Early in John Ford’s 1947 film The Fugitive, adapted from Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, the film’s main character — an unnamed priest played by Henry Fonda — makes his way back to his church, in an unnamed village in an unnamed South American country. Ford’s camera is trained on the floor of the dark, empty church when the priest pushes open its heavy wooden doors, his arms outstretched. Light streams in, casting a Christ-like shadow on the stone floor. Nearly 70years later, in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016), an overhead shot of the prostrate Father Sebastian Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), imprisoned in a wooden cell in 17th century Japan, makes a similar visual nod to Christ’s crucifixion in the placement of Rodrigues’s body on the floor. Two Catholic filmmakers, in two different parts of the world, in two dramatically different eras of mainstream filmmaking, tell the same story about the power of faith in the face of persecution, most evidently through each film’s focus on small, physical tokens of its characters abstract faith.
Scorsese’s Catholicism defines many of his films, but his other religion, of course, is cinema. While Silence obviously draws quite heavily from master Japanese filmmakers like Yasujirō Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, its relationship to Ford’s little-regarded The Fugitive is less well-examined. Scorsese has long admired Ford — even Silence’s plot (from the novel by Shusaku Endo) bears resemblance to Ford’s 1956 western The Searchers, starring John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a man in pursuit of his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), kidnapped by Comanche Indians. Ethan’s racist hatred of the Comanches hardens his heart against Debbie, especially when he and his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) find her living as a Comanche bride to the chief, Scar (Henry Brandon). In Silence, Jesuit priests Rodrigues and Garupe (Adam Driver) sneak into Japan in search of their missing mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson), only to discover he, like Debbie, has surrendered his identity and faith, and has chosen to live among his captors as one of them, taking a Japanese name and wife. In both films, the captives refuse rescue, having grown to appreciate the culture into which they have assimilated.
In Ford’s case, The Fugitive precedes his renewed commitment to the Western. Between his 1939 film Stagecoach, a film often credited with reviving mainstream interest in the genre, and The Fugitive, he only made one other Western, My Darling Clementine, released the year before, in 1946. It comes at a moment when the director was moving away from the populist dramas about working people that characterized his first decade working in sound film — The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941) being notable examples — and toward the mythology of the American West, which he had no small hand in helping to create. After The Fugitive, many of Ford’s subsequent and most famous films would be Westerns: the cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950); Three Godfathers (1948), Wagon Master (1950), The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Despite its South American setting, The Fugitive feels like the last gasp of Ford’s late-1930s, early 1940s vision of Depression-era America, infused with New Deal-inspired populism.
Both The Fugitive and Silence depict spaces where Christian faith is perceived to be a threat to larger power structures. Though Greene’s novel is set in Mexico, and The Fugitive’s opening voice over — delivered by Ford regular Ward Bond, who also plays a character in the film called The Gringo — says it was shot on location there, Bond also says the on-screen country could be any South American nation. Ford’s intent is to anonymize the events, to make them general so that they might stand in for any time, any place. Scorsese’s approach in Silence is the opposite — taking his cue from Endo’s novel, he specifies the narrative to a particular moment in Japanese history. The majority of the narrative action takes place between 1640 and 1641, at the height of Buddhist Japan’s efforts to stamp out insurgent Christianity, an import of European traders from Holland, England, Spain, and Portugal. Despite these differences in focus, the stories of each film are similar. In both, much is made of the ominous designation, “the last priest in the country,” shared by Fonda’s and Garfield’s characters. In Ford’s film, the priests have been rounded up and executed by a repressive military regime, personified by an unnamed Police Lieutenant (Pedro Armendariz). In Scorsese’s, the priests have either been expelled, tortured to death or allowed to remain in Japan on the condition that they apostatize, at the direction of the Grand Inquisitor Inoue (Issey Ogata).
The challenge facing both Ford and Scorsese in attempting to bring stories of faith to the screen is how to represent the devotion of their characters in images. Strikingly, each director chooses to literalize the internal faith of its priests and other Christian characters through externalizing that faith in objects that represent it. In other words, Ford and Scorsese perform something like a cinematic equivalent to transubstantiation, the process that refers to the change of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in Catholic Mass. Both films are intimately concerned with a key problem: how to make faith feel tangible on screen.
Ford photographs his film with deep shadows and harsh rays of light, a strategy characteristic of his populist dramas. Inside the dark and wrecked church, cross-shaped windows let in bright beams of sun, capturing the dominant government’s increasing encroachment upon the country’s few remaining Christians. The Priest is a hunted man, repeatedly forced to escape into the countryside, sometimes in broad daylight and sometimes under the cover of night. While he evades capture, he often chooses to hide in plain sight, blending in among rural villagers and indifferent city-dwellers. He hides his faith inside, until he is recognized by Catholics who knew him from his church, or who identify him by the aura he carries. Unlike the soldiers who hunt him, the film implies that a true Catholic can always spot The Priest. It is as if his faith is physical, something that others who share it can sense in him.
In The Fugitive, The Priest’s quiet, internalized faith can protect him from capture. However, the tokens he carries, representations of his religious duties, can betray him. Early in the film, The Police Lieutenant knows The Priest has returned to his church when he finds leftover baptismal water in a fount. Later, when The Priest reluctantly takes shelter with a drunk credited as A Police Informer (J. Carroll Naish), it is the contents of his bag that reveal his identity to the wine-soaked old man. When the drunken Informer raids The Priest’s belongings and finds his sacramental wine, his first instinct is to drain the bottle. It is only after the wine is gone that he thinks to ask The Priest, “Was it blessed?”
