Martin Scorsese's Divine Comedy

Movies and Religion

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Catherine O'Brien
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , May
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As with many other authors who have written about the religious significance of Martin Scorsese’s films, Catherine O’Brien reproduces the director’s “oft-quoted words,” from interviews surrounding Last Temptation of Christ, that his “whole life” has been about nothing other than “movies and religion” (1, 193). O’Brien thinks these words are important enough to repeat in both the introduction and conclusion of her study. While this repetition might seem excessive— retreading the familiar ground that Scorsese’s films are profoundly influenced by Scorsese’s Catholicism might itself seem unnecessary—it is O’Brien’s attention to beginnings and “endings” that make her treatment of Scorsese worthy of attention.

The first several pages of O’Brien’s introduction traverse territory contain nothing new for those with even the most cursory familiarity with religious studies scholarship on Scorsese’s films, but O’Brien acknowledges that she is gathering observations frequently made by others. Her contribution to the study of Scorsese, she contends, is to treat him as “a contemporary Dante, with his oeuvre offering the dimensions of an onscreen Divine Comedy ... (a Living) Hell; (a Daily) Purgatory and a striving for Paradise” (5). While this provides a framework for organizing the thematic treatment of Scorsese’s films, it struck me, in the final analysis, as unnecessary, unilluminating, and unconvincing. Many of the comparisons between Dante and Scorsese, and their respective concerns, seem more gestural than fully developed, based on trivial details of set decoration or lighting, or forced. Especially in the chapters that comprise part one, “Inferno: Visions of Hell,” films are treated with such rapid-fire attention that the interpretive claims seem quite superficial. Anyone with even passing acquaintance with Scorsese’s films knows that they are informed by an aesthetic of violence and the struggle against evil; reading him alongside the Divine Comedy doesn’t show us anything new in the films.

It is, in fact, the sorting of Scorsese’s films into Dante’s categories of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise that seems to ignore their complexity—or misses an opportunity to demonstrate how Scorsese is the anti-Dante who wants to explode, or at least profoundly remap, the Divine Comedy’s hierarchical geography. O’Brien’s treatment of Mean Streets (from Purgatory) and Taxi Driver (from Hell) demonstrates—even though she does not fully acknowledge it—that Scorsese’s sympathetic engagement with his characters—his commitment to not seeing a bad guy as a bad guy—troubles the sorting of sinners and strugglers to which Dante is committed.

O’Brien’s treatment of Taxi Driver and Mean Streets demonstrates something much more important as well. When she loosens her grip on thematic interpretation (for example, tracing all the ways that fire or urban landscapes appear across Scorsese’s films) and focuses her attention on a single movie, her analysis blossoms: it is rich, complex, and insightful. The sections from parts 1 and 2, where her attention lingers with one film and allows that film to be exemplary for a theme, are the most engaging and illuminating sections of those parts. And since part 3, “Paradise (Lost or Found?),” is comprised of three chapters that give concentrated attention to a single film—Last TemptationKundun, and Silence, respectively—it is the strongest section of the book. 

It makes sense to conclude a study of Scorsese with a consideration of Silence, his most recent film. But O’Brien doesn’t just lead up to a consideration of this film; it is present from her book’s opening pages. Similarly, across her study, one of Scorsese’s very first films, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, makes frequent appearances—and is given extended treatment at one point. (Extended treatments of Alice Doesn’t Live Here AnymoreNew York, New York, and King of Comedy are also surprising—but welcome—additions to this study: these films are neglected in scholarship on Scorsese and virtually absent from religious studies scholarship on Scorsese. Moreover, her consideration of love relations, with particular attention to Age of Innocence, gives a new vantage point on Scorsese’s films.) The omnipresence of Scorsese’s initial and most recent film across the book—the penetration of the Alpha and the Omega, beginnings and what for now functions as an ending—gives O’Brien’s treatment a remarkable unity and supports her ultimate conclusion that there is a thematic coherence to Scorsese’s body of work.  In addition, because these films have not received significant attention in scholarship on the religious character of Scorsese’s work, O’Brien’s incorporation of them makes her treatment of Scorsese’s other more shopworn films—Mean StreetsTaxi DriverRaging BullLast Temptation—fresh.  (Her treatment of Last Temptation admirably avoids almost all discussion of the “culture wars” surrounding the film and offers a thoughtful, sympathetic reading of the film itself.)

While some of the material in O’Brien’s book will be familiar to some readers, and while her framing seemed more like a distracting affectation than analytically powerful, I recommend O’Brien’s book to those who teach, watch, and write about Scorsese’s films. O’Brien helps us rediscover, recategorize, and reencounter them in important ways.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kent L. Brintnall is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Affiliate Faculty in Women's and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Catherine O'Brien is Co-director of the Centre for Marian Studies, UK, and was Senior Lecturer in Film Studies and French at Kingston University.


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