of the most interesting aspects was to see how Scorsese worked with the actors. Martin is very kind, deep and passionate as well as being obviously dedicated, precise and methodical. He will repeat a scene over and over and over again if it fails to convey the sense that it encloses. He is careful, firm but never rude in his relationship with the actors. Even if the protagonist does not act as he wants he tells him: "Bravo, you're doing well, you're getting better, but I would do the scene this way ..." and makes them do another take. Now he is not a manic, but he is aware that the entire movie could hinge on even a small scene. So he wants to make the most of every detail. This is why he is who he is, Scorsese. The way I see it, we should thank him for what he managed to achieve not only in Silence, but throughout his entire career and to show everyone his research in his personal journey of faith.

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