Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Scorsese: Faith Under Pressure (Sight & Sound)

From Scorsese: Faith Under Pressure .
by Ian Christie, Sight & Sound, November 2006.

The director talks to Ian Christie about his twin obsessions with the underworld and the Catholic church, and his hope of continuing his exploration of faith and temptation in an adaptation of Japanese novel Silence

I had gone to New York to talk to Scorsese not about THE DEPARTED, which was still under wraps nearing the end of its long post-production, but about his plans to make a very different film. SILENCE is a novel by Japanese writer Shusaku Endo (1923-1996), which Scorsese has had an option on for over 15 years. Set in the 17th century, it uses the story of the Jesuit missionaries who came to Japan and suffered torture and martyrdom for their faith as a basis for exploring the apparent conflict between traditional Japanese and Western Christian values. Endo was a Japanese Catholic, and Scorsese believes that he has an important message for the modern world: a message that Scorsese, the son of Sicilian Catholics and raised in New York, has been struggling to define for himself ever since he first ventured outside Little Italy.

The novel was proposed to him by one of the churchmen who gathered in 1988 to give their views on the controversial THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Paul Moore, then Episcopal archbishop of New York, found Scorsese's film, to his surprise, “Christologically correct". Scorsese laughs as he recalls the phrase, not because he didn't value such unexpected praise, but because he knows that he was working on a more naïve level. Still under the influence of Pasolini’s gritty 1964 GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW, and burning with a desire to re-create the drama and iconography of the passion that he had loved since his days as an altar boy, his THE LAST TEMPTATION aimed to involve a contemporary audience in the challenge posed to Christ's incarnation, because Kazantzakis' novel provided a framework by telling the gospel story from Jesus point of view, as a carpenter who recognizes his destiny and fights against it. In fact, this meant taking the idea of the incarnation - of Christ as truly human - seriously, rather than as a theological given.

But what really made THE LAST TEMPTATION a matter for debate was Kazantzakis' big question: what if Christ was tempted to abandon his mission at the last moment, to step down from the cross and settle for a normal life? This is the "last temptation", and as we're led to believe that Jesus has fallen for it, it's as if we too are being tested.

Scorsese agrees that the saddest irony is that while THE LAST TEMPTATION probably makes most sense to committed Christians, the majority have never seen it, having been warned to stay away by their priests and ministers. He is well aware that the whole congregations who were bused to Mel Gibson's 2004 PASSION OF THE CHRIST were the same people told not to watch his picture. He respects Gibson’s convictions, but regards his PASSION as "more like going to pray" than posing questions about what Christ and Christianity mean today. And he's still hopeful that THE LAST TEMPTATION will reach a new, less prejudiced audience when it eventually appears on DVD.

After the archbishop gave SILENCE to Scorsese it took a year for him to read it, which he finally did while he was in Japan to appear as van Gogh in Kurosawa’s elegaic fantasy DREAMS. Deeply moved by Endo's portrayal of Christian faith being tested, he arranged a deal to film the novel through the Italian company Cecci Gori and started writing the script with his longtime collaborator Jay Cocks while working on CAPE FEAR (1991). In retrospect, the timing is significant, since this was one of the films Scorsese had agreed to make it return for Universal backing LAST TEMPTATION. He still looks back on the period of CAPE FEAR and CASINO (1995) with a shudder, even if some, like me, regard the latter as a malign masterpiece that explores the lure of evil with an almost Miltonic grandeur.

Scorsese's eventual salvation appeared in the form of KUNDUN (1997), a film that came as a script by Melissa Mathieson and was acceptable to his new studio Disney. The challenge of telling the Dalai Lama's early life story absorbed some of the frustration he felt while unable to pursue Silence. Apart from its specifically Buddhist dimensions, it offered the theme of a young man trying to lead a good life amid obstacles and temptations - which seems to be the underlying template of almost all Scorsese's work. And from the Dalai Lama Scorsese learned a distinction that gave him a new insight into Endo: "having faith is very different from being spiritually evolved."

Spiritual quests

By now Scorsese felt he was beginning to grasp the profound challenge Endo posed to conventional Western Christianity. "SILENCE was the answer to the void I felt after THE LAST TEMPTATION. What I found there was this great compassion for Judas and for Mary Magdalene, and the idea of Jesus not as someone who glows in the dark, but as someone who's afraid to die - remember how he reacts when Lazarus reaches out from the grave." But he was still no closer to being able to make the film, even though his next project to tackle another spiritual quest, in a less exotic form of Nicolas Cage scouring the streets of what had once been known as Hell's Kitchen for human wreckage to save. BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (1999) appealed to Scorsese not only as a New Yorker but also as a contemporary take on the theme of his hero Roberto Rossellini had explored in EUROPA 51. There Ingrid Bergman is driven to give up a pampered life and devote herself to helping others in the desolation of postwar Europe. In the more skeptical and hallucinatory BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, based on the story of a real paramedic, Cage's character Frank is torn between an almost messianic belief he must save people in the acceptance that he's “only a witness”.

