Essay
Culture
Film & TV
5 min read

Scorsese’s fusion

The director's whole canon is infused with religion.

Sonny works creatively with videography, graphic design, fashion, and photography.

A bloody and shocked boxed leans on the ropes
Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.
United Artists.

Since the release of Silence in 2016, film critics have referred to Martin Scorsese’s ‘Trilogy of Faith’; this term refers to the legendary director’s three faith-based movies, a 'trilogy' of films which was brought to a neat completion by Silence.  

Or was it? 

Scorsese recently announced his next project: The Life of Jesus. This will be his fourth film that sits comfortably within in the ‘faith’ category, shattering the neat theory of a trilogy of films. Not only that, this film, which will be an adaptation of a novel of the same name by author Shūsaku Endō (who also authored Silence), has officially put an end to a notion that has irked me for some time: that themes of religion and faith are exclusive to just three of Scorsese’s twenty-six films. 

Into the seventh decade of his long career, it feels as though no cinematic ground has been left uncovered by Scorsese. From a children’s film about the awe-inspiring wonder and amazement that cinema offers (Hugo), to an absurdist black comedy with an unassuming philosophical sting (After Hours), to a psychodrama depicting the corrosive effects of isolation and disillusionment eerily predictive of today’s Incel culture (Taxi Driver). And then there are the films that, at least at first glance, stand in opposition to his signature mobster-epics - his aforementioned ’Trilogy of Faith’. 

Even when Scorsese is telling stories completely removed from faith, he still weaves spiritual content into the fabric of his work. 

Scorsese’s first foray into depicting overtly spiritual subject matter was 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ. It sees Scorsese, and frequent collaborator and screenwriter Paul Schrader, seek to find and dissect the humanity of Jesus (played by Willem Defoe). This film dives headfirst into the complex waters of the incarnation, asking what it means for Jesus to be both fully man and fully God. Scorsese subsequently creates a portrait of Jesus as a human wrestling with the complexity and ambiguity of his own divinity.  

His second ‘Faith Movie’ sees him delve into the world of Buddhism and non-violence with 1997’s Kundun. It is part history lesson, part spiritual exploration, showcasing the life of the 14th Dalai Lama. The film begins with the Dalai Lama being discovered by monks at the age of two and tracks his life as both the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, until its annexation by China and his exile to Northern India in 1959. Similarly to Last Temptation, it is within the ambiguity of a dual identity that Scorsese finds the narrative thread of the film; while Scorsese’s Jesus is caught in the tension of being both God and man, the Dalai Lama must wrestle with his identity as both the political and spiritual leader of a nation amidst a world in constant conflict. 

Which brings us to the supposed culmination of Scorsese’s ‘Trilogy of Faith’: 2016’s Silence. The film, based on the novel by Shūsaku Endō, tells the story of two Catholic Portuguese missionaries in 17th Century Japan. When it comes to the setting and plot of this film, the crucial contextual detail is that, in an attempt to stamp-out peasant uprisings, Christianity has been outlawed in Japan. And yet, the film sees these two Catholic priests (played by Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield) venture into a land where Christians are being routinely tortured and executed for their faith. Their motivation for doing so is to find their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly renounced his faith. Upon their arrival, the two priests are confronted with the reality of the Japanese regime, coming face-to-face with relentless brutality and violence. And, as the narrative unfolds, they become active participants in the fate of other Christian prisoners, for whom the choice to defend or renounce their faith is a choice between life or death. As a result, we witness the priests’ personal beliefs, as well as their opinions of Father Ferreira’s decision, begin to change.  

And there we have it: what the critics would have you believe is Scorsese’s ‘Trilogy of Faith’. While it is true that these are the only films that directly depict religious subject matter, this theory overlooks the constant presence of religious imagery and themes throughout his entire career. Indeed, there is more to Scorsese’s highly stylised, Rolling Stones soundtracked, bombastic gangster films than this theory would have you believe.  

To fully expound the religious themes in Scorsese’s work would require an entire career retrospective: from his very first film (Who’s That Knocking at my Door – 1967), where the young Catholic boy struggles to reconcile his idealisation of the virginal purity of women with the reality of the women in his life, all the way up to his latest feature, (Killers of the Flower Moon - 2023), the third act of which is built upon notions of guilt, confession and forgiveness. Even when Scorsese is telling stories completely removed from faith, he still weaves spiritual content into the fabric of his work. 

Silence, 2016.

A 17th century monk holds up a wafer before an altar while Japanese Christians kneel.
Andrew Garfield in Silence.

