Silence directed by Martin Scorsese has been a labor of love for the award-winning filmmaker who has, after two and one-half decades, finally brought his project to the screen. Based on the novel by renowned, prolific, Japanese author Shūsaku Endō, the film which takes place in 17th century Japan, traces the journey of two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who search for their Jesuit brother who has gone missing and is apostate. During their quest for Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), are forced to make difficult decisions which challenge their faith in God and the unction that they must love their neighbors as themselves.
Part of the scourge and torment that the priests undergo is persecution from the oppressive government which has banned the practice of Christianity and which hunts down Japanese who have converted to Christianity. The purpose of the punishment inflicted upon Japanese Christians is ironically reminiscent of that of the Spanish Inquisition during the 16th century. The torture is an effective weapon which incites fear and maintains cultural control. Nevertheless, there are still secretly practicing Japanese Christians who believe in Christ’s love. It is these Christians who become the pawns in the battle for cultural supremacy and pride. Through the struggle, the priests must gain a profound comprehension of God’s love and grace though His “silence.”
I had the opportunity to interview the film’s producer, Gastón Pavlovich, at the Ritz Hotel, New York City, in December before the limited opening of the film on December 23rd. The film will be in wide release on 13 January. Pavlovich is a screenwriter and producer. Having produced films in Mexico, his first international venture with his international production company Fábrica de Cine was to executive-produce Max Rose, starring Jerry Lewis. Pavlovich produced Silence with Fábrica de Cine (offices in Mexico, Los Angeles, Rome), and helped to shepherd the film’s long-awaited journey to the screen.
Pavlovich has a number of sterling projects which include Waiting for the Miracle to Come, starring Willie Nelson and Charlotte Rampling, produced by Bono, Win Wenders, and Pavlovich.
Other projects he is producing are 108 Costuras, Pavlovich’s most recent Mexican film, starring Kuno Becker, José Ángel Bichir, and Ximena Navarrete and Sun Dogs, starring Melissa Benoist, Allison Janney and Ed O’Neal, directed by Jennifer Morrison.
Here is the interview, edited gently with grammatical consideration.
When I saw what the film is about, I was intrigued. The film takes place in 17th century Japan. The setting is Nagasaki, Japan, a monastery where there is a Christian population. Of course, during WWII, we dropped a bomb on Nagasaki, a largely Christian area and we killed women and children, not targeting munitions or factories. So the monastery explains why the Christian population was there. Could you tell my followers how you became involved with this project.
I had a couple of films that put me in the scenario to consider this project. My company Fabrica de Cine is three years old. We’re based in Mexico City and I’ve been doing films in Mexico. But I created a company that would deal more with international films. My first American film is a Jerry Lewis film called Max Rose. It is a small independent film with Jerry Lewis and I loved working on it. Being involved with that project got me into working with Tom Hanks’ team. We did a movie in Morocco with Tom Hanks, again independent, non studio, our style film, called Hologram For the King.
Marty’s team was looking for a producer. A producing company had Silence and their project fell through somehow. It was a European-American joint venture and something happened. I’m not privy to that information. All I know is that the project fell through five or six months before pre-production. So they were scrambling and looking for a production company who would take this project on after so many years of Marty working on it. And with my crew I was a candidate to be producer. They called me up and said, we know you are a producer and you’re doing more international films, independent and riskier. There’s a project with Marty Scorsese. Are you interested?
I said, “Absolutely.” What’s it called?” Silence. I looked into it really fast and read it immediately. It fascinated me. I met with Marty’s producer and she immediately said you have to go meet Marty, now. So twenty-four hours later, I was having dinner with Marty at his house. We had a great conversation about faith, about the book, about how he was thinking of doing the film. It was very positive.
The next morning, I get a phone call saying Marty wants you to produce this film and finance it but we need to do it now. We have to get on it immediately. And it was a roller-coaster of four or five months to get ready for pre-production that was as intense as you can imagine. After twenty-six years of working on it, there were a lot of things to take care of. But we did. We focused and Marty was fantastic. So it worked out and was great.
So when you say in the preparation for the pre-production phase it was intense, was there a possibility that it might not go through?
