Martin Scorsese; The Master

Article written by: Arjun Anil Bhaskar

From the sacred to the profane, films by Martin Scorsese have run the gamut, but his themes and stylistic tendencies have remained largely the same. As a director and filmmaker, he has grown and evolved over the years.

“After Mean Streets was released, I wrote a review saying that Scorsese had a chance to become the American Fellini in ten years or so. The next time we met after the review appeared, Marty looked serious and concerned: “Do you really think it’s going to take ten years?”

Roger Ebert

Martin Scorsese is considered to be one of the most important directors of our time. His expressive and dynamic films explore characters who fight for their physical and spiritual survival within richly drawn communities or ‘gangs’ to which they will never fully belong, whether on the streets of New York – where Scorsese himself grew up – or in the highest echelons of society. Martin Scorsese has developed his own distinctive cinematic handwriting through his passionate study of European auteur cinema and the classic Hollywood repertoire. Scorsese’s work spans his early experimental works, through documentaries and music films to television drama. Through his commitment to film restoration, he continues to create a bridge between the past and future of the moving image. Much has been written about Scorsese, while Scorsese himself is renowned for the passion with which he talks about films and the history of cinema. The narrative complexity of his films and the power of the worlds and characters he creates have inspired a body of passionate and provocative critique. Martin Scorsese grew up in the 1950s in Little Italy, New York, in a small tenement apartment with his parents and older brother. His grandparents, who had emigrated from Sicily, lived nearby, as did his aunts, uncles and cousins. The Catholic Church and the local mafia were the other key influences in this tightly knit community. However, family provides more than just protective shelter in Scorsese’s films. Above all, it is a regulating power, which limits the freedom of its members and triggers conflict. Scorsese’s characters do not escape this pressure when they become involved in organized crime: rules that are equally strict have to be observed within its family-like structure. It is this wonderful ability of the director to channel his creativity through the lenses of his personal experiences that endears him to the audience and critics alike. Scorsese enjoys a prestigious position as an artistic filmmaker in the canon of American film culture. His films have his signature style coupled with a whiff of freshness every time he brings something to the screen.

Martin Scorsese grew up in a tough neighbourhood and was afflicted by asthma as a young boy. His only relief was going to the movies with his parents, who bought him up in strict catholic faith, a theme which is often recurring in his movies, including The Irishman. Both of Scorsese’s parents featured in his early movies such from Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1969) to Goodfellas (1990).

The auteuristic style of Scorsese leaves its signature in every one of his films, no matter what genre it belongs to. The touch of the filmmaker is present in every one of his films. Above all, the man reveals truths about the human condition that both appall and fascinate the viewer – one cannot possibly understand why one identifies with Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976) or Jake La Motta (Raging Bull, 1980) but the viewer is nevertheless awestruck by his wizardry in creating sympathy for so many violent and self-loathing characters. Scorsese could easily be called the saviour of the antihero; indeed, his films often feature lead protagonists balancing the line between sanity and insanity.

Think of the great moments that make up his films: Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) punching the prison walls and beating his head against the stone in agony near the end of Raging Bull; Travis Bickle (De Niro), soaked in blood, staring at New York police officers while pathetically placing his index finger against his head pulling an imaginary trigger in Taxi Driver; Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) staring at his tortured image in the mirror as his obsessiveness leads to his demise in The Aviator (2004); the slow-motion, drenched-red entrance of Johnny Boy (De Niro) to Jumpin’ Jack Flash by The Rolling Stones in Mean Streets (1973); and, the shocking elevator confrontation between Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) in The Departed (2006). There is a certain ease with which Scorsese makes his films seem authentic and cinematic at the same time.

Scorsese is a chameleon of a filmmaker. He adapts and adopts his cinematic techniques to suit the story that he is trying to portray on screen and he ensures that his films are adept and updated in terms of the cinematic apparatus that he employs. Scorsese has crafted a superb cinematic niche involving conflicted, alienated lead characters who often resort to shocking violence as a means of being ‘accepted’ into a certain society. The morality of these characters is another recurring Scorsese thematic idea; originally interested in joining the Catholic priesthood, Scorsese uses religious undertones and motifs throughout his works, often unintentionally. Note the Christ-like poses that Frank Costello in The Departed and La Motta in Raging Bull emulate upon their ultimate defeat, not to mention the obvious symbolism in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Jack Nicholson in The Departed by Martin Scorsese
Jack Nicholson in The Departed
De Niro in Raging Bull by Martin Scorsese
De Niro in Raging Bull

Scorsese’s first masterpiece, Mean Streets (1973), is the story of conflicted New York hoodlum Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and his Catholic guilt as a sinner doomed for Hell. His penance comes in the symbolic representation of Johnny Boy, his dimwitted cousin who owes money all over town. Ultimately, Charlie’s attempts to escape this immoral world are undermined by the chaos caused by Johnny Boy.

Especially interesting in the film is Charlie’s repeated use of flames to burn his finger – as if he were testing the fires of Hell to assure himself that he will be ready for his judgment day. The opening lines of Mean Streets – “You don’t pay for your sins in church. You do it on the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.” – allude to the eventual penance that Charlie must face in the form of Johnny Boy. Scorsese also prominently features one of his most infamous camera angles – the so-called Priests-Eye View, which is not quite a Birds-Eye View shot but, rather, the angle at which a priest would look down upon his sinners.

The theme of catholic faith and Christianity is expressed in The Irishman as well. The baptism scenes of Frank’s daughters and the repentance and the religious faith that the gangsters such as Russel and Frank find in the twilight years of their life shows Scorsese’s devotion to the theme. The scene also shows Russel as the Godfather to one of Frank’s daughters, the image of the Godfather as the figure that demands respect and authority in the Mafia adds another symbolic dimension to the scene and also serves as Scorsese’s homage to his dear friend and the director of what could arguably be hailed as the best gangster movie of all time, Francis Ford Coppola.

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