Scorsese’s movie vision shaped by religion

By  Fr. Monty William, S.J., Catholic Register Special
  • April 26, 2007
{mosimage}Gangster Priest: The Italian American Cinema of Martin Scorsese by Robert Casillo (University of Toronto Press, 600 pages, softcover, $39.95).

This year Italian-American director Martin Scorsese won his first Oscar for The Departed — a Catholic version of the Buddhist Asian film Infernal Affairs. Both dealt with a fallen world in which the dynamics of law and crime reveal the same patterns of manipulation, abuse and duplicity. This is Lenten fare, for as the psalmist says, “Put not your trust in those in power, in mortals in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146:3).
It is interesting then to see what avenues of freedom are available to a profoundly spiritual, though not necessarily religious, film director who has openly professed his abandonment of Catholicism. He has admitted, "I am a lapsed Catholic. But I am a Roman Catholic... there is no way out of it" (Quoted in After Image: The Incredible Catholic Imagination of Six Catholic American Film Makers by Robert A. Blake, Loyola Press).

Scorsese's imagination – like those of Hitchcock, John Ford, Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian dePalma – is shaped by Catholic concerns. He is an ex-seminarian and made The Last Temptation of Christ, which like The Departed has as one of its concerns duty over self-interest and the nature of self-sacrifice. Scorsese himself has said, "My whole life has been movies and religion. That's it. There is nothing else."

{sa 0802094031}It is with gratitude we welcome a book like Robert Casillo's, which examines these two forces in the director's life. Appropriately entitled Gangster Priest, the book focuses on five films and one documentary, Italianamerican. First up is Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1969) which began as Scorsese’s master’s project in New York University’s film school in 1965 under the title Bring On the Dancing Girls. The other four films are better known to the average cinema-goer. They are Mean Streets (1973), Raging Bull (1980), GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995).

One should know that Scorsese has directed some 42 films with two more projected in 2008, and one, Untitled Stones (2007) in post-production. Among those 42 are The Aviator (2004), Michael Jackson’s video Bad (1987) and a documentary on The Band called The Last Waltz (1978). I mention these because Scorsese’s sensibility, while being firmly Italian-American, is not restricted to the subject matter contained in Casillo’s excellent book.

Of what use then is this book? The films are explored in the context of religion, culture, the history of southern Italy and the relationship of that milieu to the immigrant experience with its generational conflicts. In effect, Casillo’s book serves as a cultural analysis of the formation of the Italian-American identity. One facet of that identity which Scorsese focuses on — as does his Californian counterpart Coppola in The Godfather series — is the function of the Mafia and its codes of honour and violence, codes that are in fundamental opposition to Christianity.

Casillo brings to light those codes — of ethnicity and its religious sensibilities — that underlie the narratives of personal and social sin, guilt, alienation and punishment that shape the lives of Scorsese’s characters in the context of family, work and social relationships. Casillo’s telling awareness of semiotics in this regard is acute. He notes, for example, “in Mean Streets young local hoodlums drive boat-like cars and follow other standard American consumption patterns, yet also suspend red-pepper horns or ‛corni’ from their rear view mirrors, these being Old World talismans against the evil eye.” Casillo sees the films he has chosen as charting “the group’s transition from urban neighbourhoods to the suburbs, from in-group to out-group marriage, from vestigial Old World solidarities to mainstream forms of individualism and mobility.”

Scorsese records a culture in transition. That culture involves a certain brand of Catholicism which is de-sacramentalized, and the idols of power, bosses, codes of honour and criminal groupings replace grace, priests, the catechism and the church. In this Americanized secularization, humanity destroys itself.

Casillo has written a valuable book. Even if one is not Italian-American, or even particularly interested in film, he has given us a reading of a society in transition and that reading allows us, in this present time of change, some insight into the displacement of cultural codes which we ourselves absorb and display to make meaning of our lives.

(Williams lectures in spiritual theology and runs spiritual direction and internship programs at Regis College in Toronto.)

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