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Silence, Guilt, Christ and Martin Scorsese

In his book But What if We’re All Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman asks a lot of questions. From whether our contemporary understanding of physics is all wrong to whether we’ve missed it on the literary geniuses of our time, he suggests that what we think we know now might just not be true in, say, 100 years; Klosterman explores what modern culture will look like in hindsight—as a thing of the past.

With the release of Martin Scorsese’s highly-anticipated “Silence,” what could easily go down as one of Scorsese’s greatest—or at least one of his most personal—achievements yet, I think it’s worth asking these same sorts of questions of the renowned Italian-American director. Scorsese, of course, has already cemented his place in film history as an all-time great. So, a more interesting question might be this: In the centuries to come, will we look back at Scorsese as not only one of the most prolific filmmakers of this era, but also as one of the most distinctly Catholic? Despite a body of work marked by sex, drugs and blood, will we view Scorsese in the same vein as a Flannery O’Connor—an artist and storyteller so haunted by Christ that he can’t help but show it all throughout his work?

A Catechism of Film

Raised in New York City, Scorsese experienced a childhood unlike that of most kids, suffering from severe asthma and relying heavily on regular medication. Unable to play sports or run around with the neighborhood kids, he ended up spending most of his time in either the church or the cinema. These were the places he found solace from the gritty streets of Little Italy and where he was catechized—where his convictions and aspirations merged and formed.

Even though Scorsese’s immediate family was not religious, he took a different direction given his unique circumstances. His schooling at Old St. Patrick elementary school and a high-school-level seminary called Cathedral Prep not only turned him into a devout altar boy but also a young man who dreamed of one day becoming a missionary priest in the Philippines.

Yet, at the same time Scorsese’s delved deeper into religion, his love for cinema furthered—in some ways these things were always intertwined. In fact, it was a local parish priest who introduced him to serious movies. Spending as much time in the seat of a theater than on his knees at an altar, Scorsese became enthralled with the world of cinema. As a student, Scorsese drew inspiration from the Catholic liturgy, namely the sacred practices of Holy Week. In turns out that Scorsese had aspirations of adapting the Stations of the Cross into a script someday—he evidently settled for “The Last Temptation of the Christ” as his source material to tell the gospel story on screen instead.

By the time he was ready to attend college, Scorsese found himself at NYU to study film and English when he couldn’t get into a Fordham University—a Catholic school run by Jesuit priests—because of bad grades. While forging a filmmaking career in college, Scorsese still envisioned himself ending up at a seminary someday.

Though he never went on to get more theological education and now considers himself a lapsed Catholic because of his multiple divorces and other reasons, Scorsese developed a distinctly Catholic imagination in spending over a decade and a half in Catholic schools—and this Catholic way of seeing the world has stuck with him ever since.

Sacramental Cinema

Examining the Catholicism of Scorsese’s films, Richard A. Blake notes that “Scorsese’s attention to physical detail, if understood as a function of his Catholic imagination, holds an importance that is somewhat different from the same visual care exercised by other successful filmmakers. In any effective cinema, images invariably set a mood, reveal a character, or even contain symbolic meanings. For Scorsese, the Catholic, such details frequently reveal a spiritual reality embodied in the material universe.”

For Catholics, the sacraments exist as outward symbols and embodiments of invisible grace, from baptism to penance to the Holy Eucharist. As the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia states, “the sacraments of the Christian dispensation are not mere signs; they do not merely signify Divine grace, but in virtue of their Divine institution, they cause that grace in the souls of men.” Not only that, but in spite of setting apart the official sacraments of the Church, Catholics see the whole world as sacramental—a material world enchanted by the divine.

Given his background, specifically a childhood marked by distinctly Catholic rituals and practices, the sacramental consequentially consumes the films of Scorsese. Through shots and scenes with religious references and iconography, his style is the substance of worlds haunted by Christ—where the secular embodies the sacred. 

The crucifix, particularly, shows up time and time again in Scorsese’s body of work. Whether it be physical crosses in churches and homes, a cross tattoo on the back of Max Cady in “Cape Fear,” corpses positioned like a crucifix in “Boxcar Bertha,” “Gangs of New York” and “The Departed,” or the literal cross of Christ in “The Last Temptation,” this central Christian symbol makes its way into most Scorsese’s films—whatever the subject matter. The visual use of the crucifix expresses a sense of Catholic guilt and a longing for faith. It also affirms a vision of life where as dark and dire as things might be, the love of Christ is still somehow present.

Scorsese’s sacramental style, of course, goes beyond the more obvious symbol of the cross; it emerges through a number of other visuals, such as icons and candles. In a few particular works, Scorsese seems to invoke medieval religious art through the deliberate use of lighting. In religious iconography of the Middle Ages, many figures are depicted with halos—a ring of light around them. While this element can mean different things, it generally signifies a sense of God’s presence through said figures; they are believed to be illuminated by glory and grace and, in turn, they illuminate the world around them. Whether it be Charlie (Harvey Keitel) in “Mean Streets” or Frank (Nicholas Cage) in “Bringing out the Dead,” Scorsese lights these characters—individuals who, despite their morals flaws, function like modern saints—in the same vein, setting them apart as conduits of the divine.

