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The Sacramental Cinema of Martin Scorsese

"I believe in the tenets of Catholicism. I'm not a doctor of the church. I'm not a theologian who could argue the Trinity. I'm certainly not interested in the politics of the institution," renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese told Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica before the release of his 2016 film Silence, "but the idea of the Resurrection, the idea of the Incarnation, the powerful message of compassion and love—that's the key. The sacraments, if you are allowed to take them, to experience them, help you stay close to God." In Catholic theology, a sacrament is a signum sacrosanctum efficax gratiae—a sacred sign producing grace. Sacramental rituals such as baptism, the eucharist, or matrimony do not merely symbolize God’s grace but actively produce it in those that partake in said rituals. For many Catholics, the idea of something material encompassing and producing something divine extends far beyond the official seven sacraments. As Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins presents it, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

This sacramental outlook permeates the work of Martin Scorsese. In Taxi Driver (1976), Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) hopes that “someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets.” Through this comment, Travis expresses a sacramental belief that while rain and water may symbolize moral purification—just as they do in the sacrament of baptism—they also have the real, tangible power to purify. Scorsese often focuses on sin and redemption and the sacramental nature of the two. Mean Streets (1973) opens with Charlie (Harvey Keitel) declaring that “you don’t make up for your sins in Church. You do it on the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.” Charlie refuses to repent for his sins in the ritual manner the Church asks of him, just as Johnny (DeNiro) refuses to pay his debts in the manner the Mafia asks of him. While Charlie’s refusal to take part in the Church’s ritual redemption will lead to his damnation, Johnny’s refusal to take part in the Mafia’s redemption leads to violence against him at the end of the film.

Photo Credit: Medium

Silence (2016), set during a period in which Japan had outlawed Christianity and persecuted missionaries, extensively grapples with the true power of a sacramental world. In the film, the Japanese authorities ask Jesuit Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) to step on the fumi-e, an image of Christ, to prove he has truly renounced his faith. Rodrigues hears a voice, which he thinks to be Christ, giving him permission to partake in the ritual apostasy, and so he steps on the image. Despite apparently being given permission to partake in this sinful ritual, the act both symbolizes and causes Rodrigues to be cast off from the faith. He ceases to believe until his death. “The man who was Rodrigues,” the film’s narrator says, “ended as he wanted: lost to God.” But in the film’s final moments, as Rodrigues’ body is burned on his Buddhist funeral pyre, we zoom in to see that he clutches in his hands a small, crudely made crucifix. Rodrigues is so tormented by his forced rejection of Christ that he cannot bring himself to be faithful, and so it falls on the crucifix, the material symbol of Christ’s sacrifice and God’s grace, to bring about his final redemption. At a time when Rodrigues has lost his spirituality, it is the physical and ritual world that he must rely on.


Scorsese’s filmography constantly concerns itself with the sacramental world and how that world affects, represents, and causes the profane; however, Scorsese’s latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), represents a change in this portrayal. In one scene, William K. Hale (DeNiro) punishes his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) for failing to cover up the insurance fraud he was engaged in by spanking him in an empty masonic lodge. “I am a thirty-second degree mason,” Hale says before he exacts his punishment, “I am imbued with confidence, trust, and responsibility among other things.” Hale removes the Bible from the altar before he begins. This is not a masonic ritual—Hale is instead using the trappings of the order and his rank to further intimidate the naive Burkhart. The ritual Hale performs stems from his power over Burkhart (via its context, the physical spanking, the misuse of freemason imagery, etc.) and reinforces that power. The ritual does not both represent and cause divine action; instead, the action is what causes the ritual. There is a ritual enactment of an existing truth. This ritual, then, cannot be called neither sacred nor a sacramental representation of the divine in the profane world. Rather, it is the exact opposite: the profane being sanctified.


For Scorsese, this reverse sacrament, this sacred profanity, is fundamental to his portrayals of America and the crime and violence that permeate its history. By portraying the sinful actions of his protagonists through a cinematic allure, Scorsese ritualizes them. He therefore shows the audience their own acceptance of ritualized sin and exposes our culpability in the entire enterprise. Consider the ending to The Wolf of Wall Street. We have seen Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) cheat his way to the top of the financial world. Once he has fallen from grace, we find him at a low-level conference, once again, manipulating his audience. “Sell me this pen,” he asks. After all we have seen of his lies and scams, Scorsese puts us right back in the position of the willing victim. As the camera moves through the crowd of conference-goers, it becomes a mere mirror for an audience that has idolized Belfort, despite all his crimes, because the film has made those very crimes sacred.

Photo Credit: Entertainment Weekly

The ending of Killers has the same effect. After Burkhart has turned state’s witness and Hale put in prison, we shift to a 1950s radio show telling the story of the Osage murders at the center of the film. We see an overly ritualized version of the events of the film: the radio actors read their lines with ridiculous accents, foley artists add in comical sound effects, the story is sure to mention the show’s sponsor: Lucky Strike Cigarettes. Then Scorsese himself takes the stage to tell the live audience that Molly Burkhart’s (Lily Gladstone) obituary never mentioned the murders that plagued her people. Killers of the Flower Moon is therefore the ultimate evolution of Scorsese’s “sacramental cinema.” He not only recognizes the power of a sacramental world and the sacred profanity that pervade his epics of American crime, but he also now recognizes and lays bare the sacrament that lies within his films themselves. Scorsese has stripped away all of the mystery. He has shown us the true violence at the heart of the American story, the ritual and sanctification that has allowed that violence to continue, and the complacency of the audience in the perversion of the sacred.

 

Benjamin Fishbein is a sophomore in the College studying History, Theology, and Film.

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