In the stories of Flannery O’Connor, grace is violent. It overpowers. Baptisms are drownings. It is only with a gun pointed at her that a grandmother can recognise the humanity of her murderer: she would have been “a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
This violence of grace is often represented by human violence, but it isn’t the same as human violence. Grace is beyond human comprehension, and so is impossible to represent literally. Any religious text is filled with metaphors, because metaphors are the only way to communicate about the divine. Using violence to represent grace, art can express how grace strikes: dramatic, overwhelming, painful. It is painful because it is transformative. Like violence, it is destructive, but it destroys only evil.
So much of Christian – and particularly Catholic – art does the same trick: paintings of crucifixions and martyrdom, Christ’s crown of thorns and Saint Sebastian’s bleeding arrow wounds, Graham Greene’s novels, The Exorcist, the directorial efforts of Mel Gibson, the most religious of which are among the most violent films ever made. I’m especially talking about art aimed at secular audiences, not least because it tends to be a lot better. The concerns – both thematic and artistic – of contemporary art specifically made for Christians as a niche audience are limited and boring. In movies like God’s Not Dead 2, faith is rigid and unmoving, conservative and fearful and obsessed with perceived external threats. There’s a world of difference between “Christian” as a genre and as a thematic feature. Singing about faith doesn’t make Brand New, The Mountain Goats or Sufjan Stevens into Christian Rock.
Which brings us to Martin Scorsese.
Scorsese is commonly recognised as one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live, but he is also one of the most distinctively Catholic. Audiences and critics seem to acknowledge this when it’s unavoidable – Mean Streets, The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence – but Catholicism, and religious faith generally, underpin all his films (except, I don’t know, The Color of Money). Scorsese builds very clear moral worlds: the difference between right and wrong might be difficult to parse, but we are obligated as the viewer to parse it, because the difference is always real and vital and important. These moral worlds are infused with a Catholic perspective, although not always the one you might expect.
Stories of Scorsese’s youth have been mythologised: a working-class kid in Little Italy, New York with debilitating asthma, he loved the cinema and he loved the church. “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.” He drew storyboards for his own version of a film about the life of Christ, set right in the heart of Little Italy. He thought about being a priest and a missionary, but was kicked out of his minor seminary. So he went to NYU and became a film director instead.
Traditional-conservative Catholics often pretend that their breed of Catholicism is the only game in town, as if one prescriptive definition could hold over a billion people without bulge or break. That’s not at all to say that Catholicism is without definition, but that it is defined more by any one of transubstantiation, Marian devotion, or an emphasis on good works than by today’s particular (often American, often right-wing) brand of conservatism. Non-Catholics, too, have a flattened view of what Catholicism is and can be: often it is reduced to Catholic guilt, which is certainly real and important to talk about, but collapsing all of Catholic experience into guilt turns Catholicism into something imposed on us as children that we are all doing our best to try and shake off, not something anyone would willing take into adulthood. Scorsese makes films from a mid-twentieth-century, working-class, left-of-centre Catholicism. There is guilt, sure: mountains of it. But there is more than that. In Scorsese’s work, faith is a difficult struggle and redemption is even harder, and when good and evil fight, evil often wins.
His films are full of Catholic imagery, of suffering and searches for redemption. Crucifixes on walls and hanging from necks. Statues of Mary. Raging Bull ends with a Biblical quote: “‘Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know.’ the man replied. ‘All I know is this: once I was blind and now I can see.’” Gangs of New York is about Catholic oppression in the mid-nineteenth century. In GoodFellas, Henry hides the cross around his neck when meeting Karen’s (Jewish) parents. Max Cady in Cape Fear is covered in tattoos of crosses and Biblical verses: “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord.” A film as impersonal as Boxcar Bertha still ends with our (socialist) hero, crucified. Scorsese reveals the sacred and the sacramental within the profane and the material.
