Asthma and Grace – An interview with Martin Scorsese

WelCom September 2020 Antonio Spadaro SJ interviews acclaimed American film director, producer and screen writer Martin Scorsese about arts and Covid-19. Antonio Spadaro, is Editor-in-Chief for La Civiltà Cattolica, a…

WelCom September 2020

Antonio Spadaro SJ interviews acclaimed American film director, producer and screen writer Martin Scorsese about arts and Covid-19. Antonio Spadaro, is Editor-in-Chief for La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit periodical based in Rome. This article has been re-published in WelCom with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica,

Asthma and Grace – An interview with Martin Scorsese Archdiocese of Wellington
Antonio Spadaro, SJ with Martin Scoresese, film director, producer and screen writer. 

‘Life is not something that takes us by surprise, but an astonishing mystery that inspires poetry in us,’ said Pope Francis in a recent audience. And he continued: ‘When a person lacks that poetic dimension, let’s say, when poetry is missing, his soul limps.’[1] 

That’s why I thought of contacting the director Martin Scorsese: life has provoked poetry in him. In the meetings I had with him in Rome and New York we talked a lot about life and poetry, especially during an interview I did with him for ‘La Civiltà Cattolica’[2]. [about his 2016 film Silence about two 17th-century Jesuit missionary priests in Japan.]

That’s why now I wanted to know how he had lived through this time of forced cloistering due to the coronavirus. What are the echoes and resonances? During a brief dialogue we exchanged questions and answers, which were edited down by the director seven times, from the desire to be precise about an experience that touched him deeply.

At this time the predominant, compelling feeling in the lives of many people around the world seems to be anxiety. Have you had to deal with that feeling too? How has your inner condition affected your creativity?

Back in February, when I realised that everything was coming to a stop – a ‘pause’, as they said – and that my wife and I were going to have to quarantine and stay in the house for an indefinite period of time, anxiety set in. A new form of anxiety.

The anxiety of not knowing anything. At all.

Everything was up in the air, indefinitely delayed, and it was like a dream where you’re running and running and you never get where you’re going. To a certain extent, it still is.

When would it be over? When would we be able to go out? When could we see our daughter? And then, when could I shoot the movie I’d been planning so carefully? How soon? And under what conditions? Would the location be a problem? Would I be able to find a way to work with the actors and the crew? And then a specific question.

Which one?

If I couldn’t make my movie, then who was I?

How did you live cloistered in your home? Did you discover new things? Did you feel it was a refuge or a prison?

The anxiety deepened, and with it the realisation that I might not get out of this alive. I’ve had asthma throughout my life, and this is a virus that seems to attack the lungs more commonly than any other part of the body.

I came to realise that I could very well be taking my last breath in this room in my home, which had been a refuge and which now became a kind of fortress, and was starting to feel like my prison.

I found myself alone, in my room, living from one breath to the next.

Is it a feeling that will stay in your soul?

And then, something…arrived. Something settled over me, and within me. That’s the only way I can describe it. And I suddenly saw everything from a different vantage point. I still didn’t know what was going to happen, but neither did anyone else. I could very well become sick and never leave the room, but if that was what was going to happen then there was nothing I could do about it.

Everything was simplified, and I felt a sense of relief. And it focused me on the essentials of my life. On my friends, and on the people I love, the people I need to take care of. On the blessings I’ve had – my children, and every moment with them, every hug and kiss and every goodbye…on my wife, and how lucky I feel to have found someone I was able to grow with and raise a child with…being able to do the work I love.

I remember that we talked about some of these same emotions and realisations when you interviewed me around the time of Silence.

That interview was really important to me. I’m very grateful. I remember those emotions and the things we said to each other. 

