Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Faith in Profane Cinema

This is the republication of a work written in a private forum by Bakhos Najm

Philosopher and theologian Jacques Maritain once wrote, “By Christian art, I do not mean Church art… I mean Christian art in the sense of art which bears within it the character of Christianity (…) Everything belongs to it, the sacred as well as the profane. It is at home wherever the ingenuity and the joy of man extend. Symphony or ballet, film or novel, landscape or still-life, puppet-show libretto or opera, it can just as well appear in any of these as in the stained-glass windows and statues of churches.”

That being said, it is no surprise that, for the faithful –in this case, the Catholic faithful– observes the expressions of art seeking and detecting shadows that, in some way or another, manifest the Catholic “shape”.  This essay will refer to the cinema of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, containing that “Catholicity” in their profane art.  More specifically, it will examine the implicit ideas of Guilt and Redemption in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and  Raging Bull, whilst Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy culminates with the ideas of Grace and Hope.

It was pointed above that the believers will see through a subjective eye set by the Catholic culture and idiosyncrasy.  It often happens that the spectator finds in films things that perhaps were not intended to be seen, or even misinterpret events (nothing grave), but this is not the case in the masterful filmography of Martin Scorsese and Francis F. Coppola.  The first calls himself a lapsed Catholic; the later has always struggled with his Catholicism.  In a 2007 interview, when asked whether he is an observant Catholic, Coppola replied, “I was raised as a Catholic, but I didn’t like the Catholic Church at all. I thought the nuns were mean.” But how theologically acute is the faith of the film directors is not important here.  What matters is the fact that their Catholic backgrounds are passed along in their films, or at least, in those the essay refers to –which are arguably their most powerful gifts to Cinema.

Both Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola belong to the post-New Wave of American filmmakers.  But they also share the Italian American milieu, typically Catholic.  However, the differences are immediate almost everywhere between one director’s films and the other.  The set for The Godfather is that of socially high ranking families and how they thoughtfully operate in the world of organised crime, and situations, such as the protection of family, end in harrowing acts of murder.  Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, for example, is quite the contrary.  Scorsese’s characters are the forgotten men, the socially unfit, victims of a world they didn’t choose.

 Martin Scorsese is considered to be what in film criticism is known as Auteur.  This theory of Auteurism, first advocated by François Truffaut, says that, in spite the industrial process that a films goes through, the signature, or influence, of its director still shines through.  Scorsese is known for crafting world acclaimed films that still contain a very personal meaning for him, and for displaying a singular mise-en-scéne.  Both narrative and aesthetics of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are charged with those personal stages of Scorsese’s life, marked by an inescapable relationship with the Catholic Church.  Unlike  the influential personages of The Godfather, Taxi Driver is the story of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a mentally unstable Vietnam vet who struggles to live up a moral life in a terribly immoral world, leading him to nerve-racking violence he thought was the way to Redemption.  

"All the animals come out at night: whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”  That’s how Travis Bickle describes the hell he lives in.  Martin Scorsese’s modernist cinema has the quality of portraying the world the main character perceives.  Travis Bickle’s perception results from rejection.  He is the loneliest of the lonely; he writes in his diary, “I am God’s lonely man”.  This isolation makes him incapable of sustaining common social relations, including, of course, relations with the opposite sex.

 Scorsese has always been haunted by Catholic Guilt,  especially sexual guilt, also during his year in the seminary.  And this is a theme explored in most of Scorsese’s films since his experimental feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door?  Travis  falls in love with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), described as a virginal image of women.  She is dressed in white in her first apparition –in a cameo take where Martin Scorsese himself appears staring at her.  She is blond, blue-eyed –an angelical figure– and caring in social and political matters of justice.  Notice the contrast of Betsy with the hell of “whores”, “skunk pussies”, and “queens” Travis mentions first.  Socially inept, Travis invites her to the movies to watch a Swedish porn film, at which Betsy feels gravely offended and leaves Travis alone in the theatre.  “And it is guilt, conceived in masturbation and prolonged in maturer symptoms of sexual bad faith, that is a recurrent motif, perhaps the recurrent motif, in Scorsese’s life and art alike”, writes Lawrence S. Friedman in his book The Cinema of Martin Scorsese.  

