“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.” So says Martin Scorsese himself in the opening sequence of his seminal, sophomore feature, Mean Streets. The quote is as good a summation of the themes inherent to Scorsese’s films as any you’re bound to find. Redemption is not to be found in the Bible, or the evangelical screeds of proselytizers and zealots, but in the grit and muck of the streets, the real world. It’s easy to pray in mass, but it takes a real man to keep his faith when faced with adversity. While Scrosese’s movies often deal with abhorrent subjects that are exceedingly violent, there’s always an unmistakable moralism intrinsically tied to the mayhem.
Scorsese was, unsurprisingly, raised in the Roman Catholic church, and even considered joining the seminary before he abandoned Catholicism to make his morally incongruous movies. This Catholic conscience has ingrained itself in Scorsese’s films, where the boy who grew up in the black-and-white, good-and-evil world of the Church now lives as a man in the reality of grey uncertainty. From his very first movie (the micro-budgeted Who’s That Knocking At My Door) Scorsese has been trying to reconcile these two conflicting world-views.
In dealing predominantly with lowlifes, gangsters, psychopaths, and men on the fringe society, and by association of their own lives, Scorsese has seemingly embraced the dark over the light. The best example of this can be found early on in his career (in one of his very best films), Taxi Driver. Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro, in one of his most iconic roles of all time) is the furthest thing from a redemptive character. He’s a sickly loner with violent tendencies who can’t connect with women (or really anyone at all). In the film, Travis seems to be set on the path of loneliness and anger for the rest of his sorrowful life. The darkened and filthy streets of 1970’s Times Square are perfect parallels for Bickle’s own tumultuous consciousness, and by extension his crooked path in life. Yet, despite all of this, Travis comes through at the end. He goes through what might be called insanity, and in doing so, achieves a form of redemption delivering him from a life of toiling in painful and abject obscurity.
In effect, Travis becomes something of a Christ figure, with Scorsese shooting De Niro from above in the film’s final and penultimate climactic sequence, with Bickle’s prostrate body sprawled in such a way that he looks like an abstract version of the Christian savior on the cross. That final, bloody shoot-out is equivalent to Jesus’ Biblical walk up Calvary hill, and his final crucifixion. In Travis, personal forgiveness is found amid the sins of his past, soaked and caked in the blood and dirt of the streets.
What’s more, this general narrative pattern is consistent throughout most of Scorsese’s oeuvre. When looking at Scorsese’s magnum opus, Raging Bull, a similar theme arises. In the film, Jake LaMotta is another veritable monster of Scorsese’s dramatic imagination, a human bull of a man who goes through life hurting everyone around him and destroying everything in his path, including his career, and ultimately himself. By the end of the movie, as beaten up and broken down as LaMotta is, he seems to have reached a special type of zen. It’s almost as if he’s been birthed out of the dirty tenements and endless boxing matches to finally be reconciled with the people in his life, and of course, himself. It’s Scorsese’s Guide to Spiritual Fulfillment.
The same character arc and themes can be seen again even more overtly in The Last Temptation of Christ. Here, Scorsese tackles the idea of forgiveness and redemption most directly. Scorsese’s Christ is not a goody-two-shoes, pious, espouser of kindly wisdom that so often portrayed in film and literature. Instead, Scorsese’s Jesus is a troubled, hurt man, wrestling with his purpose on Earth and the consequences that come along with it. Forgiving sins is not an easy feat, and dying for them is even harder, and Scorsese understands this. If Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, he’d surely act like a human, an approach that makes for a better, more interesting film that serves to probe the very depths of Christ’s shared humanity with us, the viewer.
Scorsese’s entire career has been largely spent trying to marry his learned streetwise grittiness with the traditional Catholic morals learned in his childhood, and in The Last Temptation of Christ he gets closer to doing so than he ever has done, before or since. It’s ever present in his movies, even where one would least suspect it. In The Wolf of Wall Street, though it came across to some as a gleeful endorsement of debauchery and moral turpitude, was actually a moralistic indictment of Jordan Belfort and everything he stood for. Belfort walks the same streets of greed and violence as Jake LaMotta and Travis Bickle, but he couldn’t cut it; he couldn’t achieve the forgiveness of Scorsese’s past protagonists.
Martin Scorsese is a modern-day prophet, a humble man instructing us on how to live in this savage and brutal world. He is a priest of the backstreets and alleyways, a preacher of good will and perseverance who speaks in the profane language of the common man. Scorsese understood from a young age that universal truths cannot be found solely in books or at the altar. No, real truth is found in the deeply flawed souls of the God’s people, chosen or not; God (if there even is such a thing) can be found in the faces of the killers and psychos, the taxi drivers and self-destructive boxers who can tell us all as much about life as any Catholic priest might. Redemption is found in the gutters and ramshackle motels, and for Scorsese, this is how it is, and most likely always will be, and we’re all better people for having Martin Scorsese as our great, cinematic redeemer.