Even in a film as seemingly hedonistic as the woefully misunderstood The Wolf of Wall Street, the same moral stakes are set out. The Wolf of Wall Street takes the things society valorises and celebrates above all else – sex, money, pleasure, power – and shows them in such excess as to become grotesque. The Wolf of Wall Street is excessive because it’s about excess, in particular the excesses of financial capitalism, and the viewer leaves furious that the same system of morality that not only allowed Jordan Belfort to do what he did, but celebrated him, also allowed him to get away with it: “I was absolutely terrified, but I needn’t have been. See, for a brief fleeting moment, I’d forgotten I was rich.”
When faith appears directly in Scorsese’s films, it is never the unwavering kind you see in A Man for All Seasons. In a lot of fictional portrayals of faith, to believe is an effortless virtue. Often the only threats to faith are external: Thomas More is persecuted for his beliefs, but he never doubts that he is right. For Scorsese, internal threats to faith are just as pressing as external ones, if not more so. External threats are at their most powerful when they become internal, because the internal is where crises of faith happen. When faith is portrayed as an effortless virtue, not an action, it is easy to hold a person’s faith and the world around them at arm’s length apart. Instead, Scorsese makes films about when faith and the world collide with one another, and the struggle to reconcile them. Because faith is fundamentally a struggle, not something innate and immovable: people – both religious and not – often talk about faith being comforting, and while that’s not wrong, exactly, it’s misleading. For faith to be purely comforting, it would have to be solid and unchallenging. Religious faith can be comforting, but it’s also harrowing. “They think faith is a big electric blanket,” Flannery O’Connor wrote, “when of course it is the cross.” Having religious faith – genuine religious faith – is a constant struggle. If the silence of God is not his absence, it’s silence nonetheless. In Scorsese’s films, as in life, to have faith is to have doubt. Even for Jesus Christ himself.
The Last Temptation of Christ is a beautiful film, and maybe the best film ever made about the life of Jesus. Its release was marred with controversy – it was protested, condemned, and in some territories, banned outright. It was called “a holocaust movie that has the power to destroy souls eternally.” A theatre showing the film in Paris was set on fire. Some backlash was inevitable: Last Temptation is not an orthodox retelling of the Gospel narrative. But it certainly didn’t help that, by 1988, the religious right had come into the full strength of its powers.
Many of those who condemned the film never saw it, and it shows. Scorsese called making the film an “act of faith,” and that shows, too. Though it is frequently funny, it is very much a serious and devout film wrangling with the mysteries at the heart of Christianity: most particularly, what it means for Jesus to be both fully human and fully divine. It is not an adaptation of the Gospels, but it is deeply rooted in the Gospels – not just what they say, but what they mean. When you’ve heard a story hundreds or thousands of times since you were a small child, it can take a new point of view to remind you why it’s the greatest story ever told. I really like The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Pasolini’s film which exclusively uses dialogue from Matthew’s Gospel, but it didn’t get me in the gut the way that Last Temptation does.
There are films on the life of Jesus that have nothing in particular to say (The Gospel According to St. Matthew isn’t one them). They dramatise the events, sure, but little else. Jesus remains a cipher: he recites familiar words, and performs all the miracles, and there’s nothing revelatory about it. Not because there is anything insufficient in the words and the miracles, but because the film has nothing to say, and so renders the words and the miracles empty. Last Temptation bursts with things to say: it is passionately anti-imperialist, advocates non-violent resistance and believes unabstractly in the power of redemption over sin and death. “Killing or loving, it’s all the same. It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things,” Pontius Pilate tells Jesus, “We don’t want them changed.”
In Last Temptation, Jesus, played by Willem Dafoe, faces fear, doubt and depression. He struggles to figure out the right thing to do. But he wins out over his fear, and his faith is stronger than his doubt, and he always does what is right. He is fully human, flesh and blood, as well as fully divine. He is “tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.” (Heb 4:15) This Jesus is tormented by the enormity of his destiny. But he enters willingly into it. He asks Judas to betray him.
