Living it in the Streets: The Religious Films of Martin Scorsese

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”
– Charlie, Mean Streets

We all know that Martin Scorsese is a gangster filmmaker. We all know this, it’s the general vision of Scorsese, it’s what people harrumphed about when The Irishman came out last year. “Oh great, another gangster movie from Scorsese.” Ask someone about Scorsese and they’ll tell you – he makes gangster pictures. 

But he doesn’t. I mean, he has, but he’s not a gangster filmmaker. He’s made a few, but they’re strung out across his career. If you count Mean Streets as a gangster picture (which it isn’t, but let’s be open hearted here) he would go from 1973 to 1990 without making a gangster picture; in the 30 years since Goodfellas he’s made three gangster films. (No, Gangs of New York does not count) By a reasonable reckoning Scorsese has made five gangster pictures in a 53 year career spanning 25 films. 

I get why we talk about him in terms of the gangster picture – Goodfellas is probably the greatest gangster movie ever made (yes, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II are better films, but Goodfellas captures something about gangsterism and its allure that the epic saga of the Corleones cannot), and his four other gangster films range from astonishing to really good. I’ll let you argue about which is which, but the important thing is that they’re all fun, except maybe The Irishman, which is repudiating the fun of his previous gangster films. 

But these movies, as great as they are, don’t feel to me like the quintessential Martin Scorsese movies. These are terrific films, films I watch a lot, films brimming with innovative and exciting style. And while they contain elements of thematic concerns that I think are central to Scorsese himself (there’s a reason I started this piece with a Mean Streets quote), they don’t grapple with them in the way that his religious films do. They don’t speak as plainly, as bluntly, as specifically to his personal spiritual concerns as the trilogy of The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and Silence do (with Mean Streets as the prologue to the whole thing). These three films are about something that has consumed Scorsese since he was a kid: the question of how to be a person of faith and still live in the world. 

Scorsese was born and spent his first few years in Corona, Queens, best known for being the home of the Lemon Ice King (seriously, if you ever get to New York in the summer head out to Corona and visit The Lemon Ice King of Corona on 108th street). But when he was about seven his parents moved the family into Manhattan, into Little Italy, and young Scorsese – who was already an awkward and nerdy kid – found himself uprooted from the world he knew and thrust into a totally different environment. 

Little Italy of the 1950s was a tough neighborhood, a lower working class neighborhood made up of laborers and a couple of generations of Italians, consistently in conflict with the neighboring communities and ethnicities. And here was little Marty, asthmatic and not very physical, stuck inside unable to play sports and hang out with the rough and tumble street kids. They’d open up fire hydrants in the summer, but sickly Scorsese wasn’t allowed to get wet; instead he sat at the window and watched it all, developing the voyeur’s eye all filmmakers must have. 

It was here he discovered movies, first going uptown to the theater with his father and then finding movies on TV.  But before that he discovered the church. His family wasn’t religious – they were religious in a very specific 20th century Italian Catholic way, in that the home had plenty of religious iconography, statues, crosses, but the family rarely went to church. They did holidays, the big ones, but not weekly masses. 

Young Marty traveled down the street more often, visiting Old St. Pat’s on Mulberry (but the entrance is on Mott, if you want to go visit it today. To give you a sense of how the neighborhood has changed that church, which did mass in Latin before Vatican II, now holds liturgies in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese). There he was stunned by not only the beauty of the cathedral, built in the early 1800s, New York’s second Catholic church, once the center of a hardscrabble Irish community the Italians would eventually push out, but he was also taken by the theatricality of the Catholic mass. He fell in love with the pageantry and the intonations, the swinging incense censers on chains, the robes and the methodical standing, sitting, kneeling. 

He knew he was drawn to imagery, and so initially he wanted to be a painter. A little kid, he’d draw the Stations of the Cross in class and the nuns who taught his school, Sisters of Mercy, they’d love it. They’d love him, this little fast-talking energetic Italian kid drawn to the imagery of the church. But he soon figured out he wasn’t a painter, and he began thinking about becoming a missionary – which the nuns really loved – and then he decided he wanted to become a priest. 

This is where his thematic obsessions began. In an interview in the book Once A Catholic, Scorsese relates his thinking at the time. 

“And I started to say, Well, at least with a religious vocation a priest or a nun might have more of an inside line to heaven – into salvation, if you want to use that word. They might be a little closer to it than a guy on the street because, after all, how can you practice the Christian beliefs and attitudes you are learning in the classroom in your house or in the street?

