The Truth of Scorsese’s Faithless Characters

In an interview with CT, ‘Silence’ director reveals why he is drawn to ‘wretches.’
The Truth of Scorsese’s Faithless Characters
Image: Paramount Pictures

I’ve heard a lot of sermons. And thus I’ve heard a lot of illustrations drawn from movies. Most of them have pointed to “Christ-figures”: the William Wallaces, the Eric Liddells, the patriotic battlefield heroes, the martyrs, and the rebels against our cultural “Matrix.”

But I wasn’t prepared, one Sunday morning, 15 years ago, when the pastor of my Presbyterian church referred to The Lord of the Rings in an unexpected way. “I see myself in Gollum!” he exclaimed.

Gollum! Not Frodo, the suffering hero. Not Samwise, his faithful friend. But Gollum—the jealous, scheming, miserable wretch!

It takes a humble heart to identify not with the hero of a story, but with the villain, a figure of moral weakness. I remain impressed by my pastor’s confession of sympathy for a power-hungry devil.

I remembered it again a few years later, when I first read Silence, that excruciatingly suspenseful novel about missionaries in Japan.

In Shūsaku Endō’s story, two Jesuit priests—Rodrigues and Garupe—travel into territory hostile toward Christianity. Fellow Jesuits have been persecuted and killed there, so they’re eager to see if their teacher, Father Ferreira, is still alive. Troubling rumors surround Father Ferreira’s disappearance. Some say he may have apostatized, meaning he might have collapsed under pressure and publicly abandoned Christian faith.

You may already sense this story’s resemblance to Heart of Darkness. (Call it Apocalypse Now II: The Jesuits.) Will these agents go undercover and find a genius who has turned traitor? Has he become the very monster he was sent to evangelize?

You will also hear echoes of The Lord of the Rings: Like a suffering Frodo and Sam, Rodrigues and Garupe must entrust their lives to a duplicitous guide—Kichijiro—who can navigate the “mud swamp” of his homeland. Rodrigues is repulsed by Kichijiro’s Gollum-like behavior, his exasperating compulsion to sin and confess, sin and confess, relentlessly.

Last weekend, I had chance to interview Martin Scorsese about his new film adaptation of Endo’s novel. As we talked, I found that Scorsese, too, is drawn to characters who might be called “wretches.”

It’s worth noting that some Christians recoil at the name “Martin Scorsese” just the way that the priests are repulsed by Kichijiro. (I know this first hand, I get angry mail from evangelicals whenever I review Scorsese’s work.) In many Christian minds, this former Jesuit seminarian is an infidel, a heathen, both dangerous and misguided. Didn’t he make The Last Temptation of Christ, that controversial, “blasphemous” film about a disoriented Jesus and a sympathetic Judas? Didn’t he stage a pageant of debauchery when he made The Wolf of Wall Street? Aren’t his gangster movies filled with sex, drugs, and violence?

Scorsese’s art is an expression of sympathy for, empathy for, and even identification with these “failures.”

I see it differently. Scorsese has always been drawn to stories about villains, moral failures, characters who crave worldly power and influence. But he isn’t driven by a desire to glorify their sins. Rather, he seeks to represent characters he remembers from childhood: alcoholics, gangsters, hucksters, failures. He knew them. They disturbed him, but he loved them anyway. And his art is an expression of sympathy for, empathy for, and even identification with these “failures.”

His compassion was inspired by his father, who supported and cared for an uncle who he characterized as “in and out of jail” and prone to trouble. “The issue of ‘my brother’s keeper’ comes to mind,” says Scorsese. “My father knew full well that once he took care of the latest problem, it was only going to happen again at another level. … But my father took care of him. I watched this my whole life.”

Scorsese was also inspired by a priest, Francis Principe, who modeled how to carry faith into culture, and who introduced him to authors (Graham Greene, Dwight Macdonald), classical music, and cinema. “He was there six years, through the formation of my adolescence. He was a great guy and mentor, and also told us ‘You don’t have to live like this. This is America. Read.’ … He guided us all the way through.”

Knowing this, we can recognize, even in Scorsese’s darkest films, exemplars of longsuffering love and conscience who expose evil for what it is. But he is not preoccupied with heroism; he’s more interested in exposing—perhaps confessing—the toxic influence of evil. (Think of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, Goodfellas’ Henry Hill, the cops and crooks of The Departed—even the lovers in The Age of Innocence, whose longings lead them to fail their society’s moral code.) His films reveal his heart’s heavy conflict: troubled by sin, but genuinely loving these suffering sinners.

In view of this, I interpret The Wolf of Wall Street as a gaudy, upsetting, but prophetic film about how men of greed, corruption, and lawlessness rob America blind and undermine democracy.

“What does a missionary impart? Dogma? Maybe. But I think it comes down to action. The behavior of the missionary.”

Some Christian moviegoers are already concerned about Silence too, saying it is too easy on those who “turn Judas” against Christianity. It is more difficult—but perhaps more enlightening—to recognize, as Rodrigues does, that we should not be quick to judge a Judas-like traitor, but to see Kichijiro as an honest portrayal of our own fickle hearts. This can disillusion us of a pious Christianity that looks down its nose on those whose sufferings we don't understand. It can drive us to evangelize by example—by confessing to one another, by forgiving each other. Prone to wander, as we are. Prone to leave the God we love.

For Scorsese, this difficulty of what it means to “share the gospel” is at the heart of his film. “What does a missionary impart?” he asks. “Dogma? Maybe. … But I think it comes down to action. The behavior of the missionary.” The gospel, he says, translates best by example. “You live it out.”

In Silence, troubled priests discover that their evangelism may not be about teaching their vocabulary of faith to others, but rather they might have to take on the form of “the Other,” and learn how to embody love within those languages, contexts, and paradigms. They risk being “lost in translation” to families and even the church. But Christ waits for them in those compromising circumstances, well-acquainted with being “forsaken” by God, and familiar with long and troubling silences.

We might even see why Scorsese might relate to an apostate priest. He, too, once walked the corridors of the church, speaking its language. Now he lives embedded, struggling with the questions and hardships of love’s call within a challenging environment. In that sense, he says, Hollywood isn’t so different from his old neighborhood. “I love the people. … I love the hustlers—the ones who say one thing, and they have their hands in your pockets while they say it, and they’re taking whatever money you have.” He laughs. “It’s just… the world in a microcosm.”

December
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Christianity Today
The Truth of Scorsese’s Faithless Characters