Martin Scorsese has never kept his Catholic upbringing a secret. While he has certainly never made Christian films, his lifelong internal struggle of faith has informed his work throughout his now 50 year career as a filmmaker. It is most overt in works such as Mean Streets, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Gangs of New York. But it is such a part of him that his films that don’t have at least a small piece of Christian iconography are notable for the absence of it. He is probably the only mainstream filmmaker of which that can be said. Now with Silence, Scorsese takes an unflinching look into what it means to truly be a follower of Christ under the harshest of circumstances.
Several New Year’s roundups noted the plethora of faith-friendly films released in 2016, including more than one positive depiction of Christians from heavyweight Hollywood directors. Perhaps the two most notable were Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge and Martin Scorsese’s Silence (if you count the latter’s limited 2016 release). Gibson, drawing from life, and Scorsese, drawing from literature, presented full-bodied Christian characters that demanded to be taken seriously. They were neither caricatures nor cardboard cut-outs, but complex men putting skin in the game for their deepest convictions. Tim Gray at Variety also noted John Hurt’s portrayal of a wise priest in the biopic Jackie. It may seem pathetic to be grateful when Hollywood gives us a priest who is neither a megalomaniac nor a pedophile, but the change is still welcome.
Despite this good news, an effectual Christian presence was lacking in one Best Picture contender, ironically one of the films where it was most sorely needed. I’m speaking about Manchester By the Sea.
I recently discovered the work of artist Owen Klaas. He is a painter who sells his work through his company Fiendish Thingies. When I first saw his paintings, I was astounded. These pieces were dark and moody, and seemed to owe a lot to the German Expressionist films of the 1920s. They were primarily landscapes, featuring bare, ragged trees, angular mountains, and lonely paths winding through the darkness. It’s what the world would be like through the eyes of Dr. Caligari.
And yet these paintings were not altogether hopeless. They did not seem to be mere exercises in a melancholy, eerie tone. Were they simply that, I don’t think I’d have looked twice; I’d have noted the unique visual quality and moved on. However, there was something about Klaas’ work that grabbed me. Within most of the paintings, in the midst of harsh and drab landscapes, there was often a single element that stood out; a splash of color or vitality that broke up the isolated sadness of this world.
This was most clear to me in his piece “Light My Path”. In it, we have a large, ominous full moon shining down on a mountainous forest. In a clearing, however, we have a lone tree, leafless and skeletal. This tree grows next to a narrow path that winds its way towards the far off mountains. Hanging just above the path, from the lowest branch on the tree, is a lantern. It is lit, but doesn’t seem to give off much light. Just enough to illuminate this specific section of the path, it would seem.
One of the salient features of a particular kind of film marketed explicitly to evangelical Christians is the use of what Tyler Smith calls “the emblem.” Among other characteristics, it typifies what Tyler has classified under the umbrella of “Christian social drama” in his master’s thesis. Examples of this genre include movies like Fireproof, Courageous, War Room, God’s Not Dead, and Do You Believe. The form of the emblem varies from movie to movie, but consistently, there’s some monument or object that represents the characters’ commitment to family and faith.
Tyler was recently a guest on The Wade Williams Show to talk about Christian film.
As I write this, it is two years to the day since four students were murdered by a classmate at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Washington. 15 years earlier, I was a junior at that school, looking around the campus on the morning of April 21, 1999. It was the day after the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. School shootings were not as commonplace as they would become but I still remember feeling that if someone really wanted to commit such a horrific act on our campus, there would be little to stop them. Tragically, 15 years later that would turn out to be true.