Since Day 1 — almost 20 years ago — your GetReligionistas have talked about the religion “ghosts” that haunt many mainstream news stories.
The basic idea is that journalists without religion-beat skills often omit religious facts, history and beliefs when writing many stories in which it’s almost impossible to understand what is going on without reporting these religion angles. Thus, we say these stories are “haunted” by religion “ghosts.”
From time to time, we hear from critics who claim that we want journalists to “force” religion into stories in the arts, sports, politics, business, etc. In the vast majority of cases, these critics are not arguing with us — but with easily available information about the lives of the people involved in these stories. Remember that classic 2016 case with mainstream news coverage (hello ESPN) of NBA superstar Kevin Durant?
This brings me to a recent Time magazine feature that ran with this headline: “Martin Scorsese Still Has Stories to Tell.” On one level, reporter Stephanie Zacharek faced a familiar entertainment-beat story, as in doing a junket-related feature with a Hollywood player who is promoting his or her new movie.
However, what we ended up with is a positive example of a journalist weaving accurate, valid, material about a newsmaker’s religious history into a mainstream news report.
Let me note that, in terms of film-studies doctrine, there is no such thing as an “orthodox” view of the role Catholic faith plays in this superstar director’s life and work. That’s fine. There’s way more to this man’s story than ongoing (in my view valid) arguments about “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
Catholics can, and do, argue about what “kind” of Catholic he is, in terms of beliefs and practice of the faith. Film scholars can debate which of his movies are “Catholic,” which ones have faith soaked into the images and which ones seem to clash with Catholicism.
But everyone agrees on one thing: It’s impossible to talk about Scorsese and leave his Catholicism out of the mix.
Thus, Zacharek’s feature is not an example of a journalist “forcing” religion into a story about a mainstream artist. It’s an example of a story that asks relevant questions about Scorsese and then let’s him talk about his life and art. Thus, it contains quite a bit of valid Godtalk.
At first this is a rather normal arts-beat feature. For example, near the top:
Scorsese’s encyclopedic knowledge of film has made him the patron saint of film bros, and though it’s a title he most certainly never asked for, he’s happy to talk about movies for as long as you like. But the stories he tells me during our three-hour interview—about falling in love with westerns as an asthmatic kid, or about his Aunt Mary taking him to a double bill of Bambi and Jacques Tourneur’s great obsessive noir Out of the Past at age 6—are about so much more than movies. Even people who love movies often talk about them in a way that disconnects them from life; it’s easier to jaw on about camera angles than it is to explain how a film speaks to our soul. Scorsese can articulate all of it.
However, the Big Idea thesis material in the piece goes further and connects all kinds of dots:
At 80, he seems eager to fit everything together: not just the movies he’s seen or made, but the books he’s read over a lifetime, the seemingly random encounters he’s had at turning points in his life, the evolving, unfinished project of his own spirituality, shaped largely, but not only, by Catholicism. Intertwined with all of this exploration and self–examination are the movies he still hopes to make, and the finished one that, at the time of our conversation, is about to be released in theaters: an emotionally intense adaptation of David Grann’s 2017 Killers of the Flower Moon, about the sinister, systematic murder of members of the Osage Nation in early 1920s Oklahoma, by white locals who sought to gobble up oil-rich Osage land—a story Scorsese calls “a sober look at who we are as a culture.”
Projects like Killers are part of why he’s spent his career pushing for something that can only be called a radical truth—certainly in the films he makes, but even more so in his everyday reckoning with the world. Plenty of young filmmakers want to be the next Scorsese; few have any sense of what the act of becoming entails.
As you would expect, there is quite a bit of material about the new film that is being promoted, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” It’s a complex, tragic story punches all kinds of Scorsese buttons — greed, betrayal, racism, love, money, family, ethics various kinds of violence.
The feature notes that this project began shortly after the director finished “his 2016 picture Silence, about Portuguese Jesuit missionaries facing a crisis of faith in 17th century Japan. Something about the juxtaposition of “flower moon” and “killers” in the title struck him: “It was an impression, like a haiku, almost.”
As it turns out, Native American religious faith played a role — in the background.