While Scorsese tends to use literal Christian symbols and elements, all his movies—even those not overtly religious—prove to be sacramental, particularly in the way he decorates the backgrounds and foregrounds of various scenes. Scorsese’s images don’t merely reflect his Catholic faith, but they also reflect a Catholic sensibility that sees the spiritual beyond the material.

Redemption by Blood

Of all the sacramental imagery within Scorsese’s work, the most prominent element comes in the form of blood. Indeed, if there is anything Scorsese is known for, it’s violence—even his tamer pictures have their fair share of gore. Scorsese, of course, doesn’t delve into violence for the sake of violence, though he’s certainly been accused of such exploitation; he instead uses it to explore the greater theme of redemption. The same could be said about the other gritty aspects of his films—you know, all those F-words.

In Catholicism—and Christianity broadly—blood is a fundamental element and symbol. Throughout the whole of Scripture, blood functions as a means of cleansing and atonement. In the Christian story, redemption requires blood—the sacrifice of life. This idea obviously comes to a head at the cross of Christ and, thus, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, where Catholics receive this sacrifice by partaking in the flesh and blood of Christ.

While many of Scorsese’s films don’t even mention faith or religion outright, a sense of morality and spirituality is implied in the angst felt in his characters and stories, which becomes channeled through means of bloodshed. Some make more progress than others, but to a degree, all Scorsese’s protagonists find themselves on a quest for redemption. Unlike other characters of film and literature who appear either apathetic or ignorant toward their licentiousness, Scorsese’s boast both an awareness and a desire to right their wrongs or the wrongs of others, in whatever dark and twisted way it might be—even the sacrifice of life.

Scholar Arturo Serrano sees the theme of redemption in all Scorsese’s characters, from J.R. in “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” to Henry in “GoodFellas” to Howard Hughes in “The Aviator” to Teddy in “Shutter Island,” specifically as it relates to the religious symbols of blood and fire: “This search for redemption usually involves the character going through a violent process to cleanse himself of his faults. Sometimes this takes the form of physical cleansing elements, such as blood in the case of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and fire in Casino.”

While clearly most evident in “The Last Temptation,” this idea of baptism by blood emerges quite prominently in “Raging Bull,” the gritty biopic of Italian-American middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta. Though it’s been debated whether LaMotta finds redemption by the end of the narrative, his character undoubtedly seeks it all throughout the story, specifically in the bloody and sweaty ritual of the boxing ring. One scene in particular sums up this idea: When after pushing away his wife and his brother, Jake takes to the ring, and upon being sponged in his own blood, the camera pans on a striking image of blood dripping from the rope; this scene calls to mind the notion of sacrament and, ultimately, the cross.

In Scorsese’s films, blood and redemption are inherently connected, yet with a few pictures aside, these characters never achieve redemption in the end—not true redemption anyway. On the contrary, the blood and violence in Scorsese’s films shows the bleak results of men taking divine matters into their own hands, and in that, they subversively point toward the blood and violence of Christ.

Guilt and a Battle of Spirit and Flesh

Despite Catholicism showing up in his entire body of work, Scorsese’s most explicitly spiritual films are more scarce and spread out across his career. In many ways, these films juxtapose the crux of the Scorsese canon—the violent and bloody films that feature failed attempts at redemption. They are personal outworkings of faith—a wrestle between sacred and secular, a battle of spirit and flesh. They are confessions of Catholic guilt. Scorsese, himself, once admitted, “The most important legacy of my Catholicism is guilt. A major helping of guilt, like garlic.”

Scorsese’s third feature film, “Mean Streets,” is about this very thing—guilt. “Mean Streets” takes the topic head-on with a young gangster—Charlie—caught in the middle of two lives: promised prosperity in an obligation to work for his criminal uncle and a firm commitment to Catholicism. In an opening voiceover, Charlies muses, "You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets. You do it at home." Throughout the film, Charlie finds himself in moral dilemma after moral dilemma, confession after confession; he is pulled back and forth between two worlds, two lives. Knowing Scorsese’s upbringing and desire to be a priest and the path he took instead, it’s not difficult to see him in the character of Charlie—overcome by guilt, unable to shake the faith that shaped him.

Fifteen years later, Scorsese went on to make his most controversial and his most religious film to date: “The Last Temptation of Christ,” an adaptation of the famous novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. While the film divided a number of Christian viewers because of the way it graphically expressed Christ’s humanity—namely a sequence where Jesus dreams of marrying and having sex with Mary Magdalene—it was deeply personal for Scorsese. For the acclaimed director, the film was an expression of guilt and faith, the ultimate battle of spirit and flesh; Scorsese said he made the film because he wanted to know Jesus more. 

