Sick with asthma for much of his childhood, Martin Scorsese divided his time between two different, yet equally formative houses of worship – the Catholic Church and the cinema. As he explains it, “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.”
The young Scorsese once imagined himself as an ordinary parish priest. He loved both the spectacle of Biblical epics and the pageantry of Catholic mass, and after a stint as an altar boy he entered a junior seminary when he was fourteen. But the lure of girls, Elvis Presley, and irreligious movies proved strong. Scorsese ultimately chose to devote his life to the cinema over the Church, yet his films, from Mean Streets (1973) to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), have always fused some element of the sacred with the profane, evidence of his own lifelong reckoning with the spiritual element of the human condition.
Over 50 years, Scorsese, the auteur, has crafted a formidable body of work around the mysteries of sin, guilt, and redemption, repeatedly demonstrating his faith in the visceral power of cinema to wrestle with complex moral and religious questions. With his latest film, Silence, he presents an inquiry into the essence of what Christianity and faith are. Based on the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō, Silence tells the story of two 17th-century Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who travel from Portugal to Japan to locate their mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), whom it has been reported has renounced his faith after being tortured. Rodrigues and Garupe’s faith is tested in the face of God’s silence to their suffering.
Silence very much continues Scorsese’s exploration of spirituality and faith, here with more overtly Christian themes. He has been preoccupied with making this film since an Episcopalian Archbishop gave him a copy of Endō’s novel, after a screening of his controversial film, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Nearly 30 years later, Silence has arrived, reminding us that God has never been far from Scorsese’s mind.
Catholic iconography informs Scorsese’s trademark visual style. Interiors feature religious paintings and symbols; candles are plentiful. Even his biography of the Dalai Lama, Kundun (1997), has the richness and reverence of a Renaissance painting.
Crosses abound. Scorsese’s second film, Boxcar Bertha (1972), features the violent crucifixion of union activist, Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine), against the door of a boxcar. The crucifixion of Jesus is obviously central in The Last Temptation of Christ (using the same configuration of shots as those used in Boxcar Bertha), and crosses also play a significant role in Silence. But the crucifixion pose also surfaces in less likely places – in the death of both Happy Jack Mulraney (John C. Reilly) in Gangs of New York (2002), and Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) in The Departed (2006). In Raging Bull (1980), we see Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) assume the pose, his arms outstretched against the boxing ring ropes, which later drip with his blood. And the cross is prominent in Cape Fear (1991), a twisted symbol mapped out all over Max Cady’s (Robert De Niro) back.
The association between redemption and blood is powerful in Taxi Driver (1976). ‘God’s lonely man,’ Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), sees himself as an avenging angel in an obscene world, as he sets out to save teenage prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster), from her pimp. “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” he says, then turns his own body into that punishing rain. It’s a cathartic cleansing – a desire to do good that he misdirects through violence. If blood is a Catholic symbol of atonement, Travis is baptised in it.
There are plenty more temperate examples too. Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein’s (Robert De Niro) Old Testament paradise lost in Casino (1995). In The Aviator, Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) washes Howard Hughes’ (Leonardo Di Caprio) feet, reminiscent of the Christian rite of Maundy, and of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. And the brilliant and often overlooked Bringing Out the Dead (1999), features a restaging of the pietà between Nicolas Cage’s paramedic Frank, and former junkie Mary (Patricia Arquette), a Christian sculptural form that depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus, most famously represented by Michelangelo.
Whether crime dramas, thrillers, romantic period pieces, or religious epics, Scorsese’s films all depict crises of belief and belonging. They are stories populated with characters whose loyalties are tested by personal demons and flaws; like Jake La Motta, who takes the hits in the ring as punishment for his sins outside it, they seek redemption anywhere they can find it.
Rodrigues’ searching plea, “I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?” recalls Charlie’s (Harvey Keitel) repeated action in Mean Streets of placing his fingers in flames. They are both looking for a sign of God’s presence on earth. Rodrigues, like Charlie, Travis, Jake, Frank, mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas (1990), and Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) in The Age of Innocence (1993) all struggle with the conflicting paths available to them. What is the real cost of their sins? How can they atone? They want to do the right thing, but suffer from the uncertainty of not always knowing what that is. And ultimately they all face their choices alone.
Scorsese’s work with his Film Foundation and World Cinema Project, both committed to film preservation, declares him an evangelist for the screen arts, but he has never proselytised to his audience. He’s never assumed moral questions have easy solutions. Like his characters, who mostly find redemption on the streets and not through the repetition of Hail Marys, Scorsese, the lapsed Catholic, has found it making movies. He understands that an individual’s relationship to God is an enigma that might never be resolved. But he’s made a career out of trying to.
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Saturday 19 December, 11:40pm on SBS (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Drama, History
Language: Japanese, English
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Liam Neeson, Issei Ogata