Knocking on Martin Scorsese’s Door: Religion in the Work of Hollywood’s Patron Saint
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Revelation 3:20
Martin Scorsese’s new film Silence is about religion. Then again, all of his films are about religion.
Based on the classic novel by Shūsaku Endō, Silence examines the faith of two 17th century Jesuit missionaries as they experience doubt, loss, and persecution in the restricted nation of Japan. But while Silence may end up being one of Scorsese’s most explicit passion plays to date, it’s less a spiritual capstone to his career as much as a summary of the unorthodox sacredness his work has always been about, even from the beginning.
Take Scorsese’s first feature-length film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, whose first image features Jesus and the Virgin Mary. At the end of the picture, the then 25-year-old director splashes together a collage of Christian icons—all centering on a crucifix that hangs inside of a wooden confessional. Even the song Scorsese couples with the sequence shimmers with spiritual symbolism: “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” is not only the closing number, but also the inspiration behind the movie’s title. And for a film wrestling with the guilt of its Catholic protagonist, Who’s That Knocking at My Door even works as a reference to Revelation 3:20. As the title character, J.R. (Harvey Keitel), navigates masculinity and spiritual shame in Little Italy, he’s forced to reckon with his Christian lineage. A hovering presence—the Jesus of Catholicism—stands at his heart’s door and knocks. Will he let him in? Should he let him in?
Ask a spiritual person about religious cinema, though, and Martin Scorsese’s name will probably be absent among giants that include Terrence Malick and Carl Th. Dreyer. Known for grisly and explicit films like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese may be Hollywood’s patron saint of film, but his halo is far from polished—and his characters aren’t any better. Reveling in no shortage of sex, drugs, and booze, his eccentric creations are criminals, murderers, and greed-infested crime bosses who seem light years away from heaven’s door.Scorsese may be Hollywood’s patron saint of film, but his halo is far from polished
Yet, even despite his protagonists’ frequent depravity, a quick review of Scorsese’s fifty years of work—beginning with Who’s That Knocking at My Door and continuing to Silence—should be enough to convince anyone that spirituality doesn’t stand as an outlier in his work. All that violence, that tearing, ripping, and baring of flesh, manages to finds its roots in a faith that’s not only present, but forms the groundwork for Scorsese’s entire approach as an artist. He is, first and foremost, a religious filmmaker—maybe even the most influential religious filmmaker in the last half-century. And though the Patron of Hollywood may only periodically swing open the doors and allow Christ inside, he’s never been one to shy away from the knock.
To understand Martin Scorsese’s work, one must first understand the Eucharist. Though many Protestants regard holy communion as a symbolic ritual of sorts, the theology of Scorsese’s Catholicism teaches that as the bread and the wine are blessed by a priest, they transform into the actual body and blood of Christ. In fact, physicality finds great emphasis in Catholicism, from the use of icons to the sacrament of confession.
For Scorsese, who was once an aspiring Catholic priest before he left seminary to become a filmmaker, physicality—or, more precisely, incarnation—is a fitting description for his atmospheric and graphic style. Like the Masses and catechisms of his childhood faith, Scorsese’s films are corporeal in all definitions of the word. Each frame is a Eucharist ceremony captured on celluloid—and, like the relics, icons, and practice of the Lord’s Supper in the Catholic Church, Scorsese often takes great pains to transform the symbolic into the literal or physical.
Like the ever-suffering savior in the Catholic crucifix, Scorsese’s films live in a constant state of figurative and literal crucifixion. In Boxcar Bertha, for instance—a follow-up to Who’s That Knocking at My Door—one character is nailed to a railroad car shortly before it creeps away into the distance. After Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello is shot in The Departed, he lies with his arms outstretched in the position of the Christ. Whether it’s an indirect reference to the stigmata (the climactic scene in Taxi Driver) or violence that seems to gravitate around places of worship (Gangs of New York), Scorsese’s bloody acts of violence often substitute for stations of the cross.
In other words, in contrast to gnosticism, a belief that elevates the spiritual over the fleshly, Scorsese understands that what happens to the body matters. For Scorsese, the cross is not only a sign of redemption, but also of bloody reckoning. It is either the cross of sacrifice for his Christ figures (or, in the case of The Last Temptation of Christ, the actual Jesus) or the sign of punishment for those who dare to live as their own gods.
Scorsese’s Catholic background also makes sense of the other mainstay in his films: vivid, often lurid portrayals of sex that question the nature of physical intimacy. In Who’s That Knocking at My Door, J.R.’s reluctance to sleep with his girlfriend is signaled by the camera’s periodic pan to a statue of the Virgin Mary as the couple inches to coitus. The story flips, however, when J.R. finds out “girl” (as she’s labeled in the credits) was raped by a male friend. Rather than offer support, J.R. leaves her when he hears the news.
