Faith and doubt in the films of Martin Scorsese

His adaptation of Silence is the most recent example of the acclaimed director’s powerful depictions of the “dark wood” of doubt.

Andrew Garfield stars as Father Rodrigues in a scene from the movie "Silence." (CNS photo/Paramount)

Martin Scorsese’s latest film, his adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, has provoked mixed reactions from Catholic reviewers, from adulation to criticism. Indeed, the film—which deals with Jesuit missionaries in Japan during times of extreme persecution of Christians, and which, like the novel it is based on, ends with the main character apostatizing—is complex and does not offer simple answers. This is not the first time Scorsese has dealt with religious themes in his work; in particular his films The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun offer glimpses into how the director sees faith. A former minor seminarian who once considered becoming a priest, Scorsese has become lax in his religious practices as an adult, yet has always acknowledged the impact Catholicism has had on his thinking and work. A close analysis of several of his religious-themed films shows that while he definitely deals with the Dantean dark wood of doubt, a subtle affirmation of faith can be found underlying Scorsese’s work.

Scorsese’s first film, 1967’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door, explicitly deals with Catholic themes. J.R. (played by frequent Scorsese collaborator Harvey Keitel in his first screen role) meets a nameless, pretty lady on the Staten Island Ferry. They quickly strike up a relationship. J.R. lives with his devoutly Catholic Italian-American family. In one scene, he begins fooling around with his girlfriend on his bed, but stops and claims that they should wait upon seeing images of Mary and statues of the saints in his room. Later, J.R. is seen having sexual fantasies about prostitutes, and tells his girlfriend about the difference between good girls and promiscuous “broads.” When she tells him that she was the victim of rape, J.R. refuses to believe her and ultimately accuses her of being a “whore.” They presumably break up, while J.R. goes to a Catholic church to seek consolation, but finds none.

Who’s That Knocking at My Door is a film that deals with being a Catholic in the modern world. It is also something of a critique of religious hypocrisy, not unlike Molière’s Tartuffe. J.R. is, one the one hand, seen as trying to respect Christian standards of chastity, but on the other, he is judgmental and is himself overwhelmed with lust. Like so many other films by Scorsese, Who’s That Knocking at My Door is filled with ambiguity and room for interpretation. The film hardly seems an attack on Christianity; it may even be interpreted as having an underlying pro-Christian message. J.R.’s hypocrisy is not Christian, as attested by the fact that he cannot find consolation in a church. Perhaps he feels guilt for not being a consistent Catholic, and for this reason he does not feel comfortable in the house of God.

Harvey Keitel also stars in Scorsese’s next film dealing with faith, Mean Streets (1973). Again, Keitel plays an Italian-American Catholic, this time a young hood named Charlie who struggles to balance his faith and his ties to the mob. Ultimately, the latter prevails. Charlie claims that St. Francis of Assisi is his hero, but is the saint’s exact opposite, as he descends into an underworld of violence. Naturally, the consequences are tragic. Like Who’s That Knocking at My Door, the film is an exploration of the adverse effects of a superficial Catholicism.

Starting with 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese’s faith-related films have dealt with the topic of doubt. Easily one of the most controversial pictures in the history of cinema, Last Temptation provoked anger from Christians of all denominations worldwide. In Paris, Catholics set fire to a theater showing the film. Meanwhile, in the pre-Netflix days when video stores reigned supreme, Blockbuster Video refused to carry it. The film deals with the human aspect of Christ’s person, and it has been often described as blasphemous. The most controversial scene depicts Satan tempting Jesus the leave the Cross and pursue a family life with Mary Magdalene; Jesus is discreetly shown making love to her (ultimately, Jesus resists this temptation, which will be discussed later). In my opinion, even more problematic from a Christian perspective are the film’s early scenes that show Jesus rebelling against God and his identity as Messiah by making crosses for the Romans to crucify Jewish prophets.

