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Martin Scorsese directs movie about Jesuit mission to 17th-century Japan

Martin Scorsese at the premiere of the film "Shutter Island" at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival in 2010.

(RNS) Although evangelical moviemakers have been in the spotlight lately with features such as “Son of God” and “God’s Not Dead,” at least one other prominent, mainstream director is also turning — or returning — to religion.

Martin Scorsese at the premiere of the film "Shutter Island" at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival in 2010.

Photo courtesy of Siebbi via Wikimedia Commons

Martin Scorsese at the premiere of the film “Shutter Island” at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival in 2010.

Martin Scorsese, whose 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ” ignited national controversy, is negotiating with Paramount Studios to distribute a new movie about Jesuit missionaries, according to the show business newspaper Variety.

The historical drama “Silence,” stars Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson and begins shooting in Taiwan later this year. Based on Shusaku Endo’s 1980 novel of the same name, it’s a dark, true tale set in 17th-century Japan.

The Jesuit order sends a young priest (Garfield) to find his Portuguese mentor who has been missing for 10 years. Rome believes the older Jesuit (Neeson) may have renounced his faith under torture during the severe persecution of Christian missionaries and converts.

This is the third time Hollywood studio and serious directors have attempted to capture the Jesuits’ sometimes-heroic efforts beyond Europe:

  • In 1986, director Roland Joffe made “The Mission,” from Robert Bolt’s original screenplay. Its cast (Jeremy Irons, Robert De Niro) included small parts played by a young Neeson and the real-life, rebellious Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan. “The Mission” tells the (mostly) true story of 18th-century Jesuit missionaries who died defending Guarani Indians from Portuguese slavery in the South American jungle. The film, which surfaced recently on cable’s Sundance Channel, won an Oscar for cinematography, and the Grand Prize at Cannes.
  • In 1991, director Bruce Beresford filmed “Black Robe,” which Brian Moore adapted from his novel of the same name. The brutal film depicts a French Jesuit’s dogged but ultimately failed work among the Iroquois, Algonquin and Huron in 17th-century Quebec. It illustrates that, when culture contact is involved, even the best intentions can yield disaster.

What accounts for this continuing cinematic fascination with the Jesuits, especially now, with the first Jesuit pope, and an increasingly progressive Latin American at that?

Jesuit with a Japanese nobleman, circa 1600.

Photo courtesy of Anonymous Japanese ("Nouvelle Asie" Belin) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jesuit with a Japanese nobleman, circa 1600.

It’s possible — and probably likely — that Hollywood’s Jesuit attraction is as much ideological as theological.

In “The Mission,” the character who played the Vatican’s emissary, charged with ordering the Spanish Jesuits to abandon their communal agricultural settlements, complains about “Jesuit contempt for the authority of the state.” But, as a former Jesuit himself, the cardinal also acknowledges that “the paradise of the poor never pleases those who rule above them.”

In “Silence,” which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2015, the Japanese feudal lords are just as threatened by the Jesuits as are the Portuguese in “The Mission.”

The Rev. Antoni Ucerler, a Jesuit historian who has consulted on the film with Scorsese and his production team, points out that it was the loyalty of local Christians to a “divine Lord” that transcended the iron rule of the Tokugawa shoguns that authorities feared most. “Such a faith undermined the entire system of absolute rule,” he said. “For this reason they called it the ‘evil teaching.’”

All three films depict the order’s willingness to incorporate, rather than simply condemn, indigenous practices some in Rome considered anathema.

Jesuits also allowed prayer in native languages and rejected coerced conversions. The Rev. Thomas J. Reese notes that, just as Christianity moved away from its Jewish character when its geographic center shifted from the Middle East to Europe, so Jesuit missionaries adapted when they brought the gospel to North and South America, and to Asia.

“Jesuit missionaries were on the forefront of globalization before the term became trendy,” Reese said. “Their lives and ministries dramatized the meeting of civilizations. … What was a personal encounter in their time is global in ours. Today we face the same religious, cultural, and moral issues they did but on a global scale. That’s high drama.”

The Jesuits attempted to assimilate or transform the local culture. For example, they saw Chinese ancestor “worship” as veneration — similar to Europeans praying to saints — and therefore acceptable.

Competing orders — like the more conservative Franciscans and Dominicans — complained to the Vatican that the Jesuits’ syncretism gave them an unfair advantage in gaining converts. They claimed the Jesuits ignored, if not accepted, practices like infanticide, promiscuity, divorce, remarriage, and nature worship.

