Hollywood and History: Scorsese’s “Silence” and the MSU professor who helped him

February 6, 2017

Legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s latest film to generate Oscar buzz is “Silence,” the story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests who brave great dangers to travel to Japan in the 1640's to find their lost mentor. In order to recreate the seventeenth century in a remote corner of East Asia, the director contracted several scholars including a historian from Michigan State University, Professor Liam Brockey.

For the past 20 years, Brockey has researched the topic of Catholic missionaries in Asia, the context for the story recounted in Scorsese’s film. After hearing a few years ago that “Silence” would actually be made after several years of speculation, Brockey wrote a letter to Scorsese’s production company, Sikelia Productions. To his surprise, they replied.

“This is not something you’re expecting – a Hollywood director calling to say, ‘Hey, we are actually going to make a movie about Jesuits in Asia in the seventeenth century,’” Brockey said. “That’s not something you hear every day.”

Once production began, Brockey found the consulting work to be an intellectual challenge. Sikelia’s lead researcher and one of the film’s producers, Marianne Bower, would typically email Brockey with specific questions on everything from clothing and shoes to what a Jesuit’s office might have looked like in the 1640s. Other experts, including Jesuit priest and author Fr. James Martin, and Prof. Jurgis Elisonas of Indiana University, were also consulted and often discussed specific issues with Brockey.

 “This was fun,” Brockey said. “This was what you might call icing on the cake for what is, to me, a very rewarding research agenda that I have, to examine precisely the types of encounters that are described in the film. The film brings a vision of the things that I spend a lot of my days imagining to the screen.”

Brockey’s most recent book, The Visitor: André Palmeiro and the Jesuits in Asia (Harvard University Press, 2014), is a biography of a Jesuit who actually corresponded with the real historical figure whose story inspired the movie. Prior to that Brockey published Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724 (Harvard University Press, 2007; paperback 2008).

The movie is based on a 1966 novel of the same name written by Shusaku Endo. The novel is a work of fiction based on historical figures, and Brockey’s work on Palmeiro fit perfectly since it examines the lives of the Jesuits who worked in the Asian missions.

Brockey’s body of research enabled him to help Scorsese, but the film helped refine some of the historian’s work in return.

“It was exceptionally beneficial to work with someone who has made lots of movies and is really a genius, but who cares about my field of research and cares to recreate it in the right way,” Brockey said. “That he consulted with us shows his commitment to getting the story correct. Scorsese wanted to be as faithful to the historical context as possible.”

“Silence” garnered an Oscar nomination for cinematography, and Brockey feels the film is the best ever made about the early modern missions. He sees value in the film as it relates to history since it will help those unfamiliar with the subject understand the moral and physical challenges that these individuals faced hundreds of years ago.

“People study sociology, anthropology, and economics because of the immense diversity of human societies, cultures, and organizations, respectively,” Brockey explained. “In the same way, historians work with this immense diversity in people throughout time, and we shouldn’t presume that in the past people didn’t behave in some instances as we would have, that they weren’t as complex as we are. That is precisely what is depicted in the movie, and it is an excellent finished product which brings visibility to the questions that I ask as a historian.”

Professor Brockey will introduce “Silence” during a free screening of the film at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, February 17 in B115 Wells Hall.