“The Last Temptation” may not be theologically or biblically accurate and, thus, may be blasphemous by Christian standards, but it depicts the life of Christ in a way no movie has before: as a human being who suffered physically, emotionally and spiritually, making the final words of Christ all the more powerful: “It is finished.” As an artist haunted by Christ, Scorsese remarked of the film in an interview: “I made it as a prayer, an act of worship.”

After a successful string of violent gangster films in the ‘90s, including “GoodFellas” and “Casino,” Scorsese surprised everyone with the quiet and meditative “Kundun,” a film about nonviolence, religious ritual and the life of the 14th Dalai Lama. Though “Kundun” obviously deals with Buddhism versus Catholicism, it still speaks to Scorsese’s obsession with the spiritual—a yearning for grace and peace.

It’s no surprise then that Scorsese followed “Kundun” with the incredibly spiritual “Bringing Out the Dead.” Starring Nicholas Cage as a New York City paramedic, this film makes a perfect counterpart to Scorsese’s more famous “Taxi Driver,” which despite also being instilled with Catholic symbols and themes feels less resolved. Both films center on lonely, tormented men who scurry the streets of the Big Apple in search of redemption, yet whereas “Taxi Driver” focuses on retaliation and retribution, “Bringing Out the Dead” focuses on healing and salvation. Even though he’s a miserable alcoholic, Cage’s Frank is full of love and mercy. Like Scorsese, he’s a man torn between two selves, motivated by both spirit and flesh.

There are other Scorsese films that look at Catholic guilt thematically, including “Gangs of New York” and “The Departed,” where a few characters among many seem to struggle with matters of moral conviction and conscience amid lives of crime and violence, as well as “Living in the Material World,” a documentary about the spiritual journey of George Harrison. And, as already explored, each and every one of Scorsese’s films has residuals of a Catholic imagination, whether big or small. That said, Scorsese’s Catholicism can be easy to miss since he has only taken on religion overtly in a few pictures, including the most recent “Silence.”

The Culmination of Silence

Given his religious roots and connection to Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name, Scorsese wanted to make “Silence” for almost 30 years. And, while many would have preferred an earlier release, now that the film is here, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Scorsese said in a recent interview with the New York Times that it was “All in God’s time … It had to be this way.” It makes sense; the film wouldn’t be the same if it hadn’t taken this long. Built upon a filmmaking legacy that spans half a century, “Silence” marks the culmination of Scorsese’s career—not only technically and stylistically, but also religiously; it seamlessly encapsulates the Catholic imagination that’s informed his work from film school until now.

A story about two Portuguese Jesuit priests, played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, who travel to Japan to look for their mentor and, in turn, suffer for their faith, “Silence” seems to be a film about religious persecution or ethical dilemmas. Upon their arrival, the young priests witness firsthand the horrors of being a Christian in this hostile country as they are given the choice of torture—personally and for their Japanese brothers and sisters—or apostasy. But, even though the film delves into these topics, it proves less about ethics and suffering and more about the very thing that Scorsese’s explored throughout his body of work: Catholic guilt.

Throughout his new film, Scorsese draws upon the same symbols and elements present in his works of old, from crucifixes in all shapes and sizes to the element of blood. He not only offers a few grandiose shots of the heavens that juxtapose a spiritual world with a material world where God has supposedly been outlawed, but he also returns to a use of lighting that, in the vein of religious medieval art, ties characters to the divine.

“Silence” may seem like a story about apostasy—and for that reason, some Christians might miss it and unfortunately write it off—but it’s really a story about grace. It’s a film about how, for some, no matter how far you go, no matter how many times you reject him, the body and blood of Christ will still be available.

Now that “Silence” is here, three decades later, it’s more than obvious why Scorsese latched onto Endo’s novel and wanted to make this film in the first place. In the character of Rodrigues, Scorsese finds a man with whom he deeply relates and resonates. Scorsese, the lapsed Catholic, may not actively practice his faith, and he may not line up with all the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, but like Rodrigues, his Catholicism will never really leave him—Christ will always haunt him. As Scorsese said in a panel for “Bringing out the Dead,” “I'm a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic—there's no way out of it.”

A Catholic Artist and Legacy

Martin Scorsese may not be Catholic in the way that Flannery O’Connor was. Unlike Scorsese, O’Connor evidently stayed devout her entire life and never lapsed. In other words, she died receiving the sacraments, but at some point in his life, Scorsese stopped. He no longer falls in line with where he did 60 years, when he wanted to become a missionary to Asia. Yet, when putting personal details aside, both feature body of works that, despite dealing with the gritty and grotesque, are filled with Christian images and symbols, exploring themes such as faith, suffering and guilt.

But because Scorsese makes such popular movies and because, as Klosterman rightfully points out, we don’t see things the same way in the present, it’s hard to imagine Scorsese as not just one of the greatest directors to ever live, but as also one of the greatest Catholic artists to ever live. That said, upon a closer look of the filmmaker and his films, it might just be the case. As Scorsese once noted, “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.”

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