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Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence,’ his personal quest and an awards hope, has its major Hollywood unveiling

Liam Neeson in Martin Scorsese's "Silence," an exploration of big ideas cleverly wrapped in atmospheric minimalism.
(Paramount Pictures)

Martin Scorsese has been waiting nearly 30 years to bring “Silence” into the world, and tastemakers have anticipated watching it for seemingly as long.

On Sunday, both got their wish, as the late December awards release finally had its first official screening, at a packed affair in Westwood in support of the director’s the Film Foundation.

Scorsese, his team and the principal cast all turned out for the event. “You’re clapping and you haven’t even seen the movie yet,” the director quipped before the screening.

Based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, “Silence” examines a pair of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who encounter bloody resistance and persecution from local leaders in 17th century Japan as they undertake a quest to find their fallen mentor (Liam Neeson). We’ll leave more detailed synopses and assessments of the movie for other embargo-friendly times. Suffice it to say “Silence” is an exploration of big ideas cleverly wrapped in atmospheric minimalism — the nature of sacrifice, the consequences of intolerance, the contours of colonialism and the limits of faith are all investigated.

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At the Q&A, moderated by the director and Scorsese acolyte James Gray, the “Silence” filmmaker explained his motivation for wanting to get the movie made — essentially, he found that the material tapped into his own beliefs and questions and wanted to convey that sensation to others. “If I could find a way to express how the book made me feel,” he said, “it might be… a religious act.”

But that proved even trickier than one might imagine. “I thought I understood [the film’s themes] but then it went away; it’s elusive,” Scorsese said, alluding to such notions as the idea of faith in the face of hardship.

The director has been deeply interested in spirituality both in his own life — he was raised Roman Catholic and at one point even planned to become a priest — and, occasionally, in his work (“Kundun,” “The Last Temptation of Christ”). He began developing this material in 1989, writing the script with sometimes-collaborator Jay Cocks — then finding himself personally changing as he went along, taking in new books, films and thoughts that in turn shaped the movie.

“Silence” moves at a deliberate pace and avoids the easy beats of many simpler martyr stories. But Scorsese said he hoped it still retained a certain accessibility.

“It may not have a beginning, middle and end in the traditional sense, and may not have the climactic moments in the right place,” he said. "[But] it’s a traditional American narrative.”

Paramount will bring out the film in limited release on Dec. 23 and widen it in January. The studio hopes to tap into some of the mojo found by other late-season releases, such as “The Revenant” and “American Sniper,” that also center on quests both meditative and violent.

Garfield described Scorsese’s process of making the film in spiritual terms.

“For me there’s a divine confidence he has in himself and a tremendous amount of doubt simultaneously that allows [mysterious moments] to happen, as opposed to any preconceived idea of what story is and what themes are “

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After the film was completed, Scorsese brought the movie to the Vatican, screening it there last week for a variety of clerics and Italian film-industry insiders. The director and many of the actors also met with Pope Francis; Scorsese said the pontiff was “disarming” and expressed his desire that “the story bears fruit.”

The Oscar winner said he saw the film as not just imparting ideas about faith to moviegoers but also providing a healing ritual of sorts for him.

“‘Silence’ enabled me not only to think about it but to work at it,” he said. “For me, the film isn’t finished.”

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On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT


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