As previously said, Betsy is an activist concerned with social justice.  That is explained in her support for president candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), an obvious Democrat.  Travis Bickle, in a very Western fashion (the whole film is an allusion to John Ford’s The Searchers, a Western classic), prepares to attempt murdering Senator Palantine.  His use of sleeve-gun becomes a device for his paranoid vigilante fantasies after Betsy had rejected him.  The reasons for Travis to kill the Senator are debatable; some argue its a hint to the assassination of George Wallace by Arthur Bremer in 1972.  But to put in in the film’s context of Travis Bickle’s mind, Palantine represented a potential rival to Travis’ love for Betsy.  She described him as "a dynamic man, an intelligent, interesting, fresh, fascinating..”; then her friend, Tom (Albert Brooks), remarks, “You forgot sexy”, to what Betsy replies, “I did not forget sexy”.  In a from-the-heart performance of De Niro, Bickle enters the office and confronts Betsy by yelling “You’re in hell! You’ll burn in hell!”.  The fascination for religion in the script cannot go unnoticed.

Bickle, afflicted by the corruption of the city, was close to end up dragged by the mess he so much despises, as his attempt to assassinate Palantine is hindered by Secret Service agents.  But the opposite happens, and it was through a highly graphic recreation of bloodshed in cinema by the times.  During his insomniac ramblings in the cab, Travis drives a teenage prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster).  She was escaping her pimp, Matthew “Sport” Higgins (Harvey Keitel).  Depressed and increasingly paranoid, being rejected by Betsy made Bickle obsessed with rescuing young Iris.  When he meets her in the room where they were supposed to have sex, he tells her he wants to take her away.  When they are having breakfast in a coffee, he tells Iris, “You can't live like this. It's hell. Girls should live at home”, then Iris rises the question of her time, Women’s Liberation.  Travis goes on to say, “What do you mean 'women's lib'? You sure are a young girl. You should be at home now. You should be dressed up. You should be goin' out with boys. You should be goin' to school. You know, that kind of stuff”.  Travis is a Christian reactionary, opposing the cultural revolution of which he is cast away. But he is, also, in L.S. Friedman’s words, “mirroring the virgin-or-whore concept of women held by Scorsese’s alter ego in the Mean Street trilogy”.

Travis Bickle –nicknamed “Killer” by his cabbie mates– is determined to accomplish his quest to wash all the scum off the streets.  Rescuing Iris means the action to redeem himself, and violence is the path chosen by this existential hero.  Bickle approaches Sport, who stands as doorman of the brothel, and shoots him in the stomach, giving initiation to the slaughter.  Among the countless qualities of filmmaking, there is the capacity to mimic dreams, to recreate and bring to light what is in the human unconscious.  Like in dreams, the symbolic signifiers in films are not always substantiated by the common signified objects.  Interpretation is wide open.  The famous shoot-out sequence is displayed in an almost phantasmal manner.  The sequence was shot in slow motion, an old bouncer is shot in one hand, and while the echo of his cry “I’ll kill you!” is loudly heard, a graffiti in a wall reads “Jesus loves you” while the carnage is still carried on.  Travis draws a knife form his ankle and stabs the bouncer, this time in the other hand, in the opinion of some, alluding to the wounds of Christ.  At the end of the massacre, Bickle wants to end his own life, the revolver is out of bullets, so he surrenders on a couch.  When the police arrives, he places his finger on his head, gesturing a gun and pulling the trigger three times.  In the final two takes, the camera travels from above, nightmarish harp and drum music play, putting forth the aftermath of such a slaughter, how hellish earthly life can be.

Iris returns home to her family, her father sends a thank-you letter to Travis.  Newspaper regarded the one who wanted to kill Palantine as a model citizen, the self isolated was elevated to a hero by the media.  But what happened to Bickle after the shootout remains a fascinating aspect of Taxi Driver.