The need for more sacramental wine drives the narrative’s most affecting scene. Back in the city, The Priest is asked by a young boy to serve Mass for his sick mother. Partway through the ceremony, The Priest remembers his wine is empty, but knows that in order to fully complete Mass, he must have more. He ventures out into the city at night in search of wine, which has also been outlawed by the regime. After finding an unsavory character who takes him to another man who peddles illegal alcohol from a dingy apartment, The Priest spends twenty pesos to buy a bottle of wine. He is just about to leave the apartment to go and finish the Mass, wine in hand, when the seller implores him for a sip from the bottle. Unable to reveal his true identity, The Priest relents. As the two crooks drink deeper and deeper from the bottle, The Priest sits, helplessly watching the token of faith he sought being wasted by a couple of faithless drunks. Faith may live inside, but the outside world can take a miserable toll.
That is the subject, more or less, of Silence. Rodrigues’s faith is tested as he confronts the suffering of the Japanese Christians, inflicted upon them by the Buddhists threatened by and resentful of what they see as a European attempt at colonization. The Japanese Christians whisper their faith in quiet, dark rooms in the deepest part of the night, forced into conspiracy. When the Buddhists, led by the Grand Inquisitor, come to villages, they force the Japanese Christians to submit to interrogation first. If they are identified as Christians, they are then asked to trample upon a fumi-e, a wooden engraving of a Christian image. Refusal to do so leads some of the Christians to torture and death. Two doomed men, Ichizo (Yoshi Oida) and Mokichi (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) are crucified in a seaside cove at low tide, where they remain until high tide rolls in and they drown. The cruelty of the Inquisitor’s methods uses the iconography of the Christian religion against its devotees. In trampling the fumi-e, they disrespectfully muddy an image of Christ. In their ocean crucifixion, the Japanese Christians are mockingly awarded a distorted version of Christ’s own fate.
The trials of the Japanese Christians force Rodrigues to confront the morality of bringing them the faith in the first place. The suffering they endure for God or, as Ferreira later suggests, for Rodrigues himself, is almost too much for him to bear. His voice over wrestles with the absence of God’s voice — the “silence” of the title — in moments of his believers’ extreme pain. God is conspicuously silent throughout the film until Rodrigues’s own moment of apostasy, when he chooses to denounce his face by trampling on the fumi-e in order to spare five Japanese Christians from “the pit,” where they are hung upside down, bleeding from a tiny head wound, in a muddy hole filled with animal intestines. Here, Scorsese makes a profoundly fascinating choice, one which leaves open the possibility that God’s voice exists only in Rodrigues’s own ears. When God speaks, and gives Rodrigues permission to trample, the voice is that of Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds), the priest who sent him and Garupe on their mission to Japan in the first moments of the film. Even here, Scorsese invites the sound of faith into the physical world, by making the voice of God that of a character appearing elsewhere in the narrative. The question this moment raises is profound: is it really God, or is it Rodrigues’s own manifestation of God, who answers?
Regardless, Rodrigues is comforted by the voice, and spends the remainder of the film living out his faith deep within himself. He surrenders the icons, the tokens, and the outward appearance of religiosity in favor of developing a more personal relationship with God. When God speaks to Rodrigues again, he still hears Valignano’s voice, reminding him that God is always with him. Rodrigues’s work is highly significant — the job he is given, along with Ferreira, is to sort goods bearing Christian symbols from those that are non-Christian upon their import to Japan. The Christian goods are turned away, and the non-Christian goods are allowed in. The rote, ritualistic nature of the sorting, and the way that Scorsese’s camera lingers on the Christian iconography buried in the teacups and smuggled inside coats, captures the simultaneity of Rodrigues’s faith — he admires the Christian goods, but knows his faith runs deeper than the corporal.
Or does it? In the film’s final moments, when Rodrigues’s dead body is placed in a coffin and ritualistically burned in the Buddhist tradition, the last image is of his hands, clutching a tiny wooden cross, carved by Mokichi, who gave it to Rodrigues just before his own crucifixion. As the flames consume Rodrigues’s body, the final close-up on the tiny wooden cross suggests that even Rodrigues’s apparent surrender of his faith’s tokens was not quite total. Even he could not fully conceive of faith without a token to remind him of its power. Faith can live inside, but it requires physical manifestation in order for it to seem real. Feeling faith inside the heart is supposed to be enough, but even the most devout need something physical to represent it.
Ford’s film is about the relationship of faith to the community, which shows in Ford’s fixation on the collective rituals of Catholicism. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Ford’s filmography — he is often willing to stop the narrative entirely to capture a community dance or funeral. In The Fugitive, it is the film’s early depiction of The Priest’s baptism of the town’s babies, a seemingly endless parade of mothers and young children, their faith rescued by his return. The film ends after The Priest has been executed by the state, with a new priest arriving to serve the community of Christians left behind. The final shot is wide, with the new father framed in silhouette in a doorway as his flock looks on. Scorsese’s film, however, is about the personal journey of one’s faith. This too should be no surprise — Scorsese, from Mean Streets (1973) to Raging Bull (1980) to Bringing Out the Dead (1999), is concerned with the redemption of the central character. Can the man who has lost his soul in a world of pain and suffering somehow find it? Silence’s final shot, inside the burning coffin, close on the wooden cross is as intimate as it could be. In between Ford’s wide shots and Scorsese’s close-ups, there is an effort by each filmmaker to make faith real.
Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.