Harvey Keitel’s portrayal of Judas is beautiful. In too many Biblical films, Judas is a cartoon character, a demon, an antisemitic caricature. To humanise Judas is taboo: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ bends over backwards to defend and absolve Pilate, the man who literally put Jesus to death, but Judas rarely gets the same favour. To describe Last Temptation’s Judas as “sympathetic” seems insufficient, but it’s a necessary qualifier. He is a Jewish nationalist, but following Jesus redefines the terms of his nationalism. In one of my favourite moments in a film full of them, another nationalist says about Jesus and his followers, “I don’t see a thing against Rome around here, all I see are Jews against Jews.” Judas responds, “Then you’re not listening.” This Judas betrays Jesus because he asks him to, because he knows he must die by crucifixion. He has to be resurrected so that he can save the world.
In the temptation of the title, Jesus imagines climbing down off the cross and living out the rest of his life as an ordinary mortal man. It’s a vision of his life, had this cup passed from him. (It is in this sequence that he infamously marries and has sex with Mary Magdalene.) But when he realises that this vision comes from Satan, he begs God to allow him to fulfil his purpose and to be his son. He returns to the cross, nails in his hands and feet and a crown of thorns on his head, and, smiling, he dies, exultant. His last temptation – and his rejection of it – fill the gap between “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “It is accomplished.” It makes his death – a violent, bloody death for criminals, surrounded by people who hate him – into something triumphant. Bright colours flicker like running out of film. We don’t see the rest of the story, but we all know it, and the Jesus of Last Temptation dies knowing it too: that humanity is saved, absolved of its sins by one without sin.
It’s strange that naysayers saw Scorsese as a blaspheming atheist, because he set out his ideas about religion with remarkable clarity over a decade earlier. Mean Streets wasn’t his first film, but it’s the first one that feels fully formed. After making Boxcar Bertha, an exploitation picture that isn’t fun enough to be a proper B-movie and isn’t good enough to be anything else, John Cassavetes told Scorsese, “You’ve just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit.” So next, he made something more personal: a film about a young Italian-American man in New York, wrestling with his faith, his friends and his future in the mafia.
Mean Streets opens with a black screen and a voiceover.
“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”
Cue the Ronettes.
A lot of movie gangsters are Catholic in a technical sense. The baptism scene in The Godfather is intercut with shots of the murders that Michael has ordered: when he renounces Satan and all his works, it doesn’t quite mean nothing to him, but it certainly doesn’t reflect the life he has chosen to lead. But in Mean Streets, Charlie (Harvey Keitel, again) believes. For him, adulthood doesn’t mean losing his faith, but growing with it. He goes to confession every week. We see him hold his hand above flames, imagining eternal damnation (“The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. You don’t fuck around with the infinite.”) Saint Francis of Assisi is on the list of things he likes, before chicken with lemon and garlic but after spaghetti and clam sauce.
Charlie is a sinner. He sins and sins and sins. He works for the mafia, collecting money on his uncle’s behalf. The bar he hangs out at is lit all in red, like the fires of Hell. He has extramarital sex, which may or may not be sinful in your opinion, but certainly is in Charlie’s. (Charlie’s opinion is not necessarily very solid, because he also thinks that being attracted to a black woman is more sinful than being attracted to a white woman.) He believes in Christ and in the Church, but he’s not strong enough to fight temptation, not all the time. He is constantly struggling. But a saint is a sinner who keeps trying.
At the start of the film, Charlie asks to be able to choose his own penance. Instead of “ten Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers, ten whatever,” he wants to pay for his wrongs his own way. The penance he chooses is played by Robert De Niro.
De Niro plays Johnny Boy manic. He’s careless and self-destructive. The first time we see him, he blows up a post box. We never know why, likely because there is no why. Johnny Boy is selfish and cruel, but there’s an openness to him that distinguishes him from the many, many horrible men Robert De Niro has played. “I’m so stupid you gotta look out for me, right?” he says to Charlie, and he’s being mean, but that doesn’t make it untrue. He sits on the rooftop, shooting bullets off at the Empire State Building, and your response isn’t to recoil in fear – it’s to worry.