Christian critics of The Last Temptation are right in insisting that these scenes are blasphemous. However, there is another layer to the film. To understand it, one should refer to the novel of the same title by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, which was the basis for Scorsese’s film. Kazantzakis’ book was no less controversial than the film; it almost got him excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church, and there were difficulties with procuring a Christian burial for him after his death in 1957 (although Kazantzakis ultimately was buried in an Orthodox ceremony).

Kazantzakis’ oeuvre deals with two main themes: his intense Greek patriotism and defense of his homeland from foreign invasion (in the past two centuries, the cradle of civilization ardently and successfully fought for independence from the Turks, and suffered a cruel occupation by Nazi Germany and its Italian and Bulgarian allies), and his spiritual struggle. Initially disappointed by Christianity, Kazantzakis sought refuge in Buddhism, the philosophy of Nietzsche, and communism, yet ultimately returned to Christ, seeing Him as the source of salvation. One could argue that Christ in Last Temptation is really Kazantzakis’ spiritual alter ego. Initially rebelling against God by collaborating with the Romans, in the novel Christ goes into the desert and returns convinced he is the Messiah, preaching love among the Jews and imploring them to love their enemies rather than rise up against them (this overlooked aspect of the novel could appeal to conservative readers as a rebuke to Marxist liberation theology).

When on the Cross, Jesus is tempted by Satan to marry Mary Magdalene and Martha (in Scorsese’s film, Jesus is tempted by marriage only to the former). Yet seeing the great unhappiness that His not dying for the sins of humanity would bring to the world, Jesus ultimately embraces his Messianic identity and chooses to die. In the foreword to the novel, Kazantzakis writes that he wrote the novel to give humanity hope that we can conquer temptation and sin. “It is accomplished!” Jesus cries ecstatically, both in the novel and the book, knowing that his death on the Cross has saved humanity.

It is perfectly understandable why The Last Temptation of Christ, both the novel and film, offended many Christians. Though Christ was human and divine, he never sinned. In the book and movie Jesus resists Satan’s “last temptation,” as well as Mary Magdalene’s sexual advances, he does sin by building crosses for the Romans before his conversion experience in the desert (the Galilean Jews in Kazantzakis’ book see him as a traitor, spitefully calling him “the Cross-maker”). Yet despite these problematic aspects, Last Temptation ultimately is an affirmation of faith. Jesus decides to die on the Cross, just like Kazantzakis ultimately accepted the Christian faith in which he was raised.

Scorsese returned to religious themes nine years after Last Temptation with Kundun, a biopic about the childhood and young adulthood of the present Dalai Lama, up to his exile from his Chinese-occupied homeland to India in 1959. This beautifully filmed work depicts many Tibetan customs and the colorfulness of Tibetan Buddhism in a way that is most appealing to the senses. Philip Glass’ oddly fitting modernistic score perfectly complements one of Martin Scorsese’s most underrated films.

While many Westerners have replaced religious observance with Eastern spirituality in the past two centuries, Scorsese is not one of them. In fact, Kundun is filled with a subtle skepticism that puts the veracity of Tibetan Buddhism in a doubtful light. In the film, we first encounter the Dalai Lama as an adorable two-year-old boy in 1937, living in a village right on the Tibetan-Chinese border. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama (who was a great modernizer of Tibet) has just died, and a bevy of Buddhist monks is searching the Rooftop of the World to find the latest incarnation of the god-king. When they reach the household of the young Tenzin Gyatso, they show the tyke objects belonging to the former of the Dalai Lama. If the boy can correctly identify them, then that must be a sure sign of past-life regression. “Mine!” the child yells as he greedily grabs objects belonging to his previous incarnation. Scorsese frames the scene in such a way that we are forced to wonder if this indeed is evidence of reincarnation, or if we are simply dealing with a precocious and sometimes annoying toddler acting like any other little child. Meanwhile, when the young Tenzin is identified as the incarnation of Tibet’s theocratic monarch, he is taken to the Potala Palace in Lhasa to learn the basics of Buddhism and the history of his ancient land. In one scene, one of the young Dalai Lama’s tutors instructs him about one of the great deities in Tibet’s history. The young boy asks if he is real, or if he was made up.

