Tag Archives: Scorsese

The Theological Vision of Martin Scorsese

My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.”  – Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is an auteur.  In saying this, I am saying a very specific thing.

Auteur theory posits that the director of a film has such personal and artistic influence over a movie’s production that the filmmaker is regarded as the very “author” of the film (auteur is French for “author”).  This theory of the medium has its controversies.  Filmmaking is, after all, a collective enterprise that brings together a series of talented persons given to specific abilities that, as individuals, could never fully realize a film.  Actors, screenplay writers, producers, directors of photography, set designers, and other industry talents pool their resources in order to bring forth what turns out to be a tremendous creative (and sometimes even artistic) enterprise.  This very democratic, dialogical, and collaborative process of production lends to the surprise that any film has a semblance of coherence.   Contrary to this reality, the auteur theory gives a tremendous amount of value to one of these participating parties over all others.

When I state that Scorsese is an auteur, I am tipping my own theories of film aesthetics in the direction of this interpretive method.  In this, I am acknowledging my bias that the director’s perspective and abilities not only guide the activities of a film’s participating parties, but also determine the meaning of the outcome.  However, in regard to applying the term to this seasoned American director, I am attempting to indicate that specific biographical elements within his life do much to “write” the productions in which he participates.

Specifically, I am arguing that Scorsese’s youthful intention for the priesthood has dominated his interests and has done much to determine the projects that he engages and the images he presents.  One could argue, of course, that his movies are mostly rooted in the social codes of his own Italian-American heritage and, more specifically, that community’s manifestations in New York City.  This is clearly something to consider when seeing any specific film.  However, I would immediately argue that Catholicism and the priesthood, which are fundamental contributors to the Italian social codes, are more interesting and even more significant factors to consider when watching and interpreting his aesthetic practice.

At 14, Scorsese began consciously studying theology at Cathedral College.  As he matured within this highly coded religious world, however, he realized that his emerging sexual attraction to women and interest in popular culture precluded his departure from a form of study that centered on celibacy, holiness, and seclusion.  This eventually determined his decision to study film at New York University.

In his biography of this honored filmmaker, Vincent LoBrutto noted that Scorsese’s theological education centered on the most sacred component of Catholic life – the human soul.  Nuns taught him that this component of philosophical anthropology was the battleground for a war between God and the devil.  This battle took place, they taught him, with salvation or damnation and an eternal afterlife in heaven or hell hanging in the balance.  This philosophical theme from his spiritual past has saturated the narratives of his films.  The stories they tell are often populated by tormented figures torn between the corrupting social values that surround them and religious or moral codes that suggest a more transcendent and demanding perspective.  His films often juxtapose the highest orders of religion or moral goodness over and above the lower orders suggested in a life determined the values of the streets, government and human law.

David Roark acknowledges this when he points out that Scorsese’s first feature film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1968), explored morality through an Italian-American man’s confusion amid religious convictions and a liberating sexual experience.  Roark also acknowledges this theme is present in Mean Streets when he notes that it tale follows a gangster caught in the middle of two lives: one dominated by an obligation to work for a criminal uncle and one commitment to a form of Catholicism through which he can love his friends and family.  I would point out that this conflict is also obviously on tap in Scorsese’s interpretation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ.  This film, which is essentially a theological exploration of Christology, attaches this exploration of moral struggle to the most central figure of the director’s theological sensibility.   This quest for redemption and the presence of moral conflict also penetrates films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellows, Cape Fear, and The Aviator.

Though I would argue that there is an aesthetic which emerged from the theology of the soul that was handed down to Scorsese by the nuns which nurtured his burgeoning spiritual interest, I would also argue that there is even more nuance to his aesthetic.

In his biography, LoBrutto suggests that Scorsese’s authentic and genuine religious devotion was driven by his gravitation toward the aesthetics of pageantry, ritual, ceremony, and theatricality.   Amidst his theological training, LoButto points out, Scorsese became obsessed with the expression of these elements within the specific liturgy of Holy Week.  His obsessive focus on a liturgical practice that, inevitably, climaxed on the violent actions of the Passion of Christ focused both Scorsese’s theological and aesthetic attention.

Arturo Serrano, in his essay The Spectacle of Redemption: Guilt and Violence in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, provides some illumination when he states, “For a Catholic, the redemptive nature of violence is not only an obvious and daily experience, but above all a visual one.  Depictions of the Crucifixion are bloody spectacles to be witnessed by the masses and play an important role in teaching the pain Jesus endured for their sake.”  Regarding the relation of this Catholic aesthetic to film, Serrano states that cinema’s  “inherent visuality actually connects it to the longer tradition in Catholicism toward visual representations.  Historically speaking, for Catholics the crucifixion in particular and redemptive violence more generally is, above all, a visual event.”