But now I felt them with a greater urgency. Because here we were, suddenly living with the realisation that the very air around us, the air that sustains us, could kill us. And for me and for my loved ones and my friends, the circumstances drew us closer together. They cut through all the formalities, all the euphemisms for ‘friendship’ and ‘community’ that have sprung up around us on social media and that often seem more like filters or even barriers to the real thing. And then, something was revealed, bestowed upon us. The old habitual questions – ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Are you okay?’ – became immediate and crucial. They became lifelines. We found that we really were all in this together – not just in the pandemic, but in existence, in life. We truly became one.

Are you relating this discovery to something from your past, your work? 

After I made Raging Bull, I found myself pondering a question. I’d gone through a whirlwind decade, I had poured everything of myself and my experience into that picture, I was exhausted, and I wondered: ‘Can I actually be alone in a room, with nothing but myself? Can I just be?’ And then, so many years later, all at once, here I was, alone in my room, just living the moment, every precious moment of being alive. Of course I couldn’t sustain it, but it was there.

What have you learned from this time of pandemic that you would like to communicate to a youth who is opening up to the future right now?

And I think that for young people, right now, I would love to tell them how fortunate they are to be alive at such a clarifying moment. Many of us think that everything will just go on the way it always has, and of course that’s never really the case – everything is always changing, as this moment reminds us with such force. And it can inspire us to recognise our own ability to effect change for the better. That’s what’s happening right now with the mass protests all around the world – young people are fighting to make things better.

Have you been able to read books? Which ones? Why? What did those readings leave in your heart? And anyway, are there any authors who, in your opinion, help us to better understand what we experienced? And have you thought about a film?

During these months I’ve watched and read a lot, often based on conversations or suggestions from my friends – that’s been precious to me. My wife and I took another look at The Killers by Robert Siodmak, and I was so moved by it this time – maybe it has something to do with Burt Lancaster’s presence, the way he embodies such longing for the women he loves, and with the very special tone of the picture, which feels realistic and dreamlike, simultaneously. I incorporated a beautiful scene from The Killers in a little homemade reflection on lockdown that I made for Mary Beard’s BBC show.

I went back to The Brothers Karamazov, and I read a selection from it for a literary festival that had gone online.

I read Steinbeck’s East of Eden for the first time at the suggestion of a close collaborator, and I was struck and obsessed by two chapter sections in which one of the characters re-examines the story of Cain and Abel. He and his learned elders focus on the translation of the Hebrew word ‘timshel’, and they discover that it translates correctly as ‘thou mayest’ as opposed to ‘thou shalt’. In other words, whether or not Cain will conquer sin after the murder of his brother is not a directive or a promise, but a choice – his choice.

With another friend I read some of Kipling’s stories, and we were both stunned, particularly by ‘They’. It’s very far from the stories and poems he became famous for. He wrote the story after the death of his young daughter, and it’s such a true and subtle expression of the tragic in life…just thinking about it moves me.

And the other night, I looked at a film at the suggestion of another friend, a portrait of the artist and spiritual teacher William Segal by Ken Burns.

It seems to me an itinerary, a road within the experience you’ve made and that has accompanied you to understand. What struck you in this portrait of Segal?

There’s a scene where Segal is speaking through his own stillness and meditation, of honing your focus down to the essential, what’s happening right now, from one breath to the next. Being. Breathing. Here. Now.

Isn’t all of this Grace?

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 08 art. 1, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0820.1

[1]. Francesco, Speech at the General Audience, 24 June 2020.

[2]. See A. Spadaro, “Silence”. Interview with Martin Scorsese”, in Civ. Catt. En., Feb., 2017

Antonio Spadaro SJ (b. 1966) is an Italian Jesuit priest, journalist and writer. He is an official of the Holy See and Vatican City State and has been the editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica (Catholic Civilisation) since 2011. He is also a consultor to both the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Secretariat for Communications. 

Martin Scorsese, an asthmatic child, grew up in the Italian American neighbourhood of Little Italy on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His early interest in film returned after he tried unsuccessfully to enter the Catholic priesthood, and he went on to earn undergraduate (1964) and graduate (1966) degrees in film from New York University, where he subsequently taught.