Problem of Violence in Scorsese’s Films: The Catholic Gangster as Tragic Hero

  • Author(s): John McAteer
  • When: 2019-09
  • Where: Scorsese and Religion (Studies in Religion and the Arts, Volume: 15)
  • The problem of violence in Scorsese films is not that his movies are more violent or more graphic than other movies. In fact, they are much less graphic than typical horror movies (in terms of on-screen gore) and less violent than most superhero action movies (in terms of on-screen violent acts or even the number of deaths). Yet Scorsese’s films – his gangster films in particular – do seem more violent. This is because Scorsese is such a good filmmaker that he is able to make the violence in his films more shocking. It affects us more, demanding to be noticed and thought about. The real problem of violence is that Scorsese does not take violence lightly; after all, Scorsese’s films are about violence. Interpreting what these films reveal about violence is the primary problem.
    Though many of his other movies explore the theme of violence as well (most notably Taxi Driver, Cape Fear and Shutter Island), this chapter focuses on Scorsese’s gangster movies, which take place within the social worlds of the Italian and Irish mob, primarily in New York City. Scorsese’s gangster films are tragedies in the same tradition as Medea and Macbeth. Most of these films are about people trying to escape their entanglements with the world of the mafia. The heroes of these films try to be good, but are eventually destroyed by the sins of their forefathers. Yet Scorsese’s approach to tragedy is more Shakespearean than Greek, more Catholic than pagan. That is, rather than being doomed by fate or an ancestral curse, Scorsese’s heroes are destroyed by their own choices.
    Scorsese dramatizes Catholic ideas of original sin (being born into the mafia culture), penance (the attempt to counteract the effects of sin with good deeds), and the self-destructiveness of sin. All of these ideas have roots in St. Augustine of Hippo. For Augustine, sin operates like an addiction, and only the intervention of God’s grace breaks this addiction and makes it possible for us to act in accordance with our own good. Scorsese’s tragic vision is quite similar, but perhaps falls short of orthodox Catholicism insofar as all forms of Christianity are grounded in the hope of redemption. It seems significant that in Scorsese’s gangster films, no one ever actually succeeds in escaping the cycle of violence. In these quasi-Catholic tragedies the heroes are always ultimately, if not inevitably, destroyed.

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