Film critic and historian Roger Ebert wrote: 

“There has been much discussion about the ending, in which we see newspaper clippings about Travis's ‘heroism’ of saving Iris, and then Betsy gets into his cab and seems to give him admiration instead of her earlier disgust. Is this a fantasy scene? Did Travis survive the shoot-out? Are we experiencing his dying thoughts? Can the sequence be accepted as literally true? ... I am not sure there can be an answer to these questions. The end sequence plays like music, not drama: It completes the story on an emotional, not a literal, level. We end not on carnage but on redemption, which is the goal of so many of Scorsese's characters.”
But the film ends exactly as it started, with the jazz music of Bernard Herrmann again reaching gritty notes suggesting that threats will never end.  Paul Schrader, script writer of Taxi Driver (and Raging Bull), said that the last frame "could be spliced to the first frame, and the movie started all over again.”  In Taxi Driver, Redemption through self-destruction, but not Grace, is reached.  

Raging Bull was released four years after Taxi Driver, but this time, the film is actually a personal work of Redemption for Martin Scorsese himself.  In 1954, Scorsese studied one year at Cathedral College, seriously considering priesthood, “wanting that vocation, selfishly, so that I’d be saved… I wound up finding a vocation in making movies with the same kind of passion”, argued Marty.  Raging Bull narrates the story of Italian American middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), a champion in the ring, but, again, a character very difficult to grasp.  Straightforwardly, he is a beast who acts out of his savage instincts.  He is cursed with an insufferable personality, whose paranoid jealousy makes him incapable of articulating no word other than profanities.  And when cornered in dialogue, he responds as in the ring: with his fists. 

Mary Pat Kelly, in her book Martin Scorsese: The First Decade, writes:  “The Jake LaMotta film.  It’s called Raging Bull.  It’s really a straight, simple story, almost linear, of a guy attaining something and loosing everything, and then redeeming himself.  Spiritually.”  And that was Scorsese himself, who, shortly after Taxi Driver, was heavily into the “high living”.  By redeeming LaMotta in the ring, Scorsese redeems himself in life.  Jake’s outmost desire was to defend his animalistic pride, symbolised in the belt.  

To achieve it he had to gain the favour of the Mafia, which convinces him to loose against Billy Fox (Eddie Mustafa Muhammad).  LaMotta was reluctant to fall, making the fix of the fight evident.  While at the dressing room, the proud Bull breaks in tears, not for being suspended as much for not surrendering to his bodily necessity to strike back.  This dependance on fighting made him interrupt his only moments of passion with Vickie (Cathy Moriarty), holding wisdom credence that sex slackens the fighter –“Maybe it’s because I’ve done bad things”, he argues after being defeated by Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes), the same day he had sexual relations with Vickie.  The passional intimation between Jake and Vickie is watched by imposed crucifixes and Catholic iconography, a reminder of Scorsese’s mesmerism in Church imagery, and sexual guilt; it places the viewer in a position of shameful voyeurism.

In a very beautiful opening sequence, Jake LaMotta appears shadowboxing, dressed in a leopard cape, and surrounded by the ring ropes, giving the illusion of being an animal

Jake’s acquaintance with young Vickie came to happen as the result of his infidelity to his first wife.  Perhaps it is natural to a person to imagine things from their own personal experiences; if LaMotta was once irreparably infidel to his wife, he may as well think  that his wife is cheating on him.  But the problem goes further when this paranoid jealousy overwhelms the soul of a man whose concept of manliness is reduced to bestial rage, expressed both in and out of the boxing court.  He does not comprehend the magnitude of his uncontrolled temper until he does thrash his brother, Joey LaMotta (Joe Pesci), and then blows his wife’s face.  Add to it an evident masochism, the Bull willingly decides to embrace physical punishment for his rage.  And so the film reaches its climatic point when Jake invites Sugar Ray to carry out his purgation.  Joyce Carol Oates in her book On Boxing recalls Jake LaMotta as the fighters who:

“invite injury as a means of assuaging guilt, in a Dostoyevskian exchange of physical well being for peace of mind.  Boxing is about being hit more than it is about hitting, rather just as it is about feeling pain, if not devastating psychological paralysis, more than it is about winning… The boxer prefers physical pain in the ring to the absence of pain that is ideally the condition of ordinary life.  If one cannot hit, one can yet be hit, and know that one is alive.”

