Martin Scorsese, My Spiritual Guru
I, like most filmmakers, worship the career of Martin Scorsese. I study the ins and outs of his films and read and watch interviews with him, trying to dig deeper into his artistic brilliance, while at the same time making financially lucrative movies—something that almost every filmmaker hopes to achieve one day.
Recently, like most millennials, I’ve found myself in a bit of spiritual crisis. It’s nice to know I am not alone in this confusion, as according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, “almost every major branch of Christianity in the United States has lost a significant number of members, mainly because millennials are leaving the fold. More than one-third of millennials now say they are unaffiliated with any faith.” ¹
As a Mexican-American, being raised Catholic was practically a prerequisite to me living my life. While attending a recent Sunday mass with my family for the first time in a couple of years, the same priest with whom I had grown up and whom had retired 10 years ago, had as if in a moment of Divine Intervention come out of retirement to give mass that day. He ended his homily with “our goal in life is to serve God.” As I looked around and noticed the apparent lack of attention being paid to his sermon, I could not think of a more hollow statement, and profoundly dogmatic.
Over the last few years, something I’ve seen as a beacon in my life for so long has suddenly grown so foreign to me. I see the beauty of its firmly embedded traditions and practices, and have a steadfast belief in God, although I find myself struggling to reconcile what it all means in the greater picture. How am I to come to terms with all this complexity? Where do the boundaries of my faith lie? Do I believe in God or in a collective energy connecting us, that people may refer to as Allah, Yahweh, God, Vishnu or the universe?
As I reflected on my childhood faith and its beliefs, I realized that one individual’s voice, more than any other, has been an ongoing catalyst for thought-provoking messages regarding it: Martin Scorsese. Life seems to make more sense to me when it’s mirrored on-screen in a movie and this master of moviemaking and storytelling has a clear way of communicating to me in a way that 13 years of Catholic schooling never quite achieved. When I saw Mean Streets (1973), I remember observing Harvey Keitel’s character kneeling and expressing his guilt in front of Jesus on the Cross. I immediately reflected on my many days sitting in church asking for God’s forgiveness. I had seen The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and it made me see Jesus as a fully realized human being. He was exactly who the Catholic Church had always wanted him to be perceived – as all man, all God; something I had never truly understood until I saw that movie.
I found myself captivated by the production publicity surrounding Scorsese’s most recent picture, Silence, about a year ago. At the time, the plot of “two Christian missionaries who face the ultimate test of their faith when they go to Japan in search of their mentor” sounded intriguing and nothing quite like he had previously done.
After a year of waiting with anticipation, the film’s release could not have come at a better time.
I shared the importance of the film and my anticipation of what I believed would be a spiritual experience similar to the ones I had on my high school retreats with my friends, family, girlfriend (a practicing agnostic Buddhist) and let’s face it, everyone that would listen.
As I sat in the theatre watching the film, something inside me changed. I felt a sense of fulfillment I had never felt before and a deeper understanding of one’s spirituality began to take place. As Father Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) continuously had their faith tested in brutal ways throughout the film, I couldn’t help but feel a connection to these characters’ spiritual journeys and the questions their words and actions raised about their faith. Would I be able to withstand persecution like this for what I believed in? Could anyone today truthfully look at themselves, whether a practicing Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian, and say that they would be able to withstand this journey and still believe in their higher power? It seems so easy to say that one has an unimpeded deep devotion to something when it goes unquestioned.
One’s spirituality is their own. No matter what religion one practices, no matter what higher one feels connected to, or connection to the universe one feels, this is something so deeply personal.
This became so evidently clear in the climax of the film, especially so when we discover that one of the priests has apostatized, or renounced his Christian faith, and has dedicated his life to Buddhism and the persecution of Christians. He has converted not because of a sense of spiritual progress but rather because he was forced into submission. There is a lack of soul and humanity that lurks behind his eyes as he continues to move throughout the film.
Organized religions have created a polarity of pitting one against another in order to show people “The Truth.” Evangelical Christians say we’re all going to hell if we don’t repent; Missionaries tortured Native Americans into converting; radical Muslims behead people in the name of Allah; and Buddhists in Japan persecuted and killed Christians in the name of protecting their native country. Forcing obedience on someone to believe in what you believe in is the most brutal form of punishment. It destroys your individual relationship with your own spirituality, forcibly distorting everything you know about the world.
I left the theatre feeling content. Silence helped me to understand that spirituality is a journey. I have begun to choose to more actively grow in different directions until I fully understand in what I have faith and what I truly believe. The journey and the growth help me to gain a deeper understanding of this world, affording me the opportunity to see the deeper complexities of human nature and our connectedness.
At this point, I don’t know if I will continue to recognize myself as a practicing Catholic or believe in God. This is painfully hard for me to admit to myself; however, I’ll always have a special love and appreciation for the Catholic Church but I will continue to look inward to find deeper meaning to my relationship with God, the universe, or another higher power. Maybe years from now, I’ll be a fully rededicated Catholic, attending Church every Sunday. Perhaps my films, as Scorsese’s have done for me, will have a transformative impact on audiences. I just don’t know. What I do know is that I’ll continue to relentlessly explore my personal spirituality. I will continue to try to understand those different from me. I will continue to read and explore the depths of whatever I can get my hands on. I will always exhibit compassion.
And to think, all of this from one movie. That’s the power of storytelling.