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The Passion of Martin Scorsese, altar boy from Old Saint Patrick’s in Little Italy, New York

I trusted the church, because it made sense. I understood that there’s another way to think, outside the closed, hidden, frightened, tough world I grew up in.

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Saint Patrick's Old Cathedral

Saint Patrick's Old Cathedral

 

excerpt from an article by Paul Elie in The New York Times

The train to Kyoto slid past the mountains. Scorsese turned the pages. This novel spoke to him. All at once he saw it as a picture he would like to make.

The novel was “Silence,” by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese convert steeped in European literature and the history of Catholicism in Japan. Published in Japan in 1966, “Silence” sold 800,000 copies, a huge number in that country. Endo was called “the Japanese Graham Greene” and was considered for the Nobel Prize. Greene referred to “Silence” as “one of the finest novels of our time.”

The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier brought Catholicism to Japan in 1549. In the next century, it was suppressed through the torture of missionaries and their followers, who were forced to apostatize by stepping on the fumie— a piece of copper impressed with an image of Christ. In “Silence,” Endo took the missionaries’ point of view, casting much of the novel in the form of letters by Sebastian Rodrigues, a Portuguese Jesuit priest , reporting back to his superior.

When Scorsese returned from Japan, he procured the film rights to “Silence.” … Twenty-six years in, filming began.

What led this great American artist to make a story of missionaries in Japan his ultimate passion project? …

“Silence” is a novel for our time: It locates, in the missionary past, so many of the religious matters that vex us in the postsecular present — the claims to universal truths in diverse societies, the conflict between a profession of faith and the expression of it, and the seeming silence of God while believers are drawn into violence on his behalf.  …

 

“Silence,” no less than Scorsese’s informal New York trilogy — “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” — is rooted in his childhood. As a boy in Little Italy, he wanted to be a missionary. His parents were not religious, in part because their parents had felt the church’s heavy hand in Sicily, but for him the church — a malign force in so many coming-of-age stories — was a portal to the world beyond family and neighborhood. “I trusted the church, because it made sense, what they preached, what they taught,” he said. “I understood that there’s another way to think, outside the closed, hidden, frightened, tough world I grew up in.” …

The Italian-American Catholicism of the area was centered on street processions devoted to saints brought over from the old country: San Gandolfo for the Sicilians on Elizabeth Street, San Gennaro for the Neapolitans on Mulberry Street. “When I was there, it was already dying out,” Scorsese told me. It hooked him even so. The vast, vaulted interior of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mott Street was a sharp contrast to the family’s small apartment, the Latin Mass a formal counterpoint to their mealtime banter. “I think fast, I move fast, and I think it has something to do with the medication I was given for asthma,” Scorsese said. “It affected the way I breathe, the way I think. I needed to pull back. Film did that for me, and so did the church. They slowed me down. They allowed me to meditate. They gave me a different sense of time.”

Francis Principe, a young priest assigned to the neighborhood, brought faith and film together. “He was the one who opened up things for us,” Scorsese recalled. “Who said: ‘You don’t have to live this way. You don’t have to follow in this cultural cycle. You don’t have to get married at 21.’ ” Scorsese had become an altar boy, and each year Principe would take the altar boys to a movie uptown — “Around the World in 80 Days,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai” — and sit talking about it with them afterward on the steps of the rectory on Mulberry Street. They went to the Roxy near Times Square to see the Gospel drama “The Robe” and then heard him put it down. “Father Principe detested Christian sentimentality or comic-book religious aspects,” Scorsese said. “ ‘Oh, it’s so cliché,’ he said, meaning the thunder when Judas mentions his name — ‘My name is Judas,’ and there’s the thunder in stereophonic sound. To this day I haven’t heard thunder as good as that.” And yet — at age 11 — he conceived of the wish to do it differently, “to take the biblical epic to another place.”

 

 

Faith and film offset the asthma that kept him out of sports and off the streets. Indoors, he drew movie storyboards, including some, a few years later, for a life of Christ. “I set it right in the neighborhood,” he told me, “with the crucifixion taking place on the West Side piers and the N.Y.P.D. involved. Can you see it?” Indoors, he had a front-row seat for adult matters, especially his father’s dealings with a spendthrift uncle who seemed to take money from his father freely and with impunity to pay the loan shark. It was a pattern he knew from the Scripture passages read in church.

“My brother’s keeper — it’s my brother’s keeper!” he said, chortling with recognition. “And it goes beyond your brother. Are we responsible for other people? What is our obligation, when somebody does something that is so upsetting? ... Do you really have to do it because they’re a brother, or you’re related, or you made vows of marriage? What is the right thing to do for the other person, and for yourself? All of this carried through. I would see it acted out one way in reality, and I would hear it another way from Father Principe and a couple of priests at Cardinal Hayes.” …

It is striking to see the brother’s-keeper pattern show up at the other end of Scorsese’s career, in “Silence.” As the two Jesuits set out for Japan, they find a translator named Kichijiro in a seedy neighborhood and drag him into their mission. He resists. He drinks himself sick. He lies. He bemoans his fate. A convert, he apostatized and was allowed to live, while the shogunate killed his brothers and sisters. Rodrigues decides that he is Kichijiro’s keeper and grimly bears up as Kichijiro apostatizes again and again and finally betrays him to the shogunate. But as Rodrigues is racked by doubts, the peasant becomes the priest’s keeper, a man whose faith is rooted in his recognition of his own weakness. Who is more Christlike: the person who is strong in faith or the one who is weak, who is humiliated? “Humiliation: That’s the key,” Scorsese told me. “As Kichijiro says in the movie: ‘Where is the place for a weak person in the world we’re in? Why wasn’t I born when there wasn’t any persecution? I would have been a great Christian.’ ”…

 

 

A.O. Scott, now a chief film critic for The New York Times, once wrote that Scorsese approaches filmmaking as “a priestly avocation, a set of spiritual exercises embedded in technical problems.” …

Inside the old cathedral, it became clear how literally Scorsese has never forgotten — not the splendor of the church, nor the presence of suffering and death, sin and redemption, nearby. The pastor pointed out the details of a renovation: the saints retouched in their original colors, the marble and brass altar fixtures restored to the way they were before a 1970 modernizing effort. Scorsese, who left the neighborhood in 1965, didn’t need a guide. He knew every inch of the place. “Picture an 8-year-old boy standing right here in a white cassock, reciting a prayer in Latin,” he mused aloud. “That’s me.” …

I asked him to draw a connection between “Silence” and what he was seeing in the old cathedral. He tapped his forehead with two fingers. “The connection is that it has never been interrupted. It’s continuous. I never left. In my mind, I am here every day.”

The world premiere was at the Vatican on Tuesday, November 29, 2016. The film is scheduled for a limited release on December 23, 2016, before expanding in January 2017.

The complete article "The Passion of Martin Scorcese," The New York Times Magazine,  November 26, 2016

Reflections on Shusaku Endo's Silence by American artist Makato Fujimura:

 

Journey video of Catholic street evangelism outside of Old Saint Patrick's, Little Italy

 

 

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