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.”

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The Truth of Scorsese’s Faithless Characters