Not only is this story drawn from fairly recent history; it’s also part of a community’s painful past, filmed largely in Pawhuska, Okla., not far from Fairfax, where the events occurred—places where the descendants of the story still live, carrying memories of their forebears. Chad Renfro, an interior designer who grew up in the area with Osage grandparents, became involved in the production at the start, eventually becoming a consulting producer. The story told in Killers of the Flower Moon, horrific enough by itself, is part of a much larger pattern. “Marty made a story of trust and betrayal,” Renfro says. This community had suffered so many betrayals, he explains, “over hundreds of years of dealing with governmental agencies, and people who came in and took advantage of us.” It was understandable that Osage from the area — from Pawhuska, Gray Horse, and Hominy — would be wary of a white filmmaker coming in to tell their story, particularly one whose films are so often charged with violence.
Scorsese and his team worked closely with Osage Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear and his office, Renfro says, and hundreds of Osage were involved in making the film. “The first day of filming, we had an elder, Archie Mason, come and say a prayer,” Renfro says. That amazed and thrilled some of the cast and crew; they’d never before started a film with a prayer.
That’s relevant, right?
Eventually, there is more background material linked to what can only be called a spiritual encounter during a pilgrimage to what is arguably the most important Orthodox Christian monastery in the world. Of course, I’d like to know more about how Scorsese ended up there — but what readers learn is stunning as it is.
Valid religious content?
You know, I was lucky because my parents were really good with me and my brother. And we were part of a very big family.” There wasn’t much money, and his New York City neighborhood was sometimes rough, populated by the kinds of street toughs who would later find a place in his movies. But he knew nothing but love at home. “The real love that I found, acted out as best as possible under the circumstances, was in that apartment on Elizabeth Street.”
He speaks, as he often has in interviews, of Father Francis Principe, the progressive young priest assigned to Scorsese’s neighborhood when he was a kid, an altar boy who was simultaneously attracted to Catholicism and unsure how it connected with real life. Father Principe would take Scorsese and his fellow altar boys to the movies, and they’d discuss what they’d just seen. He introduced the kids to writers — Graham Greene, Dwight Macdonald — they wouldn’t have otherwise read. There are reasons, maybe, why so much of Scorsese’s work — including Killers of the Flower Moon — seems to seek a role for the spiritual self in a hostile, almost inhuman world. “How does human decency, or how does love even come into the picture?” he wonders aloud.
He talks about the time, in 2010, he took a rare vacation in Egypt and visited St. Catherine’s Monastery, in Sinai. It’s located right near the spot where Moses received the tablets; the burning bush is nearby. “It’s no longer burning, but it’s there,” Scorsese says.
As he and his wife Helen and daughter Francesca wound through these dark, 6th century corridors, a maze of white walls with small windows dotted with paintings and cases of artifacts, they turned a corner and a vision — or perhaps it was a challenge — lit up in their path. “All three of us were, like, stunned,” he says. The specter before them wasn’t a ghost at all, but one of the oldest Byzantine icons, an almost life-size encaustic painted on a rounded surface, lifelike and mystical at once, known as the Christ Pantocrator. Symmetry is pleasing in art, which makes the asymmetry of the Christ Pantocrator at least slightly unnerving: one eye is larger than the other, and Scorsese found himself in a stare-down. “The look, you know, the look was a loving sort of confrontational look. Like, who are you? What are you doing with your life? Who are you? What next? All these questions. Like, what, what, what do I do? It shook me, in a way.”
Thus, Scorsese after a talk with Pope Francis, is contemplating making another Jesus movie.
Scorsese wants to play a role, on screen, in the next one.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be, exactly. I don’t know what you’d call it. It wouldn’t be a straight narrative.” It would, he suggests, build on some of the ideas he explored in Silence. “But there would be staged scenes. And I’d be in it.”
It sounds, frankly, unfilmable — all the more reason to believe he’ll pull it off. The Christ Pantocrator will somehow be a part of Scorsese’s Jesus movie; he’s not quite sure how he’s going to get there, but he will. What is he doing with his life? He’s spent a lifetime figuring that out, and he’s nowhere close to being finished. The bush is still there; it’s still burning.
Read it all. Obviously.
FIRST IMAGE: Uncredited publicity photo of Martin Scorsese with the Exclaim website feature, “Martin Scorsese Wants to Be in His Own Movie About Jesus.”