Scorsese and the World Underneath

Photo by Noom Peerapong on Unsplash

The boxer knows this is it.

He has traveled hundreds of miles, trained for hours on end, and sacrificed his family and his integrity. And there, sitting on the other side of the ring, is his reckoning.

The wearied gladiator lets this knowledge rush over him as trainers prepare his body for combat. A sponge plunges into the bucket by his side, once full of clean water, now dark red from blood. The red liquid anoints his slippery skin, and he turns his head dutifully, parting his lips to receive the mouth guard. It is his Last Supper.

The bell sounds, and he stands. He steps into the center of the ring, and his opponent approaches. The glove flies, and first contact is made. Cameras flash and crackle as the boxer’s face is met again and again. There is no discussion of technique, no explanation of strategy. These fighters cannot be empathized with; these men are Hercules, these men are Samson.

A final whip of the glove, and the boxer falls back onto the ropes. He glances up and, in a final moment of defiance, yells out, “Come on! What are you standing for? Come on!” There is a pause. The world slows down. Both combatants know they must see this through to its inevitable end: crucifixion.

The strikes begin. They come slow and steady and devastating. At the mercy of the gloved hand, our hero’s face ruptures and splits and cracks. He tries to wrap his arms around the rope, making no effort to protect his blackened eyes and broken nose. The blows continue to rain down, tearing skin and spraying blood onto the spectators in the first row. And there, with arms outstretched, bruised and half-naked, the boxer receives the wrath of God.


Martin Scorsese believes he is going to hell. And not in a “I’m going to hell anyway so who cares” rock ‘n roll kinda way. This is a serious, soul-level conviction. “I am living in sin, and I will go to hell because of it.”

Many of his interview have indicated Martin Scorsese believes he is doomed for eternal torment. He also happens to be one of the greatest directors in cinematic history.

His success has attracted plenty of critique. Since his 1967 full-length directorial debut, Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, Scorsese has gained a reputation as a hard-hitting director of R-rated, unapologetically brutal films. Passersby may be quick to write off his work as unnecessarily dark or exploitative. He is responsible for films filled with foul language.

His portrayal of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ was so jarring that even recently deceased critic Roger Ebert, certainly not the Orthodox Christian, agreed that the film was “technically blasphemous.” But an honest observer would have no choice but to admit that Scorsese’s work touches on something we all feel to be true: that if anyone really knew me, he could never love me.

Scorsese’s early years defined him as an outsider: “an asthmatic kid who couldn’t play sports, whose health was too bad to allow him to lead a normal childhood.” This and a geographical proximity to the mafia lifestyle, among other things, seem to have given Scorsese an obsession with the external facade of the world around him versus its internal reality. And as Scorsese has looked inside himself and felt his own inconsistencies, he has only found guilt.

“Some people,” Scorsese has pointed out, “say it’s just a Catholic guilt, that’s all. But it’s still guilt. I don’t mean guilt from being late for Mass or for having sexual thoughts. No, I’m talking about guilt that comes from just being alive.” One interviewer, baffled at the source of this guilt, called it a “cosmic” one.

But the result of this obsession with guilt and facade is obvious in his films. Scorsese is almost a cynic. When one person sees an external truth, Scorsese sees the dark underbelly. His films are about upstanding gentlemen who are actually murderers (Goodfellas), billionaire businessmen who are actually insane (The Aviator), saviors motivated by dark secrets (Temptation), championship boxers driven by guilt and seeking penance in the ring (Raging Bull—described above). In almost every Scorsese film, the protagonist’s presentation of himself is undermined by an opposing internal truth. But Scorsese is not a full cynic for one reason.

Cynics don’t believe in justice.


There is a moment in Scorsese’s 1976 vigilante picture, Taxi Driver, wherein the violent and self-righteous protagonist, Travis Bickle, meditates on the crime he witnesses while driving the streets of New York. He thanks God for the recent rain, noting that it washes the trash off the sidewalks. But he goes on to state that “[all] the animals come out at night . . . someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Scorsese echoed these sentiments in a recent interview: “[42nd Street] was like biblical in my mind—hell and damnation and Jeremiah, and someday a real rain was going to come.”

“Morality tales” are often exercises in vicarious hedonism that end in judgment to excuse what came before. Not so with Scorsese. The attractive results of certain sins are still attractive, but when the hammer comes down, we feel it. Reflecting on Goodfellas, Scorsese notes that “[the] danger of the picture is that young people could look at it and think, Hey, what a great life. But you’ve got to see the last hour of the picture when things start going wrong in a big way.”

Scorsese believes that the real rain is coming; he is waiting for that last hour. But unlike Bickle, he believes that the rain will fall on him as well. And we feel it too; when we refuse to confess our addiction because of shame, when we suppress the urge to hurt our own children, when we lose our temper in secret, we feel the rain coming.


If Scorsese’s 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, speaks to his personal belief, then this intense fear of judgment seems inevitable. In Temptation, Jesus’ crucifixion was not motivated by love for man so much as personal penance. Jesus the carpenter spent the years before his ministry making crosses for the Roman Empire. This view begs the question: how can Christ die for others when he must also die for his personal guilt?

But Scorsese has made one film that strays from his formula, the 2011 children’s film Hugo. The story circles around an old man in the first half of the 20th century, Georges Melies, who used to be a director. Embittered by his experiences with movie-making, he buries his past and becomes a common vendor in the Parisian train station. Throughout the course of the film, his past is brought to light. But instead of judgment, he receives glory. A film critic discovers him, spends great effort in recovering his remaining films, and puts on a gala in his honor. At the end of the movie, Melies stands before an enraptured audience, grin on his face, and introduces his films.

“Will you dream with me?”

It is clear that, for Scorsese, Hugo is about preserving and properly esteeming the directors of old. Scorsese longs to rescue those men who comforted him through their films when he was an outsider. But perhaps this perspective is just the external, just the facade.

Perhaps, underneath Hugo, Scorsese is daring to ask the same question as Melies: “Will you dream with me?” But this dream is not of old movies or fantastic voyages. It is not a dream of celluloid and special effects. This dream is a quiet plea for acceptance from a man on the outside. This dream is an excuse for a man who does not believe he is worthy to imagine for a moment that he is.

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