Johnny Boy borrows money all over town. He spends recklessly and never repays his debts. Eventually Michael, the kindliest loan shark in all of movies, is pushed to his limit and demands repayment. Charlie tries to help: he tries to get Johnny to take the debt seriously, admonishes him for spending money or skipping out on work, and talks to Michael on his behalf. What he doesn’t do is call his uncle.
Charlie’s girlfriend, Johnny’s cousin Teresa, tells Charlie you need to help yourself before you help anyone else. “Bullshit, Teresa!” he says, “That’s where you’re all wrong. Francis of Assisi had it all down.” (She laughs at him.) Charlie says that helping yourself first is bullshit, and he believes it, but that’s without any real sacrifice staring him in the face.
When all his negotiations with Michael haven’t resolved Johnny’s debt, Johnny tells him he could call his uncle, a powerful made man. “That’d be just really great for you, wouldn’t it, huh? But not for me,” Charlie says. His uncle had forbidden Charlie from spending time with Johnny – “honourable men go with honourable men” – and to reveal his disobedience would mean that he wouldn’t get to run the restaurant he’d been promised. Charlie loves Johnny, enough to disobey his uncle even though he broke up with Teresa when given the same warning, enough to fight for him when creditors come calling with their guns, enough to give him money to pay Michael, but not enough to make a call that will hurt him, but fix everything for Johnny. John 15:13 reads, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Charlie doesn’t have love great enough to lay down his possibility of taking over a restaurant.
This makes Johnny more destructive than ever, and he lashes out against Charlie. He beats up a random person on the street when he’s supposed to meet his loan shark. He says cruel things about Charlie and Teresa’s sex life and he spends on drinks the money Charlie gave him to pay towards his loan. He seems impossibly cruel, because Charlie is trying so hard to be kind and helpful. But he isn’t trying hard enough, and this is his penance. Even after Johnny insults Michael and pulls a gun on him, and Charlie and Johnny have to flee Manhattan, Charlie says he won’t call his uncle.
“I’m trying, Lord, I’m trying,” he prays. (Teresa laughs at him and Johnny asks if he’s talking to himself.)
The film ends with Michael’s henchman shooting at the car with Charlie, Johnny and Teresa inside. Blood spurts out Johnny’s neck; windows break; everyone is screaming. The car crashes.
Charlie stumbles out, blood on his hands and around his head, like stigmata. Nails and thorns. He kneels – he doesn’t sit or lie down or try to stand, he kneels, just like he did when we were formally introduced in the Cathedral – with a stunned look on his face. He chose his penance. And here, on the street, covered in blood, he has finally received the necessary grace.
Grace is not distributed based on merit, but on need. There’s a Flannery O’Connor story where a grandfather denies his grandson, and when his grandson forgives him, she writes that the grandfather “had never known before what mercy felt like because he had been too good to deserve any, but he felt he knew now.” To tell a story about redemption, you need to tell the story of a sinner. In Casino, Sam (De Niro) is cleansed of his sins by fire. In Shutter Island, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character chooses to die as a good man. Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta is, among other things, a sexual predator and a domestic abuser, but his reconciliation with his brother, reciting the “I coulda been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront (another movie about Catholics and crime and atoning for your sins) and the quotation from John’s Gospel imply that redemption is, at the very least, possible. But if Scorsese has made one film about redemption – about what it means to need grace and what it means to accept it – it’s Bringing Out the Dead.
Bringing Out the Dead is an all too forgotten film, probably not helped by internet culture’s war on the idea that Nicolas Cage has ever been in anything good. It follows a deeply troubled paramedic in a horrific New York, working the nightshift on an ambulance. On paper, especially since it was also written by Paul Schrader, it sounds like a retread of Taxi Driver. In that film, Travis Bickle drove around New York in search of redemption, but appointing himself as God’s avenging angel isn’t the same as receiving God’s grace. Bringing Out the Dead is almost Taxi Driver’s opposite: it’s surprisingly sweet, and a very different kind of sad, a film made by an older man, directly following Kundun, his Dalai Lama biopic, maybe his only film where a character’s faith never truly wavers.