“So how do you practice these basic, daily Christian – not even specifically Catholic, but Christian – concepts of love and the major commandments? How do you do that in this world?”

He made some steps towards a religious vocation, but Scorsese soon came to understand that this wouldn’t be in the priesthood – this would be in filmmaking. 

“[My vocation] was harder,” he said. “I had to do it in the street. I had to do it in Hollywood.”

This became the driving question at the heart of his religious films. Religion permeates all of his movies – Who’s That Knocking At My Door’s protagonist, JR (intended, by the way, to be the hero of an Antoine Doinel-like trilogy which would finish with Mean Streets and was intended to begin with a still-unproduced script called Jerusalem, Jerusalem!) is riddled with Catholic guilt and even visits Old St Pat’s – but his three specifically religious movies (and the prologue, Mean Streets) wrestle endlessly with exactly the problem young Scorsese identified – how can you be a good Christian and still live in a world like ours? How can you navigate those things?

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Zen And The Ending Of THE SOPRANOS

Thirteen years ago tonight The Sopranos came to an end. I’ll never forget sitting in my living room in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, watching alone and thinking my cable went out in the final minutes. I sat there unsure what to do… and then the credits came up.

Over the years there have been arguments and there have been debates about just what happens in the final moments there in Holsten’s Brookdale Confectionery. Theories abound, and any time show creator David Chase speaks about it, people parse his every word for clues and hints. Was Tony Soprano killed? Did he die of a heart attack? Was it us, the audience, who was whacked? Or was this just the endless purgatory Tony would live in, unsure if the next time the door opened it would be someone to kill him or arrest him, a more intense version of Kevin Finnerty’s limbo, where Tony existed after being gutshot by Junior at the beginning of season six?

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Now On Patreon: THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973)

Subscribers to my Patreon get all sorts of exclusive stuff, including podcasts and long form pieces like this one I published today. Here’s an excerpt; to read the whole thing become a member at the $10 level at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha.

Dan Freeman has planned and plotted the revolution for years, patiently waiting for the moment to activate sleeper cells of Black liberation warriors he has seeded across the country. But in The Spook Who Sat By The Door all of that planning gets undone by a couple of lunkheaded racist cops who shoot a low-level drug dealer in the back in the city of Chicago. As the people rise up on their own, as the streets become choked with angry faces and violent cops, Dan has no choice but to light the fuse of the national uprising he has prepared. 

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We Must Fix Our Hearts or Die

Minneapolis burns. A man in Nashville called Johnny Cash’s granddaughter a liberal pussy for wearing a mask during a pandemic. Infected Republican legislators knowingly exposed Democratic legislators to COVID-19. The president takes to Twitter to complain about Twitter, when he’s not tweeting racism and incitements to violence. Tens of millions are out of work. People are paying their rents on credit cards, and are likely to be unable to do that much longer. Police murder Black Americans with impunity while right wing reactionaries are treated with kid gloves as they enter state houses with long rifles strapped to their thick backs. Even otherwise decent people scoff at wearing masks or social distancing, saying that they’re unlikely to  die from the virus. 

Our hearts are broken.

This doesn’t mean we are sad, although many of us – a great many of us, more than you might think based on the incessant negativity online and in the news – are. What it means is that the part of us that can feel and give love is broken. It doesn’t work. It’s clogged up, and we are trapped inside an illusion of separation, inside a self-centered place where we think we are protecting ourselves, but where we are actually killing ourselves.

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The Greatest Special Effect In Movie History

Today HBO Max launched. I broke in the service for myself by watching what might be the greatest movie of all time, The Wizard of Oz, which I have seen more times than I can count, including multiple viewings in the theater. To me the theatrical experience of this film is miles beyond the home video experience, but at any scale this is one of the best movies ever made, a truly vibrant and nourishing example of how cinema can transport us completely. 

One moment that always works for me, that always brings with it a wave of emotion and awe, is the famous transition from sepia toned Kansas to Technicolor Oz. It’s the moment when the film shifts, when cinema itself shifted, and the secrets behind it are incredible. I think this is the greatest special effect in movie history. 

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Disney’s HUNCHBACK: Dark, Sensual, Religious and Weird

There are no churches on Walt Disney’s Main Street, USA. 