The sequence was partially shot in a Scorsese’s trademark of slow-motion for climatic situations.  LaMotta is washed with blood and water, in a very ritual sacrifice fashion.  Robinson begins unstoppably hammering the face of the new champion while the spectators and camera flashes heat the circus; Jake clings with his arms to the ropes of the ring, again, alluding to the Crucifixion, as blood runs down through his legs.  Vickie covers his eyes while Joey watches the cruel spectacle on television, and a sense of guilt is transmitted to all  the viewers. A blowing right punch sprays with blood the faces of ring siders, making everyone accomplice in the suffering of LaMotta, a Christ-like image of  passion.  The scene is invariably distressing, and cruel.  Although both Paul Schrader and the real Jake LaMotta had no religious purpose, the screenwriter does assist Scorsese’s redeeming aim when he wrote:  “Yes, but redemption through physical pain, like the Stations of the Cross, one torment after another. Not redemption by having a view of salvation or by grace, but just redemption by death and suffering, which is the darker side of the Christian message.”

But that was not yet enough.  While Sugar Ray Robinson is proclaimed winner and takes the middleweight title, beaten to bloody pulp, LaMotta taunts to Robinson the famous lines, “I never went down, man”, “You never got me down, Ray”.  Five years pass, Robert De Niro is now a retired, obese Jake LaMotta.  The man who had no oratory aptitudes is now a  bar owner and stand-up comedian.  His wife, Vickie, announces her decision to divorce him the morning after the 11th anniversary of their marriage.  He is subsequently jailed for pandering.  All this sequence of misfortunes were finally vented against the wall of his cell, he cries “Why?!” while punching the wall of concrete, as if attributing his pain to the hands that destroyed all his relations, especially with his wife, who had taken his three children.  L.S. Friedman notes that, “As broken as the belt, the jailed LaMotta first rages, then weeps, ‘You’re so stupid…I am not an animal.’  Perhaps the admission of the first phrase justifies the denial of the second.  If so, it may be the necessary preface to the redemptory text.”  

The film goes back to where it started, the dressing room with Jake LaMotta rehearsing in front of the mirror the exact speech of Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy in the 1954 film On The Waterfront, which says, “You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit…I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charley.”  Thus, Jake manifests the emotional dependence he had on his brother, who mentored and advised him throughout his career, and life.  

Raging Bull, regarded by many as Scorsese’s magnum opus, cuts to black with the sad and beautiful music of Pietro Mascagni, Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana, and quoting the Bible:
So, for the second time, [the Pharisees] summoned the man who had been blind and said:

"Speak the truth before God. We know this fellow is a sinner."
"Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know," the man replied.
"All I know is this: Once I was blind and now I can see."
John IX. 24–26, The New English Bible

    “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”, is one of the lessons Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) provides to his heir son, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino).  Unlike the mentally unbalanced, deranged, and alienated protagonists of Scorsese, Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy follows the rise and decline of families whose members are, indeed, model characters of chasm, class, and acumen.  Another luring quality of the trilogy is its portentous presentation of moral struggle.  But morality here is not only the earthy meta-ethical pose bounding regular men and women of everywhere; the moral confrontational setting for The Godfather is that of the Catholic Church –distinctly, the pre-Vatican Two Catholic Church.  Aside the fact that the first two films are universal masterpieces of cinema, the trilogy is actually a wonderful, profoundly Catholic work of art. 

