Throughout his decades-long career, Martin Scorsese has basked in the warm glow of blood and the people who would see it spilled. More accurately, Scorsese has built his filmography on the corruption of people and institutions.
Within these walls of flesh and brick, Scorsese has created some of the great monuments in American cinema—defining genres and creating a host of blood-thirsty copycats in his wake. His reputation precedes him as a man fascinated by the milieu of mobsters and the beating hearts of criminals, hustlers, and broken people.
As his latest work—The Irishman—nears release at the end of 2019, it promises viewers another chance to enter his branded quagmire of ethics and violence. However, as Scorsese ages and the film community defines his legacy, it would be a failure to not notice how humanity, faith, and ritual have also defined his career.
Lights Under Baskets
The storied history of the gangster movie doesn’t begin with Scorsese, but the genre will forever bear his seal. Rather than flat anti-heroes, Scorsese often paints his protagonists as troubled men seeking to live principled lives. Robert De Niro’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein—the “hero” of 1995’s Casino—values hard work, honesty, and loyalty, often to his own detriment.
Similarly, Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters in Gangs of New York and The Departed find themselves seeking justice by following the whims of repugnant men. No character in Scorsese’s filmography, though, typifies the duality of seeking light in dark places than Charlie Cappa in Mean Streets. A man fiercely loyal to both his faith and his crime-ridden family, Charlie yearns to find redemption, though he fails to do so in the church.
All of these characters are troubled people who want better lives. When we think of movies that Scorsese has done, we likely think of these kinds of characters and the film they’re in—gangster movies. But he also has a whole repertoire of movies that are devoted to faith in a more up front way.
Lights on Stands
His reliance on faith starts early and is especially noteworthy in Taxi Driver. While Travis Bickle suffers from more than just malaise, it’s not hard to understand his desire for some sort of all-consuming justice. His constant tirades against “filth” and “scum” walk a fine line between prejudice and righteousness. While he doesn’t have much faith in the institutions around him, he does seem to have faith in himself and his desire to make things right. It may lead him to a circular and melancholy end, but there’s a quiet dignity to his persistence in fighting for what he believes.
The pursuit of faith is also evident in moments where Scorsese doesn’t have much of his own. In 2010’s Shutter Island, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels presses forward in his faith in the truth and its ability to set people free. Over the course of the film, this leads him to truths about his past and himself as a person. As he’s forced to confront old memories brought up by new trauma, we see Scorsese’s references to the obstacles that constantly bombard lives of faith. By film’s end, Daniels finds peace in both the known past and the unknown future. The truth has indeed set him free.
Audiences have also recently been exposed to the baldest version of Scorsese’s faith journey—the missionary epic Silence. Not nearly as critically or commercially regarded as Scorsese’s other works, this passion project deals most explicitly with the concept of tested faith, more specifically the faith of the devout. While Silence isn’t as heavily cloaked in metaphor as the rest of his work, there’s an unnerving sincerity in Scorsese’s searching prompt: Is our pursuit of faith for our benefit or that of others? Faith is a foundationally personal concept, and Father Sebastian’s story of mission and loss raises gut-level questions about what our faith can endure and the price we are willing to pay to maintain it. Unlike the rest of the film, the end is left to interpretation.
Still, there’s an undeniable commitment to the power of a lifelong faith. As Sebastian’s body burns, we see the crucifix in his possession, still held by a man who claimed to have apostatized long ago. It’s a fascinating coda for a director rarely praised for such intimacy.
As the world prepares itself for the next Martin Scorsese film, there will surely be much philosophizing on the legacy the director has cultivated. Is he a modern master who revolutionized a genre? Is he a hedonist with softer edges? Is he both of these things and more?
To define a filmmaker’s reputation on their most famous works and images is tempting, and not altogether improper. As a shared medium, film will always be at least partially defined by the communal impact it had and the way it evolves with audiences over time.
But we must also consider the moments and themes that bear the weight of these more famous reference points, especially in the case of Scorsese. While his work to the wide public may always be stamped with expletives and tinged with dry blood, such a generalized reading would ignore the sincere and faithful work he has done to examine truths about morality, faith and the ways we practice and share them on and off the silver screen.
Cover photo by MANSOOR.