Watching Silence, the Martin Scorsese movie based on Shūsaku Endō’s novel, one can’t help but notice that there is a certain arrogance in the missionary work depicted onscreen. As sympathetic as Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are as two Portuguese priests traveling to Japan in 1633, they don’t speak the language, they don’t understand the local customs or rule of law, and they don’t seem to recognize the irony of their position. The Japanese people who had converted to Catholicism are persecuted, tortured, and killed in much the same manner as the Portuguese and other Catholics were treating non-Catholics halfway across the world.
Lest he be thought as clueless as his characters, Scorsese addressed this issue after a SAG-AFTRA screening of the film in New York on Thursday, and noted that it had been brought to his attention during his visit to the Vatican last week. “There were about 100 Jesuits there, and a number of them were Asian, and a Philippine Jesuit pointed out to me that no matter how well-meaning the missionaries were, and how much zeal they had, no matter how much violence the Japanese committed against them, the missionaries in one way created a form of violence to the Asians,” the director said, by insisting that they had the one truth, while everything the Japanese had known in their own culture for thousands of years was irrelevant.
“First, you have to learn about the other country,” Scorsese said. “How do you do that? You meet the people. You learn something of the language. You learn about the way they live, the way they think.” As Liam Neeson’s fallen priest points out in the film, the Japanese at this point in time do not conceive of a soul, or anything that transcends the human body. That, Scorsese said, should have been acknowledged, before the missionaries tried to impose a belief system incorporating that. And instead of even trying to impose a belief system, they might have had better luck converting people by just modeling Christian behavior. “Maybe the way to do it is just by action,” Scorsese said. “In other words, you go to a place, you do what you do, and eventually, somebody says, ‘I’d like to be like that person.’” (Assuming what you’re modeling is something worth aspiring to.) Otherwise, missionary work is just an arm of colonialism, and the two being linked as they were in Asia, Scorsese said, is “a wound that still has yet to heal.”