Skip to content

Log Out



IN HIS ILLUMINATING BOOK Afterimage, the Jesuit film critic Richard Blake distilled the “indelible Catholic imagination” of six American filmmakers. Analyzing the work of directors like Frank Capra and Francis Ford Coppola, Blake argued that, whatever their later profession or practice, aspects of their Catholic formation had made a dent on their imaginations in a way that found expression in their films. This wasn’t a question of whether their movies had Catholic characters or explicitly religious themes but, instead, how a Catholic way of looking at the world was manifest in their work: guilt and forgiveness, evil and redemption, confession and mercy, a sacramental understanding of the cosmos as a place charged with meaning. In this way, for example, Blake convinced me that Apocalypse Now was a movie only a Catholic could make.

I thought of Blake’s book again while watching Martin Scorsese’s latest, Killers of the Flower Moon. Set in Oklahoma during the 1920s, it tells the story of a series of murders of Osage tribe members in a conspiracy to take their land and its valuable oil reserves.

The film is at once an exercise in historical reckoning and a patient study of human nature. It is a western and a love story, both epic and intimate in scope, full of horror and beauty. The pacing is patient, bordering on languorous, and yet an undercurrent of urgency stays with you afterward. I left the cinema with so many questions.

Every aesthetic experience we have is a mash-up of our current state of mind and what the artist has put down on paper or brushed onto canvas or projected onto the screen. Every reading or viewing is shaped by what Heidegger calls our “mood” (Befindlichkeit, if you want to impress people at parties). Mood is less a matter of how grumpy or cheerful we are when we enter the cinema and more a reflection of the hum and vibe of our being here, now, in this moment in which we find ourselves. Mood is an amalgam of my personal history, my existential environment, and even the way my body ticks and groans.

Critics are rarely honest about this. While there have been shifts in this regard, the critic still often assumes a voice and point of view that pretend to cool objectivity. (When the playwright Lynn Nottage was recently asked, in the Paris Review, whether she reads reviews, she said, “Usually, and I don’t mind reading them, the good and the bad. A review is the opinion of one person, who may have been drunk during the performance—believe me, I have seen critics in the bars before they go to shows, and it’s a miracle they stay awake.”)

When I go to the movies—well, when I go anywhere—Saint Augustine is always nearby. He lives in my head (and heart) rent free. Not like a devil or angel on my shoulder but like an ancient imaginary friend (who exists!): a thoughtful companion I banter with, trying out ideas, asking for his opinion. I especially found myself in conversation with Augustine as I watched and processed Killers of the Flower Moon.

A few days before seeing the movie, I had just received a new volume of The Works of Saint Augustine, the comprehensive new translation of Augustine’s (sprawling) body of work in English. The latest volume, Morality and Christian Asceticism, gathers eight smaller “books” (many first penned as letters) with titles such as Patience, The Work of Monks, The Care to Be Taken of the Dead, and The Advantage of Fasting. We are well into the weeds of Augustine’s corpus here, far from his bestsellers like Confessions and City of God, but for me, this is like finding a box of postcards your grandfather sent home to your grandma during the war.

I found myself immediately absorbed by Instructing Beginners in Faith (De catechizandis rudibus). Written to Deogratias, a deacon in Carthage, a university town in North Africa, this is Augustine’s advice on how to present the Christian faith to seekers and inquirers. What struck me about this document, penned in 403, was the extent to which Augustine already realized that one of the biggest obstacles to Christian faith is, sadly, Christians. When answering questions about the faith, Augustine emphasizes, be prepared to address the stumbling block of “those people who are Christians in name only” (CINOs, I guess we might say in today’s parlance)—those people who invoke a semblance of Christianity to underwrite their own interest in power and domination, for whom God is a talisman of security and control. These attach themselves “to Christ’s company,” Augustine admits, and any seeker had better get used to the scandal of it (“neither should he refuse to be in the Church of God where these people are as well, nor want to be there as the same kind of people that they are”).

Somehow, Augustine says, we must try to get the seeker to see past these fraudulent versions of Christianity to see the God who loves us in Christ. “And, somehow or other, we speak with greater intensity in giving such warnings when the anguish that we are experiencing fuels the fire.”

