Martin Scorsese Talks His Unmade Jesus In New York Movie & More

Silence” is a film that stands outside anything else you’ll see in cinemas. A far cry from the populist Martin Scorsese of “Goodfellas” and “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” the director on display here is exceedingly patient. The cutting between shots is much longer, the film is almost entirely score-free, and its complex themes about the nature of religion and the enigmas of faith offer no easy answers for a culture that often seems to divide itself between follower and atheist, with no middle ground. It’s not a surprise it took Scorsese decades to get it made, all the while grappling with the best way to adapt Shusaku Endo‘s novel.

Religion has always been been a cornerstone of the director’s work, either as an undercurrent or tackled directly in pictures like “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Kundun.” All of his pictures about faith to date have taken place in the past, but Scorsese reveals he once considered a bolder take on the story of Jesus Christ.

“The popular representation of Jesus in the mind of the average moviegoer was coming out of Cecil B. DeMille. Pretty much all films made on religious subject matter were biblical epics. And the best one, of course, was Pasolini’s ‘Gospel According to St. Matthew.’ My original idea was in the early ‘60s. I had realized you could start making films with 16-millimeter black-and-white, because of John Cassavetes doing ‘Shadows,’ and I had a dream that I could maybe make a film someday. And immediately I thought of making a film of the Gospel, but set on the Lower East Side, in the tenements, in modern dress,” the director explained in a wide-ranging conversation with Commonweal. “And the crucifixion would be on the West Side docks, and in black-and-white. And then I saw Pasolini’s ‘Gospel,’ and I said, ‘No, there’s no way for me to do it.’ ”

“Jesus said—when they complained about him, when they said, ‘Look, he’s hanging around with alcoholics, prostitutes, tax collectors,’ and they asked him why he would do that—he said, ‘Well, the ones who are good, they don’t need the doctor, basically.’ And so I always wondered: what about where I grew up, in the Bowery? What about the people who were dying in front of me, the alcoholics who were dying in the streets? What about the underworld? What about the people who wound up doing bad things, but they’re really genuinely good people? What if we do a film, and Jesus is here, on 8th Avenue?” Scorsese said, explaining his vision for the film. “At that time, 8th and 9th Avenue was pretty bad. It’s where we shot ‘Taxi Driver.’ It is a different planet now. But that was the city, and that’s what I grew up with. I heard things. I saw things. I was in the atmosphere.”

A fascinating what-could’ve-been, indeed. And now with “Silence” cleared from his desk and mind, Scorsese is likely turning to his long brewing hitman movie “The Irishman,” but when asked if he thinks he’ll still be directing movies in a decade, the filmmaker becomes philosophical about the rest of his career.

“I don’t know. Even though there’s an enjoyment with filmmaking, and it’s an obsession every time, right now I just finished a film two days ago and I’m exhausted. It’s like, I’ll never make another film! But I’m getting ready. DeNiro is talking to me. You know, it’s the old story: DeNiro and I, we’ve had this project in mind about an old hit man—a true story. He was about seventy-four years old; we happen to be seventy-four. It takes place in the 1960s. It’s about the price you pay for a life that you lead, and a sense of good and evil. So here we are,” he said.

“With any movie, the question is, do you really want to be there? You really have to have a story that you want to tell and that you feel you could tell. And also people that you want to be with. That’s the main thing. Life gets to be too short. Ultimately, the one thing I thought I could do in life was—how should I put it? I thought I could nurture the gift I was given by God, the gift of creativity,” Scorsese continued. “Now, in terms of the results, whether they’re good, mediocre, bad—I don’t know. But it turns out it doesn’t matter. It’s about growing as a person, and in your creative work, if you can grow any further. Is there anything more to mine there? Take the analogy about fishing and the intellectual waters. How deep can you fish, you know? How deep can you do it?”

“Silence” is now playing in limited release, and opens wide on January 13th. Check out a new clip and images below.
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