Church leaders went back and forth on the issue, but on a 1987 visit to Chile, Pope John Paul II seemed to side with the early Jesuits, telling a gathering of Mapuche Indians he wanted “to encourage the Mapuches to conserve with a healthy pride the culture of their people; the traditions and customs, the language and their own values.”

Jesuits with a long memory must have been pleased.

(Longtime religion writer Mark I. Pinsky has written extensively on religion and film.)


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  • I hope discretion will be used in making the movie.
    I saw both movies and truly enjoyed them as great cinema art.
    However as I recall., both movies had a great deal of violence and nudity. Consequently the movies never got big promotion from most regular churchgoers since movies with a lot of sex and violence are not their cup of tea
    Thus the movies did not get the great attendance they should have gotten based on their quality and interest.

  • I agree with Deacon Bresnahan,
    As a person who has a degree in history and especially interested in the civil war in the north, I had learned of the time of “The Gangs of New York”. I was so interested in the historical angle that I didn’t let the sexual degradation scenes disturb me. When I convinced my good baptist wife to see it, her reaction to the sexual nudity scenes was such that she missed many points. Also on seeing it a second time, I was appalled at the scenes that went on too long.
    I hope Martin Scorsese will curb any nudity that will cause the faithful not to want to see it.

  • You think a film featuring torture and violent persecution by a feudal society is going to be portrayed with such “delicate sensibilities” in mind? By the director of Taxi Driver and Goodfellas? Really?

    The “faithful” who are gunshy of nudity and violence in service of a plot are not Scorses’s usual audience and I have never seen a film of his which attempts to court such a PG minded crowd.

    But to be perfectly honest there is a huge hypocritical streak to such audiences. Cecil B. DeMille recognized it back in the day. If you dress up the sex and violence as a “Biblical epic” you can get away with almost anything. You can feed as many people to the lions, have as many Roman orgies as budget permits provided that the faithful win out in the final reel. Although “the churchgoing crows: would normally be the type to protest gory films involving torture, they jumped at the chance to Mel Gibson’s version of “Hostel 33 AD”.

  • This isn’t Scorsese’s first return to religious material since “The Last Temptation of Christ.” He also made “Kundun,” an underrated biopic about the current Dalai Lama.

    As for the concerns about sex and violence, I don’t know what the content of the novel “Silence” is like but Scorsese is perfectly capable of directing films that don’t feature orgies or graphic murders. “Kundun,” “Hugo,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “The Age of Innocence,” “The King of Comedy.” There is more to his body of work than “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”

  • Religious movies destroy religion.

    These films make a boatload of money, but the cost to religion is always incredibly high. It bursts the bubble, de-mystifies god and destroys the ‘sacredness’ of the argument in the long run.

    Muslims are right to get all worked up when Mohammed appears in a film – it is destructive when people realize how ridiculous these religious claims are when they are applied in real life – and the film audience shares the experience which diminishes it further.

    Scorcese’s, “The Last Temptation of Christ” destroyed Jesus on many levels.
    It strips the bible of its authority – the film trumps the Biblical version.

    Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” made multi-millions of dollars.
    But it added up to nothing more than a snuff film. And once the audience has a chance to think about all the gore and torture, the next thought is WHAT KIND OF LOVING GOD WOULD REQUIRE THIS; THE TORTURE AND HUMILIATION OF A HUMAN BEING?

    And as soon as the movie is over everybody googles the claims
    – guess what? Religion loses every time. It shows people what they didn’t really think about in the bible; when they do its all ‘damn, this stuff is stupid’.

  • While not perhaps perfect history. It affords a history to told and seen by millions. Why not embrace the opportunity and then we critique it later. Besides, how could our Church ever afford the millions it might cost for such a movie. It’s a journey, and we hop on the train!

  • Bro Max
    “Religious movies destroy religion.”
    Bring them on, brother, bring them on. Its just they can never destroy my faith in God. If I’m delusional, I have been enjoying it for over fifty-five years. If I didn’t believe in something higher than myself, with my Martin temper, I might have been like my grandfather. He wasn’t named James Wesley for nothing.
    ‘Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” made multi-millions of dollars.
    But it added up to nothing more than a snuff film.'” Now I pretty much agree with you on that film.

