Spotlight On…Martin Scorsese

Daniel Woods

On the 17th of November 2022, the director Martin Scorsese turned 80 years old. His career has spanned decades and genres, winning one Oscar as well as racking up thirteen nominations. Daniel Woods examines the acclaimed director’s career and achievements in cinema.

Martin Scorsese was not supposed to make it to eighty years old. As a child, the future titan of film was diminutive and sickly. Frail and wracked with asthma, the boy was known to spend up to hours every day in the cinema. His great love of film was fostered as he was kept off the streets of Little Italy – where he was raised – and forbidden from playing sports or engaging in other strenuous activities.

In his childhood, Scorsese’s family was loving and Catholic; the influence of his parents echoes through his work. Seeds of his future staccato, fast-talking dialogue can be seen in his 1974 documentary Italianamerican, a home movie in which the director and documentarian sits with his mother and father to discuss his upbringing as the child of Italian immigrants and his parents’ own development in Sicily. The house is adorned with Catholic iconography.

Catholicism, and Christianity as a whole, have been common themes

The director himself is a – lapsed – Catholic. He acted as an altar boy in St. Patrick’s Cathedral as a child before a failed attempt at becoming a priest himself. He never realised this aim, being expelled from the seminary he attended due to frequently being late and roughhousing.

After his failure at the seminary, Scorsese joined New York University, pursuing, and attaining, a bachelor’s and then master’s degree in film communications. His student films showed his wide-ranging influences. European films, musicals, films from Asia, classical westerns, mob flicks: his influences were as varied as his work would become.

Of course, pulling from this intense love of cinema, Scorsese’s oeuvre has been as varied as any great director before or since. From what many consider to be the pinnacle of the crime film in Goodfellas, to musicals such as New York, New York, to deep explorations of religion in films like The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, and Silence.

Violence is Scorsese’s key theme

Catholicism, and Christianity as a whole, have been common themes throughout the director’s filmography. His debut feature – 1967’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door? – focused on the contrast between human desires in a materialistic world and the living of a compassionate, religious life. This theme would haunt Scorsese throughout his career. Even his most recent effort, The Irishman, pivots to explore the yearning for redemption of an old hitman.

One of Scorsese’s other key themes throughout his career has been his exploration of masculinity. Most of Scorsese’s characters are devoted to being men in the classical sense. Stoic, emotionally distant and violent. No film of his explores this more gracefully than Raging Bull, a multi-year chronicle of how boxer Jake LaMotta’s struggles with his own mansculinity and substance abuse tears apart his family and friendships. Scorsese’s camera is unflinching. LaMotta is an abuser yet is treated with grace becoming a saint. The director is still a Christian at heart.

Everything that makes Scorsese so great is on display [in Taxi Driver]

Of course, expounded in all his films, violence is Scorsese’s key theme. Be it emotional or physical, violent acts permeate through the director’s filmography. From the surprise gunshot in The Departed to the quiet heartbreak in Age of Innocence. Christ being nailed to the cross and a decrepit De Niro stomping on a man’s head in The Irishman – a sly call back to his younger self doing the same in Goodfellas.

The director seems incredibly concerned with the effects of violence on the soul beyond anything else. Nowhere is this more poignant than a film that has – intentionally – not been discussed so far. 1976’s Taxi Driver.

Taxi Driver was Scorsese’s pinnacle as a film maker. A tense character study, an early collaboration with screenwriter Paul Schrader (who would go on to be a formidable director in his own right), a scathing critique of the effects of the Vietnam war, Robert De Niro’s best performance. Enough gushing platitudes could be written about it to fill this article twice over. Everything that makes Scorsese so great is on display here. It is perfection in 114 minutes.

The World Cinema Project has restored fifty films to this date

Martin Scorsese is a cinematic titan. Part of the pantheon of all time great directors. This spans beyond his own work. His deep love of cinema spurred him on to creating The Film Foundation in 1990. The Film Foundation is a modern marvel in the world of cinema. It concerns itself with the preservation of film and restoration of damaged film, being responsible for the restoration of over nine hundred films.

It has also spearheaded the World Cinema Project, which aims to restore and promote films from countries that are not typically considered to be at the forefront of global cinema. The World Cinema Project has restored fifty films to this date, with these films being released in collaboration with the Criterion Corporation.

As can be seen, Martin Scorsese’s reach is large, and influence is boundless. His work stands, quality wise, near the pinnacle of what the artform of cinema can reach. However, his contribution to the cinematic world is much larger. Cinema has no better champion, no larger defender than Martin Scorsese.

Daniel Woods

Featured image courtesy of D@LY3D via Flickr under ‘All Creative Commons’ license. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

 In article trailer courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment via YouTube. No changes were made to this video.

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