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12 Movies to Watch After You See Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’

Martin Scorsese wears his cinephilia on his screen.
Martin Scorsese's Silence
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on January 14th, 2017

Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of new movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy likeminded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch after Martin Scorsese’s Silence.

Martin Scorsese knows his film history. He was a cinephile before he was a filmmaker, and he’s proven his interest and expertise in interviews, with documentaries, and through his own inspired narrative works. He’s not as obvious about his influences as some of his peers, and anyway, he’s so well-versed in cinema but also in literature, art, and more, that his movies aren’t always so directly linked to specific materials, either.

For Scorsese’s latest, Silence, we can only really cite the Shusaku Endo book it’s based on as a source of impact. Still, we can make an attempt to recommend relevant movies to go back to, whether through the filmmaker’s loosely connected discussion of them or through our consideration of similar substantial works by him and others. As always, I welcome readers to offer their own picks if there is more worth recommending.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

In a new interview for the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, Scorsese addresses a brought up comparison of Silence to the work of author Georges Bernanos. Later he tells the story of seeing this Bernanos adaptation from Robert Bresson in his 20s, at a time of confusion and doubt. “It gave me hope,” he says. “Every character in that picture, with the possible exception of the older priest, is suffering. Every character is feeling punished and most of them are inflicting punishment on each other. And at one point, the priest has an exchange with one of his parishioners, and he says to her: ‘God is not a torturer. He just wants us to be merciful with ourselves.’ And that opened something up for me. That was the key. Because even though we feel that God is punishing and torturing us, if we’re able to give ourselves the time and space to reflect on it, we realize that we’re the ones doing the torturing, and we’re the ones we have to be merciful with.”

Ugetsu (1953)

While not necessarily a big influence on Silence per se, this Oscar-nominated 16th century-set drama by Kenji Mizoguchi is recognized by Scorsese as his introduction to Japanese cinema ‐ and one of his top 10 favorite movies of all time. In a recent interview for IMDb, he says he saw it on television in 1954 or 1955 and from there he got into Akira Kurosawa “and everybody else.” There’s a sense of Japanese films, he says of any general influence on Silence, but “this was a long process, as to how to approach the picture visually. What is in my mind? Are they Japanese films in mind? And if that’s the case it’s not authentic. It has to be how I see it, not how I think Japanese cinema would look or a film shot about Japan in the 17th century would look…” In the end, he says the locations Silence was shot in dictated more of its look than anything he’d planned anyway.

La Strada (1954)

It’s surprisingly not on any lists of Scorsese’s favorite movies (not even one of his top 404?), but this Federico Fellini classic was definitely a big influence on him. He’s often discussed his fondness for it, he does an introduction for the Criterion edition, and he even funded a 1990s re-mastered re-release. Apparently, Endo was also very inspired by the movie in his writing of the book “Silence,” especially in the self-destructive character Kichijiro, who can be compared to La Strada’s Zampano.

The Searchers (1956)

Do you need another reason to watch John Ford’s classic Western? As one of the most influential movies of all time, it’s surprising it doesn’t wind up on more of these lists. But it is one of Scorsese’s favorite movies of all time, one of a handful he revisits time and time again, as a viewer of the real thing and as someone inspired by the story. His Taxi Driver is acknowledged as an update on The Searchers, and now Silence seems even more to be its descendant. Both movies follow a pair of men on a quest to find one of their own, who has denounced his/her culture and assimilated into that of the people native to the land. The movies divert quite markedly in their third acts, however.

Winter Light (1963)

Jay Cocks, a regular Scorsese collaborator who co-wrote the Silence adaptation with him, told the Miami Herald the new movie is like a combination of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and this feature by Ingmar Bergman. The latter is the better recommendation here, I think, as it also deals with a man of the cloth struggling with his faith. Also, Scorsese brought up the film in a new interview for Commonweal magazine, comparing its ending to that of Silence. Of course, Bergman worked with religious themes a lot, and we could recommend others of his here. Winter Light is actually part of an anthological trilogy, beginning with Through a Glass Darkly and concluding with the aptly titled The Silence.