Kundun features numerous scenes that subtly but suggestively cast doubt on the Tibetans’ traditional beliefs. However, Scorsese shows the Tibetans as kind, peaceful people whose religion gives their life meaning. He contrasts this favorably with the brutality of the atheistic Chinese communists who invade Tibet in 1950. Hoping to turn the Dalai Lama into a submissive, Quisling-like collaborator, Chairman Mao invites the young monarch to Mainland China. “Religion is poison,” he tells the Dalai Lama. Mao explains that for progress and modernization to occur in Tibet, the ancient land must do away with its superstitions.

Mao was the biggest butcher in human history, killing more people than Hitler and Stalin combined during peacetime. The Chinese invasion of Tibet was particularly brutal: 1.2 million Tibetans died, and 6,000 out of 7,000 Buddhist monasteries have been destroyed. Today, Chinese settlers are forcing the Hanization of the land, and visitors to historic sites such as the Potala Palace hear lies about Tibetan history from Chinese guides who falsely claim that Tibet was always a province of China. While doubts are expressed about the veracity of Tibetan religion, the contrast between the brutal Chinese communist invaders and the peaceful, family-loving, joyous Tibetans is clear in Kundun.

The most recent work in this Scorsesean triptych dealing with doubt is Silence. Catholic reviewers of the work have been strongly divided. As with The Last Temptation of Christ, the viewer may better understand the film by looking into the novel it was based on and its author’s life. Like Nikos Kazantzakis, Shusaku Endo was a man whose life was marked by spiritual anguish, yet who ultimately submitted to faith in Christ. Born in 1923, Endo was an adolescent convert to Catholicism. He was quite pessimistic about the possibility of being both Japanese and Catholic. Unlike Europe or the Americas, Japan does not have centuries of cultural Christianity. Ultimately, despite considering apostasy several times, Endo persisted in his Catholic faith; yet pessimism and doubt are important themes of his most famous novel, Silence, published in 1966.

The novel and film tell the true story of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who went to Japan to spread the Gospels in the 17th century, when Catholics were being persecuted in sadistic ways that rivaled Nero’s persecutions. Father Sebastião Rodrigues is an idealistic, zealous priest unwilling to renounce his faith by trampling on the fumi-e, an image of Christ, as a sign of apostasy. He encourages his Japanese faithful to persist in their faith. And yet at the very last moment he caves in. His Buddhist inquisitor explains to him that several Japanese Catholics will be killed if he does not trample on the fumi-e. Experiencing a difficult moral dilemma, Rodrigues ultimately undertakes the act of blasphemy. Afterwards, he is given and comfortable life and the reward of domesticity, “inheriting” a Japanese wife and children from a dead man.

Rodrigues’ ultimate apostasy is the reason why some Catholic reviewers have been critical of the film. Yet some things must be said. First, the film ends in a somewhat more hopeful way than the novel. Endo’s work was completely bleak; in the final scene of the film, as Rodrigues’ dead body is being cremated in a traditional Buddhist ceremony, he is seen clasping a crucifix. Perhaps he ultimately felt remorse for his act of apostasy and never really abandoned Christ in his heart? Also, he is shown giving confession to the Judas-like Kichijiro, a Japanese apostate who previously had betrayed him. Might this be a sign that Kichijiro ultimately did want to reconcile with God?

Scorsese dedicates the film to Japan’s Christians. The film depicts them with great respect, as people committed to their faith in spite of persecution. Like the pious Tibetans are contrasted with the atheistic communists in Kundun, in Silence Christianity is shown as an antidote to Japan’s Buddhist theocracy. Rodrigues’ debate with his inquisitor beautifully contrasts the universalism of Christianity with the brutal provincialism of traditional Japanese religion.

Scorsese does not pass judgment on Rodrigues’ decision, showing him as having made a difficult decision in a time of suffering. He seems to take to heart Solzhenitsyn’s adage from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?” Yet Rodrigues is seen as anything but happy following his apostasy. Andrew Garfield perfectly portrays his spiritual misery in his sullen eyes, full of desperation. Furthermore, Rodrigues is seen participating in the crackdown on his former co-religionists. This is by no means noble conduct.

