“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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