That possibility was always there because it was a difficult project in many ways. But we were so focused because Marty was so passionate about this project. He was the one sacrificing everything to make this film. His example was so strong, we all followed, regardless of the challenges that were there.
When you say “we,” you don’t only mean the actors who were challenged to lose a lot of weight. Liam Nelson lost 20 pounds or so for the film.
It was a challenge for all of us. It was amazing.
So with challenges like that, what attracted you to the film and its content?
First of all, it’s a very strong piece of literature by Shūsaku Endō that was widely read in many literary circles. Silence is a very important book and by itself it’s a very beautiful work of literature. I’m very passionate about literature in general and it really caught my attention. Secondly, it’s a story about religious persecution in 17th century Japan, but in a way that depicts the debate or discussion of why there was religious persecution. It sets you thinking and on a soul searching process that is very intelligent. It didn’t depict the usual evil against good. It presents the discussion and debate about what faith is, what religion means. It reveals the religious impact of Christianity in Japan specifically at that moment in time.
I thought the subject was more than interesting. What really won me over is how faith is portrayed. There is a lot of drama and lot of violence, a lot of Scorsese-like violence in general. However, the human story, the human aspect, the human communion of faith and communication between an individual and God is so well portrayed and powerful, that I felt there hadn’t been a movie like this in decades. It was very attractive to be a part of telling that story. We knew it was going to be high risk, We didn’t know how the audience was going to receive it, because it’s not Goodfellas, it’s not Wolf of Wall Street.
That thrills me by the way. It’s important now especially because people look at individuals who say they’re Christian and it’s confusing because these individuals act the antithesis of what a Christian should be, about love and forgiveness.
Unless one knows the Bible, unless one reads and has a relationship with God it is difficult to discern who is a Christian and who is using Christianity for their own agenda…feel free to jump in…(I laugh).
No, you’re saying my thoughts exactly. I think there’s a reason why, maybe a divine reason why this movie was not made when Marty wanted to make it over twenty years ago, or ten years ago. It’s very contemporary right now in its issues, about tolerance, about religious liberty, about soul searching and faith. It’s as contemporary as it could ever be and once the audience sees it, I hope you see it soon, I hope that debate about faith and that discussion happens. We have to get ourselves back into that discussion.
As soon as I came to the U.S., I noticed a change. I feel different now. There’s a tension that I feel that I did not feel before. But I also feel it in Europe, not from people coming in from Mexico, but people coming in from Africa to Europe. I’m not saying what’s right or wrong. I am saying that there’s much more intolerance now and there’s much more religious persecution in many parts of the world, terrific religious persecution. And this has to be discussed. We need to have conversations about this.
When religion comes into it, it is a problem, but faith may not be. I think everyone can identify with what faith is. Faith is what gets all of us to the next day. And we don’t only get there under our own power.
Tell me about one of the characters. Does he lose his faith? What happens?
The main Jesuit priest Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), publicly rejects his religion. It’s very important how that comes to be and why he does it. And the other two priests who come looking for him and try to find out why he apostasized, go through a very strong process. We would say it’s faith under fire. And either it breaks you or it strengthens you. And there are different examples that are shown during the movie.
This reminds me of the book Foxes Book of Martyrs. The book gives true accounts of faith under fire during Roman times. This was when Christians were sewed into bags with wild animals, and put in gladiatorial matches. And it describes how they faced such fearful trials with calm and with peace. And I have to say, I know I have a lot of faith, but I don’t have that faith. Could I sustain such torment with peace and calm?
That’s what Silence is about. It is about faith under fire and how differently we may react or not react. The film does not tell you what is the right way. I don’t think you should expect that. There’s a very powerful, profound drama that coheres with faith under fire. I haven’t read that particular book that you’re talking about but I relate to those stories.
Yes, for me the book was hard to read. It’s like laying down your life for another. What are we willing to live for? What are we willing to die for?
And what are you willing to sacrifice so that others don’t die? There’s an easy way out in Silence as you’ll see. Being a martyr is a way out. What the real story that takes place in Silence is, “No, you’re not going to die. All those will die if you don’t negate your faith.” So that’s the story: faith under fire in its maximum expression. And I hope the audience embraces it. It’s something to see. Silence has something to say to everyone.