Silence is not a straightforward film, and viewers hoping Rodrigues will courageously die for his faith, like Mexico’s Cristeros, for instance, will be disappointed (even though I knew how the film would end, having read Endo’s novel, I still secretly hoped he would make the ultimate sacrifice). However, the film does not praise apostasy. It shows human doubt in the face of enormous persecution, yet it ultimately offers hope that perhaps a shard of faith can remain in the heart of the sinner and the apostate.

Throughout the ages, many Christian artists have used their artistic genius to spread the Word of God. Most famously, Michelangelo and Fra Angelico created works of exceptional beauty to show men the glory of God and the Catholic religion. More recently, the architecture of Gaudi or the films of Franco Zeffirelli have been opportunities for evangelization. Naturally, the works of Martin Scorsese are not in this category. Rather, they form part of a hermeneutic of doubt—as do the works of Nikos Kazantzakis and Shusaku Endo, which he brought to the screen—and those of Kierkegaard, Miguel de Unamuno, or Graham Greene.

Yet what I call Scorsese’s “faith and doubt triptych” ultimately does affirm faith. This is consistent with Scorsese’s own attitude to his faith. In an interview published in Antonio Monda’s book Do You Believe?, containing interviews with famous artists and intellectuals, the filmmaker is asked if he considers himself to be a lapsed Catholic. “Maybe ‘lapsed’ is too strong a term, and then I don’t know who can call himself both lapsed and Catholic,” Scorsese responded. “But what I meant is that I am not strictly orthodox, and in many ways I feel I haven’t respected the requirements of the Christian message. And yet I think that my Catholicism is part of my innermost self, and I’m sure it will always be that way.” When Monda asks Scorsese if he believes in God, he replies: “I don’t think I can give a precise answer. I think that my faith in God lies in my constant searching. But certainly I call myself a Catholic.”

Scorsese’s acknowledgement of the importance of faith amid doubt is reflected in his films. Despite temptation and less-than-divine weakness, Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ chooses crucifixion for the sake of humanity. While Tibetan Buddhism may seem superstitious to the Western rationalist, it is certainly a nobler worldview than Maoist atheism. And while Rodrigues may have trampled on the fumi-eand chosen comfortable Japanese Buddhist domesticity, this was ultimately the source of his misery. For these reasons, the presence of faith and doubt in Martin Scorsese’s films are well worth watching and debating. While they might not have the power of Gaudi or Fra Angelico, they could even cause some modern post-Christians to consider their faith anew.

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About Filip Mazurczak 71 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist. His writing has appeared in First Things, the St. Austin Review, the European Conservative, the National Catholic Register, and many others.


  1. I don’t follow or particularly care about Scorese, but as far as I am concerned, if he can make a masterpiece like ‘Hugo’ all else is forgiven.

  2. This is a good review, because it recognizes that — as theologian Paul Tillich observed — doubt is part of faith. Rodriguez’ apostasy is part of the larger spiritual experience in which he is inescapably enmeshed, despite his rejection of the symbol of Christ and his own seeming moral failure. He apostatized to save lives, which might even be seen as an example of Tillich’s ‘moral faith’ – putting morality ahead of the symbols that exist only to advance them. The greatest moral failing was not that of Rodrigues; it was that of the Japanese Inquisitors — who like Christian Inquistors — failed to understand the moral imperative of religion. Neither Buddha nor Jesus would approve of their actions. If all the importance is in the symbol as they thought, then they are missing what it really refers to. The image of Christ is not Christ. At the same time, for the Japanese Christians the symbol was meaningful to many, and it seems Rodriguez did not sufficiently appreciate that — or perhaps he was just afraid, and unlike Jesus and the martyrs was not strong enough in the end. I found it to be a powerful, haunting, disturbing film — far more than a film that illustrates unwavering faith. It gave no easy answers, and raised many questions: not least was “what would I do?” Real faith is always put the test. Sometimes we fail the test. Jesus did not, and that is why Christians have faith in him, even if that faith wavers and falters. That movie will stay with me in my dreams.

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