When Walt decided to recreate his vision of small town America for his theme parks, the one thing he left out – the one thing he didn’t want amid the restaurants and shops, Town Hall and the windows advertising dentists and doctors – was a church. That wasn’t an accident. Growing up under a strict fundamentalist father, Walt veered towards a kind of secular humanism. But more than that, he had the stroke of genius to understand that the religious future of America was ecumenical and interfaith. He didn’t want to ground his nostalgic look back at turn of the century America in things that he sensed would soon be out of style. 

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Review: Scatalogical, Bizarre, Brilliant CAPONE

It took me almost 20 minutes to understand what Capone is. Tom Hardy, in thick makeup and with a thicker grunting voice (slurred by an omnipresent stogie), shuffles and wanders through this movie, occasionally staring off into the distance as if falling into a reverie. He’s playing Al Capone in the final year of his life, enfeebled physically and mentally by syphilis, and every time he does that stare into space thing your biopic trained muscles prepare for a flashback. This, you think, is where we will see Hardy as a young, powerful Capone, revealing the doddering old wreck stuff as a framing device. 

Nope. There are no significant flashbacks in Capone. There is a lengthy dream/hallucination sequence where an addled, diapered Capone wanders through scenes from his own life, but that plays more like a version of The Shining than a standard biopic. These aren’t memories, they’re ghosts, and he’s not remembering, he’s being haunted. Josh Trank’s Capone is anything but a standard biopic, and it’s a movie that is almost aggressive in its unwillingness to give you anything comforting or expected. 

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FIRST REFORMED And The Sin Of Hopelessness

Hopelessness and despair have been constant companions for me the past few weeks. I’m having a hard time seeing a future past the immediate next few months, and sometimes I catch myself spiraling away into the urge to just give up, maybe in the most drastic way possible.

But when I get like this I think about the movie First Reformed, the Paul Schrader film starring Ethan Hawke as a priest-turned-ecoterrorist, and I remember the beautiful message of that movie – a message that I think many people don’t see. But I do. And it strengthens me. It’s a line from the film, based on the writings of Christian mystic Thomas Merton: “Despair is a form of pride.”

I wrote about this aspect of First Reformed years ago on my Patreon, and while it was a Patron exclusive back in 2018, I think in 2020 it’s okay to share it with everybody. I hope you find something useful in here, if only the urge to watch First Reformed.

Without further ado, my original piece on First Reformed and hopelessness and despair:

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Recommendation: Teenage Lobotomy (As Covered By A Buddhist Monk)

Every week I make a recommendation to my $5 and above subscribers at Patreon. Sometimes it’s a movie, a book, a concept. I write in depth about it. This week I’m recommending a Buddhist monk who covers pop songs, and I’ve decided to share it with everybody. If you like this, please consider becoming a Patron at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha.

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Finding Neverland: HOOK As Response To CLOSE ENCOUNTERS

Hook’s Peter Banning is a bad dad, but he’s got nothing on Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s Roy Neary. And while Roy starts off bad enough – ignoring his family at the dinner table, his home a disaster indicating a life out of control – by the end of the movie, as he happily steps on to the mothership, he’s become one of cinema’s ultimate deadbeat dads. His kids will likely never get a goodbye, and if he ever does return to Earth relativity tells us he’ll be the same age and his kids will be old.

And yet he’s the hero. His moment is triumphant, the apotheosis of his life. The little ETs are his new children-but-also-parents, and the movie treats his domestic life as something he must escape, a prison of Altmanesque clamor that has been holding him back from his true destiny. He is the one human CALLED to the stars, and aliens have traveled light years to make his acquaintance. His kids? Pains in the asses we last see taking off in a station wagon, headed who cares where. 

Close Encounters ends with Dad going to Neverland (scored to a non-Peter Pan Disney tune, When You Wish Upon A Star, but the song is close enough – Peter Pan doesn’t have a big, wistful dreamer number like that). But Hook is all about Dad coming back from Neverland, returning to be with his kids for the first time ever. Peter Banning rejects the wonder for the (upper class) every day, the kind of life Roy Neary turns from with gusto.

To me Hook is answering Close Encounters, and it’s part of a journey that Spielberg was on with his own father. While it’s vital to separate the art from the artist when it comes to how we watch – good works come from bad people! – getting intimate with the artist can open up new areas of analysis of the work, allowing us to see the entire filmmaker’s canon as a personal journey set against their own autobiography. 

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