Yet, there is one film, and one scene in particular, that I would suggest epitomises the profound influence that Christianity has had on Scorsese’s life and work; it is the closing scene of 1980’s Raging Bull, a biopic of Italian-American boxer, Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro). And you’d be forgiven for thinking that this stark film about a man who is defined by violence has no spiritual content, nor religious imagery to it. Yet, as the film draws to a close, La Motta looks at himself in a mirror and recites Marlon Brando’s famous ‘I coulda been a contender...’ monologue from  On The Waterfront. And then, as the film fades to black and the only thing left for the audience to expect is the rolling of the credits, an excerpt of John’s Gospel fills the screen:  

‘So, for the second time, the Pharisees summoned the man who had been born blind and said “speak the truth before God, we know this fellow is a sinner”. “Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know”, the man replied. “All I know is this: Once I was blind and now I can see”’.  

This movie, which neither centres religion nor cinema in its plot, climaxes with one of the greatest cinematic monologues, and ultimately, a Bible verse.  

Why? 

Because, for Scorsese, a man who flirted with entering the priesthood in his younger years and was first exposed to cinema through one of his local priests, the marriage of Catholicism and cinema have defined his life. Therefore, when it comes to work of Martin Scorsese, it would be impossible to have one without the other.   

Now that Scorsese himself has explicitly moved beyond the idea of a ‘Trilogy of Faith’; perhaps the critics, and we the audience, should do the same. 

Column
Character
Culture
Economics
4 min read

This revolting rich list is a freak show

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A collage of famous, rich, people such as King Charles, Elton John and others.
The Sunday Times.

General elections are no longer a clear choice between socialism and capitalism, but we should still be as offended by the privilege of the few over the poverty of many. That’s only natural, whether we’re informed by envy, a secular sense of fairness or a religious faith.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor in the UK is offensive. When PM Rishi Sunak was drenched in his vale of tears this week outside Number 10, as he announced the general election, he was seeking a mandate to preside over this inequality, in which he so richly participates.

He stood there exactly three days after he and his wife waved from the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List, based on the newspaper’s “conservative estimates of the minimum wealth of Britain’s 350 richest people.”

The Sunaks stood at 245th on the list with a measly £651m. Just 20 years ago, when I was in business, that figure would have put them near the top. Some of my business contemporaries had even made the Rich List with just a few tens of millions.

Not anymore. Mere multimillionaires barely make the cut. The ever-widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us means that the top 165 of last Sunday’s list of 300 are now billionaires, compared with just 20 a quarter of a century ago, while the “bottom” of today’s heap struggle by as half-billionaires. 

It does make you wonder what the Sunday Times is doing with this revolting annual survey. It has become such an anachronism since it started in the Eighties, when greed was good and we worshipped Croesus impersonators.  

Every year, we’re invited to press our noses up against their plate-glass window and drool at a world that’s as alien as a pharaoh’s to the slaves building their pyramid. What do they want from us for this display of greed? Envy?   

Times (even on Sunday) have changed and the Rich List satirises itself. Look at the ads that support it. There’s one for a 122-metre yacht that can be chartered for three million euros a week. A few pages later there’s one for a Swiss clinic “for the treatment of mental health and issues of substance and behavioural dependency”. Could these ads be related?  

So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

The Rich List is just for the British mega-rich. So no room here for Meta-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or space-wingnut Elon Musk. But it’s nice to see at the top of the list, with just a couple of hundred million over the £37bn-mark, the Hinduja family, whose leading lights so publicly acquired British passports some years ago, with or without government help.  

And here’s Lakshmi Mittal (No. 8 with £15bn), who was recently accused of profiting from both sides of the Ukraine conflict, after a part-owned Indian company bought nearly £2.4bn of Russian oil since the start of the war. Which newspaper revealed this? Step forward the Sunday Times.  

And there’s vacuum magnate Sir James Dyson (No. 5 with £21bn) who backed Brexit and then moved his global HQ to Singapore. That’s the beauty of being so rich; you can escape the consequences of your own actions. 

Most of the list is what similarly might be called colourful. These cannot, by virtue of their economic separation, be normal people. So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. 

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle? Sure. there is no virtue in poverty. But nor should there be a prosperity gospel, which holds that the righteous are financially rewarded, other than in the outer reaches of an American charismatic movement. 

Among the things that make us go “hmm” in this report is the attitude to life. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell (No. 109, £1.5bn) says “If I stopped I’d probably be desperately unhappy.” Hmm. New entrant to the list Graham King (No. 221=, £750m) made his fortune from public money contracts for accommodation for asylum seekers that inspectors have described as “decrepit” and is currently the subject of charges under the Housing Act 2004. Hmm. 

Cursed are the rich, for they shall lose touch with reality. That’s not a heretical rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount, with its “Blessed are...” Beatitudes. There are actually four lesser known woes in the Gospel of Luke: 

 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

These woes aren’t about revenge. But they do speak to the consequences of extreme wealth – such as profiteering from desperately vulnerable people or working so hard you can’t think properly. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. Today, the Sunday Times should be as ashamed of idolising it as those it lionises for making so much of it.