J.R.’s story ends in ambiguity, but the reasons behind his tangled understanding of sex are best answered in the 1980 boxing masterpiece, Raging Bull. The film’s main character, Jake LaMotta, initially sees his lover Vickie as a Mary of sorts (the Virgin’s picture even hangs on the wall as Vickie presents herself to LaMotta early in their relationship). Later, surprisingly, LaMotta can’t stand to be intimate with her. Freud calls this the “Madonna-whore complex”—the tendency for some men to divide women into exclusive categories of either virtue or sexual deviance. The characters in Scorsese’s films may not use the neurologist’s vocabulary, but above their beds floats a Catholic guilt that’s knotted up in the ideas of physical purity and sexual transgression. It’s no wonder, then, that sex—so frequently connected to original sin in Scorsese’s films—often accompanies the demise of his characters.
For Scorsese, these issues of violence and human sexuality are best explored through a Christianity that is inexplicably linked to the physical world. In that sense, Catholicism is his window to understanding the human psyche. Asked by Antonio Monda about the reasons behind his move toward religion, Scorsese’s answer is telling: “Apart from the iconography, which is so powerful and evocative, the dramaturgical aspect of Mass and the religious services.” He adds, “I felt something more profound, beginning with the idea of suffering and redemption, which obsessed me, and which I saw in both the intimacy and the externality of Catholicism.”
Suffering and redemption may obsess Scorsese, but it’s his characters who are put through the blender to find out what these ideas really mean. LaMotta of Raging Bull (played by longtime collaborator Robert De Niro), for instance, is a wild beast of a man who treats his family with the same sort of violence that he treats his boxing opponents. But even as the prize fighter finds success in the sport, it’s not before he allows his body to be broken. Seeking new levels of brutal realism, cinematographer Michael Chapman captures every ounce of blood and spittle shooting from LaMotta’s face during his matches. Although his fierce knockouts bring with them a sense of conquering masculinity, LaMotta relishes the blows he receives in the ring, seeing them as penance for his past sins.
Meanwhile, Charlie, the main character of the 1973 Mean Streets, contemplates divine judgement by moving his hand in and out of flames (even more so after getting into a fight or visiting a strip club). As Charlie stands in church at the beginning of the film, a voiceover says, “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home.” Charlie understands the vastness of spiritual pain, and so he contemplates how to physically compensate for his transgressions—even if he enjoys living like a hooligan with his buddies.
Even in The Age of Innocence, Scorsese’s often-forgotten but potent 18th century romance, it’s Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) who’s made to pay for the “transgression” of being humiliated by her husband. Scorsese describes her as “a woman on whom a world of Pharisees has placed a crown of thorns”—or, in the words of Robert Lauder, “Victorian society is crucifying her.”
All this violence—this scramble for atonement—reveals a theological bent in Scorsese’s work that settles into a layer of doubt and carnality. “There’s too much Good Friday, not enough Easter Sunday in your films,” the director’s parish priest once stated. After all of Scorsese’s years as cinema’s gangster priest, this summary still rings true. As displayed by LaMotta’s confession at the end Raging Bull, Scorsese’s version of redemption comes less through resurrection than from the affirmation of physical humanity. “I’m not an animal,” LaMotta cries after he slams his head into his cell wall at the film’s climax. “I’m not that bad.”Scorsese’s version of redemption comes less through resurrection than from the affirmation of physical humanity.
“If you’re lucky, there’s some grace,” says Scorsese when describing this famous scene. “Whether you make that change yourself, or whether you believe in a supreme being, that’s up to you. A lot of it has to do with how you treat yourself.”
While the Catholic Eucharist reminds one of both the physical weight of sin and the importance of taking up one’s cross, however, Scorsese’s films also explore the fallout that comes from taking on the very flesh and blood of the Almighty. Perhaps this is what makes Scorsese’s work unique within the framework of religious filmmaking: many of his “Christ figures” aren’t really Christ figures at all. Rather, they’re knotted and twisted versions of the Catholic Jesus, bent on building their own kingdoms instead of heaven’s.
In Taxi Driver, for example, Travis Bickle, a depressed Vietnam veteran turned cabbie, calls himself, “God’s lonely man.” From his fare, Bickle observes the crime-infested depravity of seventies New York City with a succulent self-righteousness. He sees the city’s inhabitants as something like lost sheep, eventually descending into a violent vigilantism. When Bickle saves a teenage prostitute (Jodi Foster) from her pimp, he goes from seeing himself as “God’s lonely man” to seeing himself as God himself—a personal dispenser of vengeance and justice.
