When Martin Scorsese was at the Vatican on Saturday, he announced he has been working on a new film about Jesus.
The “Silence” director met with Pope Francis over the weekend and attended a conference at the Vatican called “The Global Aesthetics of the Catholic Imagination.” According to Variety, Scorsese announced his new project then, “I have responded to the Pope’s appeal to artists in the only way I know how: by imagining and writing a screenplay for a film about Jesus. And I’m about to start making it.”
The conference gathered around 40 or so filmmakers, writers and poets who have seen Catholicism as integral to their work, per The Hollywood Reporter. It was hosted by a Jesuit magazine, The Catholic Civilization, in connection with Georgetown University. Magazine editorial director Antonio Spadaro interviewed Scorsese as he announced his new project and reflected on previous films.
Reportedly, Scorsese traced the development of researching Jesus from his 1988 film “The Last Temptation of Christ” to his more recent 2016 film “Silence.” The Hollywood Reporter said Scorsese became personal during the interview — “he talked about his experience with grace and mercy, and about the presence of violence in his life as well as in his films.”
Specific details about Scorsese’s new project are not available. In February 2022, Pope Francis had encouraged artists to engage God in their work. Catholic News Agency said the pope read from Saint John Paul II’s letter which said, “In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art.” Pope Francis said “the world needs beauty now more than ever” and thanked artists for their contributions.
A call for religious art
Pope Francis’ call for art communicating religious messages isn’t the only one in recent times. Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright said, “We should be taking steps to celebrate Easter in creative new ways: in art, literature, children’s games, poetry, music, dance, festivals, bells, special concerts.”
Pope Francis has called for art on a couple different occasions — not just in February 2022. In September 2022, Vatican News said he participated in a summit which discussed how the arts can be used in religious work. Pope Francis called for this type of artistic work and said, “The role of art is to put ‘a thorn in the heart, which moves us to contemplation, and contemplation puts us on a path.’”
Martin Scorsese’s films with religious themes
Scorsese’s connection to religion started from an early age. He was raised Catholic and attended a Catholic high school before he started the process of becoming a priest. He said to National Catholic Register he went to a preparatory seminary and failed the first year. Since then, he’s made several different films with religious themes.
In 1973, Scorsese co-wrote and directed the film “Mean Streets,” which showed a young Italian-American man named Charlie Cappa who was involved in the mafia. Cappa’s development in the film included the dissonance between his belief in Catholicism and his work for the mafia. Guilt and redemption are major themes in the film.
Then, there’s the controversial 1988 “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which was protested by several different religious groups. According to PBS, several groups considered the film “blasphemous,” and some movie theaters as well as Blockbuster Video refused to show or carry the film.
Scorsese’s films primarily about religious subject matter are not his only films with religious themes — religious themes are pervasive in his body of work.
For example, the 2006 crime thriller “The Departed” takes place in Boston — an area known for its Catholic population. There are several direct references to religion in the film as well as oblique references in the film. Movieguide said the film has a “Strong Christian worldview with some positive references to Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Christian funeral ceremonies.”
It’s a pattern of Scorsese’s to include references to faith in films like he does in “The Departed.” Christopher B. Barnett and Clark J. Elliston’s book “Scorsese and Religion” asserts the premise that without exploring Scorsese’s religious worldview and themes advanced in his work, his work cannot be properly understood.
Referencing films like “Goodfellas,” “The Departed” and “Mean Streets,” one of the contributors to the book John McAteer said Scorsese uses religion in these films to the end of creating a “Catholic tragedy.” These films all explore original sin and violence while also interrogating what a redemptive arc looks like — grace is a concept explored in the films.
The main characters of the films are often tragic heroes who are humanized by Scorsese. McAteer said, “Even if none of his heroes escapes their predicament, Scorsese’s tragic cinema transfigures their misery into a heroic sacrifice which reveals to viewers the emptiness of violence and the restlessness of the human heart apart from God.”
After making several movies along those lines, Scorsese created the film “Silence,” which also explored the juxtaposition of humanity and divinity. When a studio executive asked him why he wanted to make this film, Scorsese told America Magazine that he blurted out “To get to know Jesus better.”
In the film, a pair of Catholic missionaries are sent to Japan to find a missing priest — the one who taught them. These two priests see the persecution of Christians in Japan and agonize over whether or not God is being silent while people experience persecution — warning, spoiler ahead.
One of the significant moments of the film is when Father Rodrigues — one of the two missionaries sent to Japan — is faced with the choice of stepping on an image of Christ, which would end the suffering of a group of Japanese Christians (but it would be seen as apostasy) or continuing to watch Japanese Christians be tortured and killed.
In the film, Jesus’ voice tells Father Rodrigues to step on the image. It’s considered apostasy and Father Rodrigues lives out the rest of his life in Japan, hiding his belief in Christianity from Japanese officials. When he dies and is given a traditional funeral, Father Rodrigues is seen with a crucifix on him.
The problem of evil, weighing the importance of difference commandments against each other, the meaning of love and whether or not God is silent are all themes explored in this film. Scorsese told America Magazine it took him two decades to make the film. One of his goals with the film was to explore “the core of Christianity.”
He said, “It’s almost like a special gift to be called on to face that challenge, because he is given an opportunity to really go beyond and to really get to the core of faith and Christianity.”
Is Martin Scorsese a Catholic?
Yes, Scorsese has said he’s Catholic.
“I am most comfortable as a Catholic,” Scorsese said to NCR. The filmmaker said he wouldn’t describe himself as someone who attends church every Sunday, but he believes in “the tenets of Catholicism.” He said, “My way has been, and is, Catholicism.”