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.