Silence is predicated on the actual Japanese persecutions of Christians in the early 1600s, when hundreds were martyred. Shūsaku Endō, an acclaimed Catholic Japanese novelist, originally published what's now considered his masterpiece of the same name in 1966. Director Martin Scorsese discovered the book in 1989. From that moment on, he was determined to make a movie about it.
"Silence is the story of a man who learns—so painfully—that God's love is more mysterious than he knows that He leaves much more to the ways of men than we realize, and that He is always present … even in His silence," Scorsese writes in the foreword to a recent edition the book.
While Silence treats Christianity respectfully, it's not easy to write a book or make a movie predicated on God's apparent absence—especially during the searing season of persecution depicted here. Nor is it easy to read or watch such a story. Rodrigues expresses his own doubts in the midst of God's silence, wondering if he prays to nothing. He struggles to discern God's will amid pain and uncertainty, where every path leads to some form of death. He wonders about God's role in it all. "Surely," Rodrigues says, "God heard [Japanese Christians'] prayers as they died. But did He hear their screams?"