(RNS) Walking out of Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” the other night, I was nagged by the notion that I had seen something like it before. One thing I was sure of — the movie did not remind me of the director’s previous full-on engagement with Christianity, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” “Silence” is a work of far greater faith.
Then it came to me, and I had to smile. Silence reminded me of a play I read in college, “Life of Galileo.”
This is not to say that “Silence” cribbed from “Galileo.” The film is an adaptation of the novel “Silence” by Shusaku Endo. But the similarities between the movie and the German play are striking.
Only the roles of the players are changed.
As in “Silence,” whose heroes are Christian missionary priests in Japan brutally forced to renounce their faith, “Galileo” is about a man in possession of a great truth who is put under intolerable pressure to recant it, or at least seem to.
In “Silence,” that truth is Christianity. In “Life of Galileo,” it is science: specifically, a proof that the Earth must orbit the sun, contradicting a literal reading of the Bible.
The Roman Catholicism of Scorsese’s priests threatens the authority of the 17th-century Japanese shogun.
Their inquisitor remarks: “The doctrine you bring with you is of no value in Japan. We have concluded that it is a danger.”
Galileo’s scientific method threatens the authority of the 16th-century Roman Catholic Church, and the socio-economic order it supports. One of Bertolt Brecht’s characters predicts poetically in John Willett’s translation:
“The serf stays sitting on his arse.
This turnings (of the earth’s orbit) turned his head.
The altar boy won’t say the Mass.
The apprentice lies in bed.”
From there, the stories’ details differ more than their underlying narratives. While the brave missionaries renounce their faith only when others are murdered and tortured in their stead, Galileo folds after simply seeing the inquisitor’s tools.
Responding to a disappointed follower who insists (a lot like Andrew Garfield’s character upbraiding Liam Neeson’s) that a great scientist “can’t afford” to suppress the truth, Galileo snaps, “Nor can I afford to be roasted over a wood fire like a ham.”
The tormenters in both stories come equipped with insidious arguments belittling the stakes. The inquisitor in “Silence” insists that the priests’ defacing images of Jesus and Mary will simply be a “formality.” At a masked ball, a cardinal slyly tells Galileo: “You too ought really to have come disguised as a good orthodox thinker. It’s my own mask that permits me certain freedoms today.”
In the end, both sets of heroes … well, I won’t reveal their last acts.
It’s enough to say that despite their very different attitudes toward faith, “Silence” and “Life of Galileo” offer similarly acute observations on human nature:
How eager we are to spread the truth, as we understand it. How suspicious and vicious we become when our established truth is challenged by another one. And how convinced we are that despite all, the truth will out, and set us free.
(David Van Biema is an RNS correspondent based in New York)