Simon of the Desert (1965)

Not all recommendations tied to the drama of faith in Silence has to be so serious. This relatively short work by Luis Bunuel is as straightforward with its plot, ideas, and humor as the filmmaker gets, and it has a particularly unexpected yet fun conclusion. Basically, it’s about a sinful man in the 4th century who has been sitting atop a pillar for six years, six months, and six days to prove his total devotion to God. Meanwhile, he’s constantly tempted by a female Satan, at one point disguised as Jesus.

Silence (1971)

Yes, Scorsese’s movie is sort of a remake, as Masahiro Shinoda beat him to the big screen with his adaptation of Endo’s book by many decades (Scorsese didn’t even read the book for another 17 years). It’s interesting to see the story done as a Japanese production after watching the American version, but more fascinating is how the earlier movie diverts from the novel in the end. Portugal got its shot at the story, too, in 1996, though supposedly that adaptation, retitled The Eyes of Asia, is not so good.

Shogun (1980)

This is a miniseries, but binge-watch all five parts and it’s like a long feature film ‐ that’s what it would be considered today, right? Also, there was a much-shortened theatrical version anyway (don’t see that version). Richard Chamberlain stars in the adaptation of James Clavell’s novel fictionalizing the life of Dutch navigator William Adams. When Adams first arrived in Japan, he clashed against the Jesuits for being Protestant, but he soon became an advisor to the shogunate, then became the first Western samurai, and through his influence helped start the persecution of the Jesuits, which is about where the story of Silence begins.

The Mission (1986)

“With Martin Scorsese’s Silence — another film about Christianity and colonialism ‐ [in theaters], now is the perfect time to dive back into Joffé’s ambitious period piece about the roles that Jesuits played in helping shape our modern world,” writes our own Matthew Monagle over at Birth.Movies.Death. about Roland Joffe’s The Mission. It’s a good movie to compare and contrast. This one is set in South America, stars Scorsese regular Robert De Niro and Silence co-star Liam Neeson, who told the New York Times he brought insights from the 31-year-old movie to his latest, such as how he’d then learned the Stanislavski acting method is based on the “Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius. The Mission, it should be noted, also has one of the most beautiful scores of all time.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

What would seem to be the most obvious of Scorsese’s past movies to look at in relation to Silence is really just a formality. Yes, the controversial film deals with some pertinent religious themes, here involving Jesus himself, and is also co-scripted by Jay Cocks. It’s also the film that, after a screening in 1988, led to Scorsese being handed a copy of Endo’s book (which he then finished while he was in Japan for Kurosawa’s Dreams). Interestingly, Scorsese compares Silence more to other less-obvious films of his, mainly Raging Bull and Mean Streets (see the La Civiltà Cattolica interview). Meanwhile, he says The Departed is the opposite of Silence.

Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire (2007)

For the obligatory documentary selection, here’s a three-part work for PBS by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Lyn Goldfarb and Deborah DeSnoo that will provide additional historical context for the story in Silence. Narrated by Richard Chamberlain (a hire calling back to his role in Shogun), the doc chronicles the history of Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate and so touches on the arrival and later expulsion of the Jesuits as well as the life of William Adams. The third part goes beyond any relevance to Scorsese’s movie, but it’s still interesting to see how the country evolved past that section of the Edo period.

Calvary (2014)

Let’s end with more laughs, albeit of a very dark humor kind embedded in a heavy religious drama. The sophomore effort from John Michael McDonagh stars a brilliant Brendan Gleeson as a small-town priest who questions his worth but not his faith when his life is threatened because of something he didn’t personally do. As with Silence, even if you’re not too familiar with all the religious contexts and references (I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t know what the title meant going in), you’ll find a well-performed ensemble piece with character relationships that universally transcend the material. McDonagh’s script is smart and witty on many levels and can, therefore, be appreciated differently by a variety of viewers if given the chance.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.