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The many temptations of Martin Scorsese

The director’s newest film, Silence, which follows two Jesuit priests in 17-th century Japan, may seem like a departure from his previous projects, but Scorsese has delved into divine throughout his career

Martin Scorsese and Andrew Garfield on the set of Silence.

At first glance, Silence may seem an odd project for Martin Scorsese. Chronicling a brutal test of faith for two Jesuit priests in 17th-century Japan, the lengthy, complex and intense film might throw off moviegoers who more readily associate Scorsese’s name with his propulsive bad-behaviour tales, such as Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street and The Departed. But it doesn’t take much scratching beneath the surface of the director’s filmography to reveal an artist obsessed with matters of the divine. Here, a brief survey of Scorsese’s faith-centric cinema.


Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967)

Scorsese’s feature debut is still regarded as something of a first draft – all big, obvious declarations and little follow-through. But there are some profound pleasures to be found between the cracks, particularly the central theme of Catholic guilt, which pushes the film’s sort-of hero J.R. (Harvey Keitel) to truly uncomfortable places. It all reaches a captivating (although, again, obvious) conclusion as J.R. wearily heads into a church seeking salvation, and finding nothing of the sort.


Mean Streets (1973)

Scorsese and Keitel team up again, with more electric results. An engrossing examination of the boundaries of morality, the crime drama focuses on Charlie (Keitel), a young hood torn between religion and the streets, and his fraught relationship with the reckless Johnny Boy (future Scorsese acolyte Robert De Niro). A loose reading could frame De Niro’s mad saint as a sort of Christ figure to Charlie’s pained Judas, and Scorsese’s camera is constantly wringing Catholic imagery from the corners.


Taxi Driver (1976)

From the image of De Niro’s Travis Bickle hammering cross-like indents into his bullet tips to the many stigmata-like hand injuries suffered by those who cross the antihero, Scorsese’s iconic portrait of New York City decay is rife with Christian imagery. In Bickle’s mind, he’s an avenging saint. In Scorsese’s, Bickle is a representation of the delusion that can so dangerously infect zealots. To the audience, the young cabbie is both the light and the dark, depending on your reading of the epilogue.


Raging Bull (1980)

As the rough and rude boxer Jake LaMotta, De Niro gives a profane and brilliant performance of a man perpetually at the gates of redemption. It doesn’t take a scholar to note the many references to LaMotta as a Christ-like martyr, from the blood he spills in the ring to the unsettling home he shares with wife Vickie, where the two are at one point framed by two portraits: Jesus on one side, the Virgin Mary on the other.


The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

The most obvious selection, to be sure, but also one of Scorsese’s most profound examinations of not only faith, but human nature. Decried as blasphemous at the time of its release, Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel deserves to be appraised, hailed, and reassessed for decades to come.


Cape Fear (1991)

Scorsese’s remake of J. Lee Thompson’s classic thriller is, like the director’s Shutter Island, an immensely entertaining genre exercise. But it’s also a movie whose vengeance-seeking villain (De Niro, naturally) has a body inked with a parish’s worth of Biblical verses. Oh, and Nick Nolte’s lawyer hero at one point suffers what looks to be a case of stigmata. So, it’s all a bit blunt – but you cannot deny Scorsese’s desire to have a bit of fun now and then.


Kundun (1997)

The second-most obvious selection, after The Last Temptation, this biopic of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, can be employed as an easy Scorsese punchline (see The Sopranos, where meathead Christopher loudly proclaims, “Marty! Kundun, I liked it!” in a last-ditch effort to catch the director’s attention). But it’s also a legitimately affecting look at the immeasurable responsiblities that come when you’re an ambassador of belief.


Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Not only does this underrated drama feature the last great Nicolas Cage performance (I’m aware he’s still alive, but c’mon), it’s also a wildly intense treatise on the pains of being a true believer. As a paramedic trying to survive three turbulent night shifts in Hell’s Kitchen (wink, wink), Cage acts as a modern-day Job. Or maybe that’s Lazarus, as he comes back from the brink more than once. His ultimate reward after enduring streets of blood? A brief respite with the woman (Patricia Arquette) whose father he just euthanized, as they are both bathed in brilliant white light.


Gangs of New York (2002)

Arguably the director’s least-impactful entry in the gangster canon, this Oscar bait still makes for a curious rewatch, especially when you consider how nearly every scene (consciously or not) revolves around Catholicism: who is, who isn’t, and why that ultimately matters in Lower Manhattan’s brutal Five Points district, circa 1846.


The Departed (2006)

Partly a remake of Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs and partly a retelling of the James (Whitey) Bulger story, Scorsese’s cops-and-robbers drama is the one that finally netted him a Best Picture Oscar. And although its pleasures are vast and varied – Alec Baldwin’s sweat stains! Everything out of Mark Wahlberg’s mouth! – the film’s real treat is how Scorsese positions Jack Nicholson’s gangster Frank Costello as the literal Devil. Take this excerpt from Costello’s opening narration, a sort of anti-sermon meant to seduce a young neighbourhood boy into becoming his apostate: “The Church wants you in your place: stand, kneel, kneel, stand. Man makes his own way. No one gives it to you, you have to take it. Non serviam.” Or Latin for “I will not serve,” a favourite phrase of Lucifer.


Shutter Island (2010)

Just behind The Departed as Scorsese’s biggest box-office hit, this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel is a slick, crowd-pleasing thrill-ride – although not above dissecting the director’s favourite topic. Consider the way Leonardo DiCaprio’s detective makes his way through the bowels of the titular asylum, encountering more and more cells full of deranged prisoners left to rot – it recalls some mad vision of Hell straight out of Hieronymus Bosch. Or look at the twist ending, which plays with divine themes of revenge and forgiveness, sin and absolution.

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