Martin Scorsese eased into his seat in the Castro on Monday and addressed the crowd that just finished watching the third screening of his latest passion project.
“Ah, the beautiful Castro Theatre. I love this little theater,” he said, “I haven’t been here since, what, 1973?” referring to a showing of “Mean Streets” in The City.
The director, 74, appeared at a private San Francisco Film Society screening of “Silence,” a 159-minute film based on the true story of 17th-century Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver), who embark on a journey to Japan to rescue their mentor (Liam Neeson).
They find Japanese Jesuits (300,000 of whom once thrived) living in fear in small villages, hiding from the Inquisitor (played brilliantly by Issei Ogata), who executes those who don’t practice Buddhism.
Long periods of piercing quiet and sounds of nature give “Silence” a somber score reliant on white noise.
Scorsese said he became obsessed with how well some Japanese films depict nature, and wanted to emulate that perspective in the movie, which was shot in Taiwan.
The movie, which depicts the spread of Christianity, has two major themes: devotion, and, almost paradoxically, respecting and accepting others’ faiths.
Though Garfield and Neeson’s characters denounced Jesus, became Buddhists and inherited Japanese families from executed Japanese Christian men, they always kept their faith in a higher power. Yet they also realized they overstepped their boundaries as missionaries, and that the Japanese people never needed saving.
Among the film’s excellent actors are Tadanobu Asano, who plays the interpreter to the Inquisitor, and Shinya Tsukamo as a loyal, martyred Jesuit follower.
The American actors showed great commitment, too. Driver lost 51 pounds, Garfield dropped 41 and Neeson lost nearly 20 during the tough production schedule.
Many scenes were shot in fewer takes than Scorsese had planned for, due to difficulties with weather conditions and health issues of the cast and crew.
Still, “Silence” reveals how the legendary director continues to evolve.
He told the audience he’s been trying to get the movie made for almost three decades. Finding funding was difficult, and the production kept being postponed.
At one point, it was set to be his next feature following “Gangs of New York.” Money was owed, contracts were made and broken, and a script was nonexistent.
Eventually, the film was made for $46.5 million, about $22 million under the anticipated budget, according to producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff.
Unlike Scorsese’s most recent movies, which were shot digitally, “Silence” was shot on 35mm film, giving it a gritty realism.
George Lucas, who was on hand to introduce the film, said “Silence” is line with films made in the 1970s, America’s cinema’s golden decade, in that it is large in scope and scale, but tells an intimate story.
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