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Art book takes Scorsese's 'Silence' to the next level

. . This is a story of three art forms - the novel, the film, and art - converging in the work of one artist.

By Shusaku Endo
Picador. 256 pp. $16.

Silence and Beauty
Hidden Faith Born of Suffering
By Makoto Fujimura
IVP. 263 pp. $25.

A 2016 film directed by Martin Scorsese, distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Reviewed by John Timpane

This is a story of three art forms - the novel, the film, and art - converging in the work of one artist.

Martin Scorsese's movie Silence is based on a 1966 novel by Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, a convert to Catholicism. A work of historical fiction, Endo's Silence tells of the suffering of Franciscan monks from Portugal who travel to 16th-century Japan, where authorities are persecuting Christians. Scorsese, raised Catholic, once considered becoming a priest, and has invested even his most violent films with spiritual undertones. Silence is up for a best cinematography Oscar at Sunday's Academy Awards.

A movie based on a novel is commonplace. But there's a luminous third corner of the triangle: Makoto Fujimura's book Silence and Beauty.

Born and raised in the United States, a convert himself to Christianity, Fujimura, a painter, manuscript illuminator, and much else, did years of artistic apprenticeship in Japan. Immediately after 9/11, Fujimura (who then lived with his family within sight of the Twin Towers) and other members of the International Arts Movement set up pop-up art galleries to repudiate the evil of that day - and throughout the world.

Fujimura splits his time between Pasadena, Calif. - where he's the director of the Brehm Center of the Fuller Theological Seminary - and his studio near Princeton, in a homestead called Fujimura Farm. He is now hard at work on an exhibit that will debut in May at Waterfall Mansion in Manhattan, "a very large exhibit," he writes by email, "involving Silence pieces."

He first read Silence in English, when he was an undergraduate at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. But he'd return to it: After becoming a Christian while a graduate student at Tokyo University of the Arts (where he was the first outsider to be invited into the doctoral program), he read it again in Japanese.

Fujimura was a special adviser on the film Silence. Scorsese admiringly says that in Beauty and Silence, Fujimura "has created a quietly eloquent meditation on art and faith, and where they converge." As for Scorsese, Fujimura writes that "I have seen personally his transformation spiritually, and it has been an amazing experience."

Here is a video of a panel discussion at Fuller Theological Seminary, featuring Martin Scorsese, Makoto Fujimura, and assistant professor Kutter Calloway:

Japanese culture is far more visual than Western culture, Fujimura writes. That plays a big role in both novel and film, in which Christians are punished by being made to step on fumi-e (literally "stepping images"), visual icons of Jesus Christ. For Westerners, that act may have less impact; for the Japanese, with their vivid awareness of the visual, it's a signal act of sacrilege and repudiation. For the monk Rodrigues in Silence (played in the film by Andrew Garfield), this moment of degradation is also a great moment of spiritual awareness.

Fujimura sees the visual/nonvisual divide everywhere in both cultures. He points to the wax models of food on menus outside restaurants in Japan. "Manga and anime are all part of that as well," he says. "The lack of appreciation of visual imagery in modern Western churches [like megachurches] describes well the lack of visual sophistication in the United States and other places. Compare book designs between U.S. publishers and Japanese publishers [both Christians and non-Christians], and you will see right away the difference."

We learn about Fujimura's artistic and faith journeys, which include his studies in Japan, his experience of 9/11, and the notion of a ground zero - at Hiroshima, the Twin Towers, in 16th-century Japan, everywhere, all the time - as a center of trauma and crisis in history, culture, the human soul.

The silence in the titles of all three works is the apparent silence of the divine in the face of incomprehensible suffering. In novel and film, Rodrigues ponders that silence as cruelty and suffering crash in on him. Fujimura writes that 9/11 struck him with the same force. From his family's house in TriBeCa, he gazed at the destruction. "I thought of the silence of God," he writes. "The vacant space where the towers used to stand felt like a gash, a wound in an open blue sky. . . . I allowed my heart to ask the question, Where is God?"

"9/11 was traumatic," he writes by email, "and I am still dealing with the aftereffects of that. I have tried to create honestly out of that experience, but there are levels of trauma that one cannot 'solve' or move beyond."

None of the three artworks can solve this enormous question, or even try. "Endo was not trying to 'solve' the problem," Fujimura writes, but rather to "depict, as honestly as he can . . . the insoluble nature of human experience. . . . There are more than one 'right answers' here."

"The three critical themes in understanding Silence," he writes, "are hiddenness, ambiguity, and beauty." These are at work in art, and in the divine presence in the world. "God can speak through such traumas," Fujimura writes.

Not that art answers the question. But it may indicate a journey through suffering. "Endo paves the way," he says. "Both the book and the movie by Scorsese work to move us through trauma into a place of a new beginning."

John Timpane is the books editor of the Inquirer.