Martin Scorsese's new film Silence isn't about gangsters in New York City or tough guys just trying to get by. Instead, the director's newest work is the story of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in the 1600s. The historical film has some basis in history, but Silence is not based on a true story, as some might think. Scorsese's passion project is actually based on a book, also called Silence, by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, although it does have some connections to real events. Silence might not be a true story, but the film is not without accurate historical context.
Endo's original novel, published in 1966, is a work of historical fiction that draws upon the missionaries who came to 17th Century Japan during a time when Japanese Christians were being persecuted and priests were being hunted. That conflict features heavily in Silence, which tells the story of two young priests, Rodrigues and Garrupe, who must hide from Japanese authorities while spreading the word of God and searching the country for their mentor, Ferreira. Historically speaking, neither Ferreira, Rodrigues, nor Garrupe existed, though the character of Rodrigues is, in fact, based on the life of Italian priest Giuseppe Chiara, who did missionary work in Japan.
In an effort to make the film as faithful to the time period as possible, Scorsese worked with researcher and co-producer Marianne Bower, who in turn worked with many consultants. For example, filmmakers took great pains to translate the script's Japanese dialogue. Originally written in English, certain lines and dialogue had to be translated multiple times to become the Japanese dialogue seen in the film. "It was first translated into 17th century Japanese, and then we had Japanese historians and language consultants adapt that into a version that a modern audience would understand," Bower explained in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
Silence was also a deeply personal film for Scorsese, who waited decades to make it after being introduced to the book in 1989. "All in God's good time," Scorsese said during a discussion with The New York Times. "We don't know why, but this is how this picture got made. It had to be this way." Silence might not be based on a true story, but for Scorsese, the story was real enough to warrant decades of work.