Martin Scorsese’s Divine Comedy

by Catherine O’Brien, Bloomsbury, 224pp, £50

Of all living film directors whose work lends itself to a theological reading, four in particular immediately come to mind: Bruno Dumont, Terrence Malick, Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese. In her new book, film studies academic Catherine O’Brien looks at the last of these four and asks how his Catholicism has shaped his filmography.

A straightforward look at Scorsese’s most Christian films, which O’Brien identifies as The Last Temptation of Christ, Silence and, somewhat surprisingly, Bringing out the Dead, a lesser 1999 film about an overtaxed paramedic played by Nicholas Cage, would have been interesting and worthwhile. Similarly, a study of Scorsese’s entire career focusing narrowly on the scenes in his work that address religion (as O’Brien points out, although most of his films concern Catholicism, his 1997 film Kundun addresses the early life of the Dalai Lama), would have been fascinating. Instead O’Brien has taken the somewhat bizarre decision to explore Scorsese’s work solely through its connections to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

There are obvious objections to this, from the minor (Dante is already more connected to other film directors who have attempted to adapt his work for screen, such as Peter Greenaway or Raoul Ruiz) to the major (Scorsese shows no real interest in Dante, nor is his work palpably in conversation with him).

It is possible to approach Scorsese’s films in a scattershot, allusive way (Lesley Stern’s The Scorsese Connection is a brilliant example of this), but because he is such a self-aware director, it seems somewhat futile to yoke his work to a misguided thesis in this manner.

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