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In May of last year, Martin Scorsese announced that he was planning to make a film about Jesus. This was a surprise, especially in light of the fact that Scorsese had already made one film with Jesus as the subject, 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ. That film, now regarded as a classic, drew protests (and worse) from many Catholics and other Christians who considered the film blasphemous.
The new Jesus film will apparently be different. Not only has it been inspired by a papal address, but it will reportedly take a positive view of traditional organized religion.
Viewers who are anticipating something like The Chosen are likely to be disappointed, however. Scorsese is a bold and highly original filmmaker who numbers among his favorite films The Flowers of St. Francis by Roberto Rossellini and The Gospel According to St. Matthew by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Both those films generated controversy at the time of their releases, in no small part because both directors were avowed atheists. Nevertheless, the two movies later appeared on the Vatican’s list of recommended films.
Needless to say, Scorsese’s new Jesus film – even if inspired by a pope – will probably generate controversy as well; after all great art is always controversial in some way. One has only to look at Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, the very spot where popes are elected. The frescos were labeled a “stew of nudes” by their detractors, who demanded that they be painted over. Fortunately, cooler and more artistically sensitive voices prevailed.
Here is a rundown of what we know so far about Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Jesus film.
About Martin Scorsese’s new Jesus film
Scorsese has said that the film will be approximately 80 minutes long (fairly short compared to most of his other films), and that it will be adapted from a book by Shūsaku Endō, A Life of Jesus. A Japanese novelist who converted to Catholicism at the age of 10, Endo spent much of his creative life reflecting upon the complex and sometimes violent relationship between his adopted Christianity and the pantheism of his native land. Scorsese previously adapted Endo’s historical novel Silence, about Jesuit missionaries in 17th-entury Macau and Japan, a time of Christian persecution.
The script for the film, co-written by critic and filmmaker Kent Jones, is already complete. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Scorsese stated that his new film will focus on the core teachings of Jesus but will be set mostly in the present. “I’m trying to find a new way to make it more accessible and take away the negative onus of what has been associated with organized religion.”
It appears that the film may be a mixture of documentary and narrative, indicating that it may have a more experimental structure than some of the other films Scorsese is known for.
In the Times interview, Scorsese also said that many of his films explore themes that he hesitates to label religious “because it’s misinterpreted often.” He then adds: “But that there’s basic fundamental beliefs that I have — or I’m trying to have — and I’m using these films to find it.”
What inspired the Jesus film
Last May, Scorsese attended a conference in Rome titled Global Aesthetics of the Catholic Imagination. Co-sponsored by Georgetown University, the purpose of the conference was to gather Catholic artists for three days of reflection and dialogue about “the ways that this faith tradition interrogates contemporary life, explores the human condition, and responds to the hunger for some transcendental significance?”
Pope Francis addressed the writers and artists who attended, encouraging them to tackle the deepest issues of human longing, including the problem of faith:
This is your work as poets, storytellers, filmmakers, artists: to give life, to give body, to give word to everything human beings experience, feel, dream, suffer, creating harmony and beauty. It is an evangelical work that helps us better understand God, too, as the great poet of humanity. Will you be criticized? That’s fine, carry the burden of criticism, also trying to learn from criticism. But still, do not stop being original, creative. Don’t lose the wonder of being alive.
So, dreaming eyes, voice of human anxieties; and therefore, you also have a great responsibility. And what is it? This is the third thing I would like to say to you: you are among those who shape our imagination. This is important. For your work has a consequence on the spiritual imagination of the people of our time, especially concerning the figure of Christ. In this time of ours – as I have already had occasion to say – “we need the genius of new language, of powerful stories and images, of writers, poets, artists capable of shouting the Gospel message to the world, of making us see Jesus.”
During the weekend, Scorsese met with Pope Francis briefly. He said that, inspired by the Pope’s call, he intended to make a film about Jesus.