  • So how exactly does one paint a symathetic portrait of Spainish Jesuits who represented an empire that had murdered practically every human being in Central and South America, while also butchering anyone they had to in order to try to turn back the Reformation in Europe? I should hope the man at least give kudos to the Japanese for booting them out of the Country thus ensuring they avoided European domination, unlike just about every other country in Asia.

  • Ted – sorry to say that it will not the Spanish Jesuits that are portrayed in the film, but Portuguese Jesuits. The same group portrayed in the movie The Mission. I don’t know how the Jesuits, who are portrayed in the film, will be represented. I would suggest you read the book first – Silence by Shusaku Endo. He would perhaps give you a better insight into the Japanese mind and to what happened back in that time period when Japan was closed to Western influence.

    I live in South America and have for about 14 years and still have not heard many stories about Spaniard or Portuguese attempts to exterminate the Indians. You may well be basing this upon your knowledge of the English attempts in North America. The few Jesuits and other religious I’ve known in Latin America have gone into remote parts of the country and helped the peoples, not only spiritually, but in many other areas — business, education, health, and other areas.

  • While I have enjoyed such excellent Christian films as “God’s Not Dead” and “Heaven Is Totally For Reals,” I am afraid I may have to sit this one out. Martin Scorcese movies make my brain hurt a little bit. Also, if it’s set in Japan there might be subtitles and I do not like to read the movie.

  • @chaplain Martin,

    “I believe in something bigger than myself”

    Me too. Many things.
    There are more powers bigger than me than I can count. None of this implies a god exists.

    An ant might confuse me with a god. But it would be wrong. I am no god – my power is finite.
    Just because I am a greater power than the ant, it does not mean I will behave kindly to the ant colony, nor does it mean the ant can petition me to protect its colony. nor does it mean I would understand those petitions.

    Life “knew” how to create itself, in the same way water “knows”how to flow out of a bathtub. There is absolutely no reason to think any of this is personal.

  • Does the word “conquistador” ring a bell?

    Ever heard of Francisco Pizzaro or Hernan Cortez?
    Familiar at all with what Bartolomé de las Casas was writing about?

  • Due to treaty obligations with Japan, the film features Ken Watanabe in a supporting role. Because it is stipulated that every Hollywood film which requires either a leading or supporting character who is Japanese, MUST cast him.

  • One need only look at the skin complexion of many Latin Americans and compare that to the number of white Americans to see where there was an attempt at genocide. (One that was quite successful).
    Indeed, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” is a North American slogan not one from the Hispanic world.

  • Read a history of the Reductions in central South America. Some historians say they were utopian mission towns set up to protect the Church (the Indians) from the trepidations of the State (the conquistadors). Other historians say they were just set up so the Church could control the Indians.
    Either way the Native Indians wound up with more protection than Indians were given north of the Rio Grande.

  • I don’t think three movies about Jesuits in almost 30 years means Hollywood is especially attracted to the subject, as the article suggests. The Mission was pretty successful and Blackrobe was made just five years later, probably to see if the success could be replicated or if the public might be getting interested in religious films (remember that Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ was made around 1988). After that there’s been (apparently) nothing about Jesuits until now–when there is a very popular Jesuit Pope in the Vatican and religious movies are big box office. The dots connect.

  • Bro Max
    ‘Life “knew” how to create itself,…’
    I like that. To me worshiping “life” seems a lot better than being a demigod to an ant. It also beats worshiping the power company, for it is not forgiving and is very punitive. For them pay day is not someday, it is pay now. Now if the ant is a fire aunt also known as a red ant, I’ll play a unforgiving revengeful demigod. Man, do those bites linger.

    I’m still enjoying my delusion: “For I know whom I have believed in and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day.”- Hymn

  • Thank you for your informative comment. I’m going to look up the book and also the movie “The Mission”

  • There was a Japanese film of Silence, made in about 1971. It came out on DVD some years ago. It was generally very good, but the British actor playing the leading role was rather wooden, as if he was reading from a script.

  • Minor correction: “Based on Shusaku Endo’s 1980 novel of the same name, it’s a dark, true tale set in 17th-century Japan.” Endo’s work is historical fiction based on real events. It’s not a “true tale,” as we don’t know the end of the actual historical tale, and Endo’s work has been the subject of furious debate in Japan, as is related in the introduction of the Taplinger Publishing Company edition of the work in English translation. Vide:

    It is certainly “dark.” I’d call it “disturbing.” It’s also brilliant writing. The fact that the Church in Japan survived the dark times in which the novel is set is a testimony to God’s grace.