The Corleone’s way is deep-rooted in traditions, norms of genteel procedures, almost monarchical vogue, embraced from their homeland of Sicily.  Thus, the Sicilian circle, although readily immersed in the underworld of crime, is based on rituals and rules only analogous to the reverence of the pre-Conciliar Church proper to Catholic Americans of the decades before the sixties. The mobsters of The Godfather are not the same of Goodfellas; depiction of prostitution, apology to gambling, or use of narcotics, are absent here. When interviewed by Deborah Solomon, Coppola is quoted affirming, “I think I am very religious… I was raised as a Catholic, but I didn’t like the Catholic Church at all. I thought the nuns were mean… I sort of think that the people I have loved and lost are somehow still there. I can’t believe that something so specific is gone”.  And although the director ceased to practice the Faith, the sacramental beauty of the Church permeates everywhere in his gangster trilogy.  The Catholic viewer will particularly feel appealed with the venerable display of baptisms, first communions, weddings, confessions, and funerals, elevated by Catholic iconography and Latin hymns.  But the most prevalent Christian element in The Godfather is Sin, the deliberate and organised execution of murder.  And it is the unforgettable Baptism in Part I that settles Michael Corleone in his dark path of sin and tribulation.

Michael Corleone was the outsider in his family, he had assured his first girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), that his was a different future, distanced from the family business.  When Michael is aware of the fragile life of his father, hospitalised after being gunned down, he decides to retaliate.  He bows to kiss his father’s hand, a ritual of spiritual submission and unfailing loyalty.  Killing drug baron Virgil Sollozzo (Al Littieri) and NYCPD Captain Marc McCluskey by his own hands was his initiation as mafioso.  

But his unbreakable pact with crime was sealed during the Baptism of his nephew, also named Michael.  In the climatic sequence, D.W. Griffith’s technique of cross cutting to provoke suspense is mastered in the scenario of a High Church Catholic Baptism, and the assassination of the New York family dons and Moe Greene (Alex Rocco).  Latin verses echo with the music of Church organ, announcing the parallel cosmical events that are going to take place.  Salt, oil, and water, are prepared by the priest, Minister of Life; simultaneously, arms and weapons are prepared by Corleone’s capos, Ministers of Death.  “Do you renounce Satan?”, “And all his works?”, “And all his pomps?”, the priest asks Michael, whose guilty gaze is shown replying “I do”, aware of his perpetrated crimes happening at those very minutes.  The Baroque organ riches its highest pitches as the brutal killings occur.  Michael affirms his baptism as cuts show the aftermath of the bloodshed.  Cinematically, this scene is magnificent; narratively, long-lastingly chilling.  Michael Corleone renewed his Catholic baptism, but also sealed his pact with crime, he has been baptised in blood. 

The second key moment in the life of Michael Corleone comes in The Godfather, Part II.  Frederico “Fredo” Corleone (John Cazale), is Michael’s older brother.  He is the suave man, whose hedonist life and weakness of character, cast him away from the patriarchal order and more violent life of his brothers, the hot-head Santino “Sonny” Corleone (James Caan), and the cold minded Michael.  His imprudence served the Jewish businessman Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), an old –but untrusted– business partner of the Corleone family.  As the Sicilian code of honour –or Omertà– rules, a betrayer must pay with with his own life.  At one evening, Fredo shares his secret for a satisfactory fishing, which is to pray one Hail Mary before each try, with Anthony (James Gounaris), Michael’s son.  Anthony is called apart, so Fredo goes fishing with caporegime Al Neri (Richard Bright).  Frame is set on a middle wide shot, then camera travels toward Fredo, reciting “Holy Mary, Mother of God”, then cut to Michael, who contemplates from the boathouse, as audience is left to finish the prayer, “now and at the hour of our death. Amen”, Neri shoots.  The sky is gloomy, and only the silhouette of Neri is seen.  

