Martin Scorsese’s Divine Comedy
by Catherine O’Brien, Bloomsbury, 224pp, £50
Of all living film directors whose work lends itself to a theological reading, four in particular immediately come to mind: Bruno Dumont, Terrence Malick, Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese. In her new book, film studies academic Catherine O’Brien looks at the last of these four and asks how his Catholicism has shaped his filmography.
A straightforward look at Scorsese’s most Christian films, which O’Brien identifies as The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence and, somewhat surprisingly, Bringing out the Dead, a lesser 1999 film about an overtaxed paramedic played by Nicholas Cage, would have been interesting and worthwhile. Similarly, a study of Scorsese’s entire career focusing narrowly on the scenes in his work that address religion (as O’Brien points out, although most of his films concern Catholicism, his 1997 film Kundun addresses the early life of the Dalai Lama), would have been fascinating. Instead O’Brien has taken the somewhat bizarre decision to explore Scorsese’s work solely through its connections to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
There are obvious objections to this, from the minor (Dante is already more connected to other film directors who have attempted to adapt his work for screen, such as Peter Greenaway or Raoul Ruiz) to the major (Scorsese shows no real interest in Dante, nor is his work palpably in conversation with him).
It is possible to approach Scorsese’s films in a scattershot, allusive way (Lesley Stern’s The Scorsese Connection is a brilliant example of this), but because he is such a self-aware director, it seems somewhat futile to yoke his work to a misguided thesis in this manner.
O’Brien is clearly aware that her approach is controversial, and offers various justifications for not tackling his work chronologically or in a more systematic manner. But she misses (or deliberately avoids) the obvious one. To address Scorsese chronologically would mean dealing with the massive fault-line that runs down the middle of his filmography.
Looking at Scorsese’s body of work until 1995, almost every film is worthwhile, and it includes some of the greatest movies in American cinema. My preferences probably won’t be the same as yours (I think his black comedies are his finest works: Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, After Hours and Casino). Others might prefer just the gangster films, or solely the ones featuring Robert De Niro. But even minor works like The Color of Money or misfires like New York, New York are essential viewing.
It’s not that there’s a drop-off of quality after this, but simply that Scorsese’s approach changed. Maybe the industry changed. But the personal vision that made him one of the greatest American directors is harder to detect in the films that followed (in many ways, these late movies remind me of the German director Fritz Lang’s final films or late-period Hitchcock misfires like Torn Curtain or Topaz).
Again, you might not agree with my favourites, but from the later works I’d find it harder to make a case for Gangs of New York, The Aviator or Shutter Island than I would for Hugo (a reasonable family film, which is harder to achieve than it might seem), The Departed, a not much-loved film that nevertheless won him an Oscar, or Silence (The Wolf of Wall Street didn’t work for me on a single viewing, but I wonder whether, as with Casino, it might repay repeated viewings).
Instead of addressing this question, O’Brien instead takes random moments from various Scorsese movies and tries to fit them into her Dantean structure, pointing out which movies seem to be mostly set in Hell (Taxi Driver, The Wolf of Wall Street), Purgatory (Who’s That Knocking on My Door?, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) or Paradise (The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence).
It is true that the characters in Silence spend much of their time contemplating Paradise, but I’m not sure whether Dante is the most useful literary reference here, especially given that the film has its own literary source: the novel by Shūsaku Endō.
What’s even stranger is that O’Brien has borrowed her unhelpful structure from another source: this is, she notes, how Scorsese biographer Vincent LoBrutto structured the early chapters of his book. But it is an unnecessary straitjacket.
There is plenty of material here that proves that a theological reading is valuable – Scorsese wanted to be a priest, and in June 2017, he received an award from Signis, the World Catholic Association for Communication, “in honour of the fact that he has made films that are genuine reflections on human nature, the mystery of evil, and the most transcendent dimensions of life, such as love and sacrifice” – and I’ve no doubt that O’Brien has interesting things to say about Scorsese. Unfortunately, in this odd and quixotic study, she has made it almost impossible for herself to do so.