Similarly, in the non-stop, three-hour sludge-trudge of drugs, sex, and finance malpractice The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese tells the story of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his reign as lord of New York’s financial district. As he parades about his office, Belfort spreads his arms wide as a gesture to his employees—yet there is no cross here, only power and luxury. Unlike most of Scorsese’s self-proclaimed deities, however, Belfort emerges from prison after being arrested with nearly the same amount of prestige and wealth as before. Here, Scorsese has traded guns for dollar bills, with The Wolf of Wall Street functioning as a stifling critique of contemporary society’s celebrity, demi-god worshipping culture.
Ironically, when Scorsese does get around to filming God explicitly in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, his previous portrayals of power and authority flip on their head. Rather than desiring to ascend to divinity, Jesus of Nazareth longs to live a normal life. (It’s no surprise here that Scorsese, always interested in physicality, would tip the God/Man union of the Incarnation toward Jesus’ humanity). As Jesus hangs on the cross, he’s allowed to see what his life would look like if he were a normal, married man—and even if historic Christianity will find Scorsese’s take heretical, Last Temptation offers a window into Scorsese’s understanding of pure spirituality and the modes of human pride. For the first time in Scorsese’s career, we actually see one of his characters fully embrace God’s will—no pretenses, no false humility. “It is accomplished,” Christ says from the cross, just as his image gives way to a cut of film stock. Not only has Jesus given up his fleshly, sexual desires, but he has willingly given up his life.
One can also see the themes of self-sacrifice in the director’s other messiah project, Kundun. Following the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, Kundun just might be the most Christian Buddhist movie ever produced. Throughout the narrative, Scorsese portrays the Dalai Lama is a living, breathing incarnation of the Sermon on the Mount. The film works as both an idealized painting—“like one of the popularized lives of the saints that Scorsese must have studied as a boy in Catholic grade school,” writes Roger Ebert—and an illustration of the idea that one can only achieve exaltation if they first surrender to meekness.
In fact, Scorsese’s most redemptive film illustrates this call to humility in the face of suffering. Whereas most of his characters collapse under their own empires, the protagonist in 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead transcends the Scorsese-ian stereotype. Nicolas Cages’ Frank Pierce works as an ambulance paramedic, combing the New York nighttime streets caring for bleeding souls. Scorsese illuminates Pierce in an almost angelic light—even as he is driven nearly insane by the lives he didn’t save. Pierce’s restoration, conversely, only comes at the end of the film, when he takes a patient off of life support (after he’s been resuscitated over a dozen times). Throughout the film, Pierce’s struck up a relationship with the deceased man’s daughter, and pulling the plug could possibly harm this blossoming romance. Despite the potential fallout, Pierce decides to lay down his desire to control life and death anyway, and instead becomes God’s suffering man.
While Bringing Out the Dead is one of the few redemptive endings in Scorsese’s career, however, it’s also one of the least representative of his oeuvre. Most of the time, the demise of Scorsese’s characters come from their desire to clothe themselves in the Creator’s mantle. Whether their figurative garden of Eden is a casino, mob-ruled New York, or a mansion built for only the most powerful, his protagonists have the propensity to believe the serpent’s original lie: “You will be like God.”Most of the time, the demise of Scorsese’s characters come from their desire to clothe themselves in the Creator’s mantle.
With Silence making a limited theatrical release this week (followed by a larger rollout in January), Scorsese stands at what could be a twilight hinge in his career. There’s no arguing that the director has shifted focus in the last decade or so, with his more psychological stories making way for characters battling external pressures. Part of this transformation may be maturity, and part of it may be that the “method” acting approach of Leonardo DiCaprio (who’s played the lead in 5 of 7 Scorsese’s last films) offers a contrasting angle to the the more inward De Niro.
Silence, however, feels like it might prove to be the perfect bridge between both of these halves in Scorsese’s filmography. Endō’s work certainly possesses the “man vs. himself” storyline that dominated Scorsese decades ago—as well as the “man vs. the world” milieu embodied by Di Caprio—but like the Patron’s best work, it’s also a story of man vs. God, of the Eucharist being broken for many.
Even after all these years, the Almighty’s knuckles are pounding against the door. And Silence may be the project where Marty finally swings it open to let Him inside.
This is a fantastic article about one of the great directors. It is interesting that he is making a film about religion. It has been a long time since he has done that. Thanks for sharing this.
He is a great film maker, but the last temptation of Christ was a little strange to watch.
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