Probably the most remarkable aspect of BRINGING OUT THE DEAD is the visions Frank experiences, especially the recurrent one of the street waif Rose, whom he failed to save. Scorsese now thinks the realization of these visions may have been too concrete, but insists that he could never go about making a film like this in a "Protestant" way - despite his respect for Bergman - where the visions would remain wholly subjective. "That's not me: I have to show them, even if they're clumsy. I think you really do see these things."

The following year Scorsese was offered the unexpected opportunity to realize his dream of creating a fresco of his city's earliest period as a battleground between competing factions in GANGS OF NEW YORK. But even in this sprawling epic there is something of his continuing spiritual quest, as the new Irish-Catholic immigrants are shown assuming the religious identity they would still have a century later, when young Martin was educated by their descendents, the Irish nuns of St. Patrick's School, and especially by the charismatic Father Principe. It was this young priest, arriving in Little Italy in 1953, who opened a youthful Scorsese's eyes to a wider world, and also encouraged him to see that apparently contemporary films could have a religious meaning: he described the battered Brando leading the dockers back to work in ON THE WATERFRONT as "a kind of Calvary".

This sense of the world permeated with the drama of Catholicism - in which "the actual transubstantiation is real, better than any movie: it actually becomes the body of Christ" - is palpable in Scorsese's earliest filmmaking. In WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (1968) a church statute literally bleeds before Harvey Keitel's guilt-torn J.R. The same Keitel famously speaks of atoning for sins on the street rather than in church in the opening words of MEAN STREETS (1973). Scorsese still recalls vividly the naïve "faith of youth, which came from my own inward nature, protecting myself as I was growing up. That's when I read Graham Greene's The Heart Of The Matter." But he has since lived through four turbulent decades in the history of the Catholic Church that has seen its authority and integrity challenged on all sides. After the promise of reform launched by the council known as Vatican II in the early 1960s, the church has increasingly set its face against modernization. This has left many Catholics of Scorsese's generation disappointed and angry, especially as financial and sexual scandals have revealed an organization seemingly more concerned with self protective secrecy than with Christian candor.

Compassion and authenticity

Such revelations haven't driven Scorsese to abandon the church but rather to become clearer about separating the earthly institution from its role as - well, what exactly? He has been greatly impressed by Garry Wills’ 2002 bestseller “Why I Am A Catholic” and supports Wells’ wish to insist on a core set of beliefs quite distinct from the "man-made church" of the Vatican. Scorsese says he's neither a radical Catholic nor even a "good" one by normal standards. Yet he is clearly preoccupied by the question of faith: "how can anyone have faith in the modern world? We saw the explosion of interest in spirituality in the 1960s. Maybe it was driven by drugs to some extent, but at least it was exploring, questioning-and now that's been completely shut down. Still, we have to do everything possible to keep asking questions."

Indeed, it's a question of how to live one's life with compassion and, as the existentialists would say, authenticity, that has kept SILENCE on his agenda for over 15 years. It wasn't until the editing of THE DEPARTED that Scorsese and Cocks finally wrote a script he considers workable. The crux of Endo's novel appears to be the drama of torture and doubt that leads the captive father Rodrigues towards committing apostasy - publicly renouncing his faith. What Scorsese has come to realize, after living with the book and studying Endo's other work, is that "Rodrigues thinks he's Jesus, but in the end he discovers he's Judas." The starring role he has envisaged in his own story in fact belongs to the cowardly Japanese convert Kichijiro, "truly disgusting human being" who keeps falling short of his ideals and asking for forgiveness. Rodrigues is forced to recognize that Christianity true to Christ's example demands he grant Kichijiro forgiveness - and, as Endo writes, only when he overcomes his repulsion does "the face of Christ look straight into his" and fill him with shame as he realizes his failure.

This devastating work, hailed by Graham Greene as "one of the finest novels of our time", allows Scorsese to pursue his concern with "what Jesus meant" (the title of another influential Garry Wills book) in a dramatic form as challenging as Kazantzakis’s THE LAST TEMPTATION. He also thinks the issues the novel raises are more relevant than ever today. “If you have real faith, then of course you want to make other people as convinced as you are - go out and save their souls! But you can't impose your beliefs on another culture unless you understand that culture properly, which takes time and compassion. Once the Catholic Church was pretty certain of its rightness, as was Islam, and perhaps the Pentecostal Christians today. I can understand that feeling ‘it's for their own good’, but I resist it. Endo thought the Christianity that would have the most chance in Japan was the feminine side - not the God of judgment but of forgiveness. And I'm interested in how the traditional cultures of Japan, Korea and China accept the evanescence of life in the inevitability of destruction."

But the task of persuading financiers, a studio and actorsto embark on such a spiritual quest remains formidable. Might Daniel Day-Lewis be tempted to return to Scorsese's fold to contribute his unique brand of intensity to the older priest, already accused of apostasy? Might this also be a chance for Scorsese to work with younger European actors, if the new Hollywood spurns his unfashionable choice of subject? Could he find a way of stepping off the superhighway of big-budget productions to work once again on the scale of AFTER HOURS (1985) and THE LAST TEMPTATION (or indeed the ultra-low-budget TAXI DRIVER, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year)? Such decisions aren't easy for a director who has fought so long to establish his authority and keep control of his career, in a world where budgets proclaim clout.

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