Silence is a novel about “the necessity of belief fighting the voice of experience,” as Scorsese has put it. To get the Jesuits’ beliefs right, he engaged the Rev. James Martin, an author and editor at large of the Jesuit weekly America. Filmmaker and priest had several colloquies at Scorsese’s home, and Martin worked intensively with Garfield and Driver. Just as De Niro learned to box for “Raging Bull,” they familiarized themselves with the rites and disciplines of the Jesuit priesthood to bring authenticity to their performances.
Garfield, known for his role in two “Spider-Man” movies, prepared to play Father Rodrigues by entering fully into the process that Jesuits call “spiritual direction.” Raised outside London, with a secular Jewish father, Garfield developed his character by undergoing the “Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. The exercises, devised in the 1520s, invite the “exercitant” to use his imagination to place himself in the company of Jesus, at the foot of the cross, among tormented souls in hell. Garfield met with Martin for spiritual direction, and they swapped reflections via email and Skype. Then he set out for St. Beuno’s, a Jesuit house in Wales, to undertake a seven-day silent retreat.
“If I’d had 10 years, it wouldn’t have been enough to prepare for this role,” Garfield told me. “I got totally swept up in all things Jesuit and very taken with Jesuit spirituality. The preparation went on for nearly a year, and by the time we got to Taiwan, it was bursting out of me.”
It’s not unusual for performers to allude vaguely to their spirituality. But Garfield describes the process with guileless specificity. “On retreat, you enter into your imagination to accompany Jesus through his life from his conception to his crucifixion and resurrection. You are walking, talking, praying with Jesus, suffering with him. And it’s devastating to see someone who has been your friend, whom you love, be so brutalized.” Before Garfield left for Taiwan, Martin gave him a cross he had received as a gift while a Jesuit novice.
“Andrew got to the point where he could out-Jesuit a Jesuit,” Martin told me. “There were places in the script where he would stop and say, ‘A Jesuit wouldn’t say that,’ and we would come up with something else.”
“I don’t think I am called to be a priest,” Garfield said to me resolutely, as if making this film had spurred him to consider the prospect. “But I had the feeling that I was being called to something: called to work with one of the great directors, and called to this role as something I had to pursue for my spiritual development.”
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.” So it was with “Silence.” “Marty insists on having silence on the set,” Garfield told me. “The silence says: ‘Something is happening here.’?” Scorsese arranged the shooting script chronologically, so the cast could feel the characters’ emotions in sequence. Finally Garfield reached the scene in which Rodrigues steps on the fumie, profaning the God he believes in and renouncing the faith he has come halfway across the world to preach. Actor and director prepared the shot: a bare foot pressed to a piece of copper, the face of Christ worn smooth by the feet of countless apostates before him. “It’s something we had both waited for,” Garfield said, “but Marty had waited much longer — he had waited decades to film that scene.” The director was ready; the priest stepped — and then there was a technical difficulty. “I almost lost my mind, and I think Marty did, too,” Garfield recalled. “He wanted it to be done in one take.” There was a second take, and the priest profaned the image of Christ once and for all.
Before it opens in New York and Los Angeles in December, Silence will be screened in Rome for several hundred Jesuits and for cinephiles at the Vatican.