I thought of this while watching Killers of the Flower Moon. You can sense how Scorsese made it from this anguish. One of the horrifying and maddening threads in the story is the faux piety of monsters like William Hale (played by a chilling Robert De Niro with an Oklahoma accent) who wear a velvet glove of “Christianity” over the iron hand that strangles the Osage, all in the name of mammon. What’s heartbreaking is how his nephew Ernest (played by Leo DiCaprio) is drawn into this web. “I love money,” Ernest admits early on; but he also falls in love with Mollie, whose Osage family is targeted by their scheme. The genius of the movie, I think, is in how not even Ernest knows which love will win out. He is an enigma to himself. Which is another way of saying: I think Martin Scorsese has made an Augustinian film.

Instructing Beginners in Faith is where Augustine first articulates his famous distinction between the “city of God” and the “earthly city,” two ways of being that are animated, fundamentally, by two different loves: love of God, which manifests itself in humility and sacrifice, versus love of self, which leads to a lust for domination. Augustine’s subtle psychology and social analysis realized that there could be lots of people who attached themselves to the church who were nonetheless driven, fundamentally, by libido dominandi. These “Christians” are the chaff that the seeker will inevitably encounter as they consider the faith. Thus Augustine’s burden is how to help the seeker see God’s love incarnate in Christ when the smokescreen of fraudulent Christianity blocks out the light.

In that spirit, Scorsese finds a filmic way to point to a God beyond the god of William Hale. We glimpse this in the Osage devotion to Wah’Kon-Tah, whom they worship in a small Catholic parish. Scorsese illustrates this most powerfully in a scene of lament and mourning at one of the many Osage funerals. Behind a small house, in the vastness of the plain, three figures wail in sadness and longing. Scorsese’s director of photography suggested a tighter shot; but the wider shot pictures something important, Scorsese told an interviewer: “No, the shot is up here. I think it’s up here because they’re wailing out to Wah’Kon-Tah. We see it all. And there’s this little house, pathetic human beings. We’re all as we are, and we’re just wailing and you barely hear it.” The scene holds together doubt and lament, justified skepticism and the ineradicable longing for eternal life.


Scorsese, DiCaprio, and their collaborator Eric Roth struggled with the script. Echoing David Grann’s book, the screenplay was originally a western police procedural that centered its white characters, particularly FBI investigators. But the story was flailing. The breakthrough, Scorsese testifies, came when he learned from the Osage themselves that the heart of the story is the love between Ernest and Mollie Burkhart. Despite everything Ernest did, Mollie’s descendants still saw the tragedy as a love story.

In his little book on instructing new Christians, Augustine says the same is true of Christianity: it is, at its heart, a love story. “Before all else,” he emphasizes to Deogratias, “Christ came so that people might learn how much God loves them, and might learn this so that they would catch fire with love for him who first loved them, and so that they would also love their neighbor as he commanded and show them by his example—he who made himself their neighbor by loving them when they were not close to him but were wandering far from him.”

Mollie Burkhart loves her enemy. His love, in return, is conflicted. In a searing final encounter between them, we see that Ernest still doesn’t know himself. But in Mollie he has glimpsed how he could be otherwise.

Ernest has also witnessed, with Mollie, a different way to dwell in the cosmos. In my favorite scene, during their courtship, Ernest visits Mollie’s home for dinner. Just as she offers him some prime whiskey, which Ernest could never refuse, a rumbling storm sweeps across the prairie and over the house. Ernest reaches to close the window to protect them from the storm. Mollie insists he leave it open. “We need to be quiet for a while,” she says. Ernest is restless, trying to fill the space of silence with chatter and nervous energy. Mollie stills him with a look and a light touch of her hand. “This storm…it’s powerful. So we need to be quiet for a while. Just be still.”

Here, too, is Scorsese the Catholic filmmaker who has absorbed the mystic significance of contemplation. Of sitting still and being quiet. Like in a cinema, letting the power wash over us.





Image courtesy of Apple TV.

Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

+ Click here to make a donation.

+ Click here to subscribe to Image.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Related Editorial

In Praise of Boredom


James K.A. Smith

The Best of Rivals


James K.A. Smith

The Unfinished Cathedral


James K.A. Smith

Besides, Before, Beyond Beauty


James K.A. Smith

Receive ImageUpdate, our free weekly newsletter featuring the best from Image and the world of arts & faith

* indicates required