Frank (Cage) wants to save lives. But the way he talks about it is hungry and unpleasant. “The best drug in the world… God has passed through you. Why deny it, that for a moment there – why deny that for a moment there, God was you?” He wants to save lives for the thrill of it. To be God.
Frank also wants to die. He hasn’t saved anyone in months. He drinks too much and he drinks at work. He begs his boss to fire him. He’s desperate and sad and even though he talks about being God, most of the time he feels worse than powerless. His heart isn’t toughened to the trials of his job, and that makes him good at it, but it is unspeakably hard and it is never-ending. “After a while, I grew to understand that my role was less about saving lives than about bearing witness,” he says – but he hasn’t grown to understand that, not yet. The film follows Frank over three days – three days descended into Hell, like Christ – as he tries to save lives. He’s haunted by the ghost of Rose, a girl whose life he failed to save. He seems, at times, to be losing his mind.
He befriends the daughter of one of his patients, Mary (Patricia Arquette). She’s a recovering drug addict, and she’s kind and good. She tells Frank that he looks like a priest. He’s lit in bright, white light, like a halo around him. Frank wants Mary’s father to survive – to have saved someone – but his heart gives out, over and over again. He is resuscitated seventeen times. Frank hears his voice, asking to be allowed to die. Frank ignores it.
At the end of the film, after Frank has saved a life and endangered another, after he has looked his impulse for destruction in the eye and not only backed away in horror but decided to help instead, Frank goes to visit Mary’s father. He hears his voice again. He removes the pads that read his vital signs and sticks them to his own chest. He removes his breathing tube and puts it in his own mouth. He sits with Mary’s father, letting him die. When he goes to tell Mary that her father has passed away, he sees one last vision of Rose, telling him in Mary’s voice, “It’s not your fault. No-one asked you to suffer. That was your idea.”
Frank and Mary sit on her bed, her holding him in her arms, and they are bathed in bright, white light. A saint is a sinner who keeps trying, and Bringing Out the Dead is the story of Frank continuing to try. He will continue to do work that sometimes feels like it’s destroying him, work that is never done, because he is doing good and he is good at it. He is not God; he does not have the power to stop death, only delay it. He will bear witness. His cross may feel too heavy for him to carry, but that means he must accept the mercy that lightens it.
Martin Scorsese is at his best at his most personal. That’s why his worst film is The Color of Money, a completely anonymous 1980s sports movie that is for some reason a sequel to The Hustler, because there’s nothing of him in it outside of the very beginning when a voiceover explains the rules of nine-ball pool. (Paul Newman should have gotten his Oscar for just about anything else.) Scorsese is at his best at his most personal, and his most personal films – achingly, alienatingly so – are religious, in all the messy complications that entails.
“The church—the institution of the church, the sacraments—this all can be very helpful. But ultimately it has to be yourself, and you have to find it,” Scorsese said, talking about Silence, a film he spent almost thirty years wanting to make. “You have to find that faith, or you have to find a relationship with Jesus with yourself really, because ultimately that’s the one you face.”
Scorsese’s films emphasise the importance of sacrament, but ultimately they’re about a faith that exists beyond and outside of the confines of the Church. When portrayals of faith are so restrictive in art, it is easy to think that there is only one way to be Catholic, or Christian, or a person of faith of any kind. In Silence, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) apostatises, a mortal sin, in order to save the lives of a group of Japanese Christians. If they threatened to kill him if he didn’t renounce the faith, that would be easy – but he can’t let other people die for him. For Rodrigues, apostasy becomes an act of faith in itself. He damns his own soul to save the lives of others. Thirty years after Last Temptation was condemned, Silence premiered at the Vatican. Scorsese’s career has been an unceasing argument that faith is not something you can fence into rigid confines. It’s something difficult and alive, inseparable pain and joy. Maybe they’re starting to believe him.