In Martin Scorsese’s Words: Cinema and Spirituality


When we talk about personal expression I’m often reminded of [Elia] Kazan’s film America America – the story of his uncle’s journey from Anitolia to America; the story of so many immigrants who came to this country from a very, very foreign land. I kind of identified with it and was very moved by it. Actually, I later saw myself making this same journey, but not from Anitolia. Rather from my own neighborhood in New York, which was in a sense a very foreign land. I made the journey from that land to movie-making, which was something unimaginable. Actually, when I was a little younger, there was another journey I wanted to make. It was a religious one. I wanted to be a priest.However, I soon realized that my real vocation – my real calling – was the movies. I didn’t really see a conflict between the church and the movies, the sacred and the profane. Obviously, there are major differences. But I could also see great similarities between a church and a movie house. Both are places for people to come together and share a common experience, and I believe there is a spirituality in films, even if it’s not one that can supplant faith. I find that over the years many films address themselves to the spiritual side of man’s nature, from Griffith’s film Intolerance to John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath to Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Kubrick’s 2001 and so many more. It’s as if movies answer an ancient quest for the common unconscious; they fulfill a spiritual need that people have – to share a common memory.

Martin Scorsese

Source: I Fear Brooklyn

(excerpt from Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies)

Martin Scorsese’s understanding of cinema as a spiritual endeavour, and a communal experience of watching a movie in a movie house, shows that there is an intimate connection between cinema and our common need for spiritual experiences in a disenchanted modern world. One could use the term “spiritual satisfaction” in a more profane way. Mr. Scorsese knows very well that cinema is a profane art, yet in one interview he associates the filmmaking experience with the sacred.

This tension understood in religious terms can in fact be surpassed and cinema can be included in the domain of the spiritual, without forsaking its profane origins in the secular space. Spiritual pleasures, to use a more profane term are thus moved from the domain of the purely secular and enter what could be almost called religious territory, which encompasses the spiritual needs of man in the increasingly secular world of everyday life. The portrayal of gangsters and crooks are a part of a larger picture, the endeavour to find meaning in things and solace in art, in a similar way in which religion can give us anchor in an anchorless world.

Mr. Scorsese singles out four American movies which “address themselves to the spiritual side of man’s nature” and I will humbly follow his path and single out four non-American movies which do the same. From Kaneto Shindō’s film The Naked Island, to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, described by Jean-Luc Godard as “the world in hour and a half”, to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu the Vampyre and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, these and many other films “fill a spiritual need” of man, as Mr. Scorsese says. It can be observed that many modern-day films, and those from the second part of the twentieth century, portray the characters devoid of spirituality, on a conquest to colonize the world of our imagination.

For example, Aguirre, the Wrath of God by Herzog and There Will Be Blood by P.T. Anderson show us characters who are devoid of spirituality – Aguirre, the mad conquistador and the personification of greed and ruthless ambition Daniel Planview – and yet, these films like all the truly great ones, address themselves to our spiritual needs as well, only in a different way than films which deal with spiritual themes like Dreyer’s Ordet. When we “gaze at the abyss”, to quote Nietzsche, we find out that the same abyss starts gazing at us as well. In the mad gaze of Aguirre and in Daniel Planview’s empty eyes filled with hate, there is a spiritual void that void terrifies us, but while confronting it, we can embrace the spiritual in ourselves and our fellow men.








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