In the first film,  Michael Corleone marries Apollonia Vitelli (Simonetta Stefanelli), who died in an explosion intended to kill him.  This is the first bitter loss that Michael bears on his back; that fact that it happened in Sicily is important, because Sicily was supposed to be the place where Michael would find safety, his voyage to his homeland would grant him a second chance.  Instead, he learns that the burdens of his sins followed him even there.  In the second film, an evolving, cold minded, frightening Don Michael Corleone, capable of handling intricate situations, has a hard time dealing with family issues.  His second wife, Kay Adams, had undergone an unholy abortion as she did not want another son of Michael to be born, touching the sore of Michael’s vulnerability, his children.  She then divorces and abandons him, but he keeps their two children with him.  His sister, Constanza “Connie” Corleone (Talia Shire), had chosen a life of eccentricities, “Michael, I hated you for so many years. I think that I did things to myself, to hurt myself so that you'd know - that I could hurt you”, are the words of his sister, who pleads him to forgive Fredo.  But when honour and pride posses men, they lead to tragical actions, and so does Michael killing his own brother, a decision that would burden him for the rest of his life, as shown in the third film.
Financial circumstances compelled Coppola to direct the third instalment, The Godfather, Part III was released in 1990, 16 years after part II, receiving mixed reviews.  But this was the chance for the director to make Michael pay for his sins.  The scene of Michael’s confession to Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone) is particularly appealing for the Catholic viewer, not only for being a not-so-frequent case of Hollywood portraying an honest (Catholic) clergyman, but also because it tells that even the gravest offences are forgiven by God’s mercy, when the soul is surrendered to Him.  Michael admits that “it’s been 30 years”, since his last confession; but for the cardinal, the Laws of the Church are timeless, “I always have time to save souls”, he replies.  After saying that he betrayed his wife, betrayed himself, Michael breaks in tears, and finally confesses, “I killed my mother’s son, I killed my father’s son.”  He prays before the corpse of Don Tommasino (Vittorio Duse), “I swear on the lives of my children, give me a chance to redeem myself and I will sin no more.”  God’s Grace worked on Michael’s soul.
However, it seems that the purgation of the Soul sometimes begins on Earth.  Anthony Corleone
(Franc D’Ambrosio), Michael’s son, performs a magnificent debut as an opera singer in Palermo –during which killings are executed, again, surrounded by religious aura.  When the family is leaving Teatro Massimo, and Michael’s daughter, (played by the director’s daughter, Sofia Coppola), Mary Corleone, is following her father asking for answers, hitman Mosca, disguised as a priest draws a gun and shoots twice, intending to kill Michael.  Mary is hit by accident, and she mutters “Dad”, before falling dead in front of her father.  He is witness of his last and most bitter loss.  The scene, which closes with Mascagni’s Intermezzo –as with Raging Bull–  is beautiful, sad, memorable.  The shock painfully hits everyone, but not as hard as Michael.  Al Pacino here offered an outstanding performance of sorrow and grief from a man who carried all the weight of guilt upon himself.  He received his most painful punishment, and his unforgettable scream attests for it.  A montage shows Michael with all the women he had lost in his life, then a dissolve transition reveals an old, half-blind, and lonely man.  It is perhaps ironic that he would not die by the sword, but for a man who sincerely performed the Sacrament of Confession, and paid the highest price with the death of his daughter, Michael Corleone is reconciled with God, and dies peacefully in his homeland.

Catholicism in cinema is an inexhaustible theme in film literature, needless to say, there’s all time classics about specifically Catholic references.  But what fascinates about profane filmmaking is that they respond to the regular viewer’s conscious and unconscious.  Not romanticising about the infinite mercy of this saint, or the unbearable passion of  that martyr,  profane films with Catholic themes manifest our own fragilities, weakness, societal and spiritual anxieties.  The epigraph for Taxi Driver quotes Thomas Wolfe in his unpublished essay, God’s Lonely Man, saying, “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”  While Taxi Driver talks to everyman, Raging Bull is Scorsese’s own story of Guilt and Redemption, conceived by his Catholic background.  When talking about his The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese explains, “My whole life has been movies and religion.  That’s it.  Nothing else”.  Francis Ford Coppola, in setting the highest standards for gang films, directed what could be considered a marvellous Catholic work of art.  Perhaps the iconoclasm of Protestantism could not offer the mystic beauty and luring darkness that permeates The Godfather trilogy, ironic as it may seem, Catholics can make better mobsters.  But what Coppola also shared with his audience was the Catholic Hope in the Sacrament of Confession, where even the most heinous sins cannot exhaust God’s desire to forgive.