Being raised and educated in a context where every day you are exposed (in your house, at school, in the church) to crucifixion imagary, it is unsurprising that a Catholic thinks of redemption visually. This general fact about Catholic “visuality,” combined with Scorsese’s attraction to the specific visuality of the Catholic liturgy’s theatrical aesthetic of pageantry, ritual, and ceremony, explains his essential attraction to film.  However, his specific focus on, and obsession with, the liturgy of Holy Week does much to illuminate the close relation between the themes of violence and redemption in his films.

The Catholic aesthetic of visual redemption, the whole Catholic salvation narrative, and the specific aspect of the Passion of Christ fuses the aspects of imagery, violence, redemption, and sinfulness into an aesthetic milieu.  I am positing here that this aesthetic milieu is intrinsic to Martin Scorsese’s artistic vision and is, ultimately, the primary authority in his filmography.

When Scorsese says, “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else,” I think this mileau is what he is referring to.  I would suggest that any reasoned study of his work demands that we keep this milieu in mind.


The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s latest offering has energy almost to the point of being frenetic and exposes the humor in the absurdity of being wantonly self-indulgent. The Wolf of Wall Street is a surprising expression of artistic enthusiasm coming from a seasoned director who has a greater amount of his career behind him then ahead of him.

The film is outrageously virile and, if you did not know better, you would assume it was the product of a younger, enthusiastic, upstart director. It is visceral and vulgar, full of vibrato and chest beating (literally). It is, definitively, a manifestation of the type of masculinity embodied in a young man who has not been tempered by the type of self-reflection that fosters social responsibility.

Leonardo DiCaprio, a five-time collaborator with the New York-based director, presents the most captivating and unconstrained performance of his career. His presentation is so given to the characterization of Jordan Belfort, a New York broker, that you can only imagine it to be an expression of his trust in the director’s ability save him from the extremities of his own performance. There are scenes in which DiCaprio’s acting is so unrestrained that he moves his characterization from passion, through realm of fanaticism, into the territory of insanity. In particular, scenes in which DiCaprio performs Belfort’s inspirational speeches to the unfortunate brokers who have fallen under the spell of his tutelage are so given to zealotry that you are stunned at the actor’s bravery of performance.

The film is decadent. It is filled with highly-sexualized imagery and situations that are, almost entirely, sourced in the moral-numbing effects of substance abuse. The narrative voiceover of Jordan Belfort gives the film an air of unembarrassed advocacy for the cynicism of decadence and makes the story it tells an apologetic argument for the self-assured optimistic belief that this is the only kind of meaning and value that can be found in a material age.

The subject at hand is a familiar subject for the director – the power of money. In the hands of Scorsese, money is a metaphor for the human need for power as a form of meaning in a secular age. Unlike his previous presentations on the subject of money, Scorsese presents it here as almost a religious icon. The film has a spirit of ecstatic pentecostalism related to the subject of commercialist materialism and seems to offer this as an explanation as to why humanity cannot pull itself out of the orbit of avarice. Jordan Belfort’s inspirational speeches read as religious sermons and the responses of his minions comes across as religious fervor. Certainly, throughout this film, Scorsese is associating money with the power and seduction of the false sense of meaning found in sexuality and substance abuse. Everything is, after all, alluring and seductive to those caught in an ethos of moral despair.

This is not really, strictly speaking, a moral tale. The film is not really attempting to be preachy, medicinal or therapeutic on the subject at hand. It presents the views of the protagonist with little to no moral judgment. In the character of Jordan Belfort, vice is a virtue and that is merely a fact. If there is any judgment of that character, it comes strictly from the viewer. In the film, the nature of salesmanship is explored. Fundamentally, it successfully presents all forms of salesmanship as a method that exploits the greedy desires of others as a means of fulfilling or actualizing one’s own greed. In this sense, it makes the process of salesmanship to seem smarmy and this is as close as it gets to present a form of morality.

Scorsese’s unabashed, judgment-free presentation of the protagonist’s views facilitates an extreme to the point of absurdity and, therefore, the film sometimes renders as a comedy. You find yourself laughing at the embarrassing selfishness of the characters activities and situations. However, in my reading of this film, I would take Scorsese to be insinuating that our laughter – a product of our moral disdain for such flagrant self-service – is, potentially, merely a way of clouding our envy of their success.