We publish here Pope Francis’ foreword to the volume by our editor, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, Una trama divina. Gesù in Controcampo [A Divine Plot. Jesus in Reverse Angle] (Venezia, Marsilio, 2023). The pope’s text closes with an appeal to artists. The first to respond was the film director, Martin Scorsese. He did so by writing an original screenplay of a film about Jesus. We publish it below in its original English. At the end, Fr. Spadaro outlines the background of this original response.
To his contemporaries, Jesus would have seemed to be inadaptado, someone who does not fit in, a misfit, one who saw things in his own way. It is enough to read in the Gospels how people reacted to his gestures. In Mark we see that “his family went out to restrain him, for people were saying ‘He has gone out of his mind’.” Some openly declared, as Matthew tells us, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” At times Jesus reacts harshly, indignantly: he upended the tables of the Temple merchants, for example. He does not fit in; he does not conform.
As we follow Jesus on his journey, we see that he abandons Nazareth, his “homeland.” He protests against those who feel so included that they exclude others, against those who think they see so clearly that they have become blind, those who are so self-sufficient in administering the law that they have become wicked.
A Divine Plot accompanies us in our search for Jesus who walks, who meets people along the way, and determinedly sets his sights on his destination: Jerusalem.
Who is he? What does he want? Jesus goes through the streets of villages teaching, healing the sick, comforting the afflicted. People are amazed and wonder who he is. As he did with his disciples, he looks us in the eyes and asks, “But you, who do you say that I am?” I hear him asking me. Faced with accounts of Jesus, we are left with this fundamental question, which I feel resonates in the pages of this volume.
Sometimes we are burdened with images of Jesus that are, in fact, more figurines than true portraits. We tend to domesticate Jesus, to make him lovable, but in a way that makes his message unnecessarily sweet. He projects peace, he comforts, he is “gentle light,” as St. John Henry Newman wrote, but he does not numb us with tranquil singing. Above all he does not anesthetize. The healthy unsatisfied restlessness, together with awe at novelty, opens the way to boldness. So we do not need uplifting tales, especially in the hard times we live in. This book banishes them, often highlighting the chiaroscuro, the roughness of the Gospel accounts. Jesus came to bring fire to the earth. If he produces light, he is not afraid of shadows. On the other hand, it is true that those who grow up in a world of ashes do not easily cope with the fire of great desires.
We must not lose the fire that comes from encountering Jesus. To achieve this we watch the Master, follow him on his path without losing sight of him. Everyone can do this, although it is not always easy to understand God, to foresee His way. It is good to be understood and guided by Him.
Let us learn to remove the dust that has accumulated on the Gospel pages and rediscover its intense taste. This is the path we are called to take: to listen to the tone of voice of the one who pronounced the Beatitudes, who distributed bread among the crowd, who healed the sick, who forgave sinners, who sat at the table with the tax collectors.
The story of Jesus marries with the story of men and women, awakens and empowers hidden energies: the slumbering passion for the truth and for justice, the glimmers of fullness that love has produced in our path, but also the ability to deal with failure and pain, to exorcize the demons of bitterness and resentment.
The plot is proper to the story. There is no story without plot. God, therefore, has entered the plot of human affairs with a story that can be told. The plot is a fabric of threads. Jesus has inserted himself into this weft. No one thread is the same as another, and sometimes the threads are knotted. It is in the woven threads of human affairs that we recognize him “at work,” as St. Ignatius wrote. Jesus is moved, comes closer, touches pain and death and transforms them into life. Reading the story of Jesus does not distance us from the plot of our own existence. On the contrary, it calls us to look at our history, to return to face it without running away.
We must “see” this Jesus, feel his touch on our own skin; otherwise the Son of God, the Master, becomes an abstraction, an idea, the embodiment of a utopia, an ideology. With him we develop a game of gazes, but not only that: all the senses are involved. Jesus is anointed with perfumed ointment by a woman, eats and shares bread and fish, touches and heals, listens and responds to his interlocutors.
Opening the Gospels is like looking through a camera lens that lets us see Jesus in action. The perspective of A Divine Plot looks just like that of the cinema. St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises asks us to contemplate the Gospels with the eyes of the imagination: with our eyes, not with mental abstraction. In doing so, the story of Jesus enters into our own. We look at it in the light of our own lives; we see the faces, the events, the characters… We can even imagine ourselves entering Jesus’ story, seeing him, his places, his movements, hearing the words from his living voice. And so the Gospel touches us deeply.
Jesus’ gestures are inclusive: he draws to himself the poorest, the oppressed, the blind, making them participants in his new vision of things. His is not a restorative gaze. He does not heal the blind so that they can enjoy this world as a spectacle, but so that they may be able to see God’s action in history. The Lord does not come to liberate the oppressed merely to make them feel good, but to send them out to act.
Jesus has confidence in the best of the human spirit. To meet him is to recover energy, strength, courage. Faced with reality, the Master does not lose himself in complaints, does not give a paralyzing judgment. On the contrary, he invites us to passionate engagement.
The vulnerability of the people, for whom the Lord feels compassion, does not lead him to a prudent calculation of our limited possibilities, as the apostles suggest to him. Instead, he exhorts them to the overflowing superabundance of the Gospel, as happened in the multiplication of the loaves.
A Divine Plot, in this sense, clearly highlights the different capacity for judgment of Jesus and that of his disciples. Let us not be afraid to see a Jesus often misunderstood even by his own, a Jesus who was hard to accept, who was alone. Let us, if anything, question our own capacity for judgment and understanding of the Gospel.
Finally, how can we talk about Jesus? What language should we use? How can we present this “character” who changed the history of the world? This is one of the challenges of the book. It is certainly not with the language of habit. The language of true tradition is alive, vital, capable of a future and poetic. The language of habit, on the other hand, is stale, boring, stilted, obvious. The Church must be careful not to fall into the trap of banal language, of phrases that are repeated in a mechanical and tired way.
The Gospel must be a source of where we discern genius, a source of surprise, capable of shaking us to the core. The worst that can happen is to translate the power of gospel language into cotton candy: softening the impact of words, smoothing the angles of sentences, taming the impact of speech. How important words are! The artists, the writers, precisely because of the nature of their inspiration, are able to preserve the power of the Gospel discourse.
Today, a “leaden echo” manifests itself in the world, to use an expression of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. I make an appeal: in this time of crisis of the world order, a time of war and great polarizations, of rigid paradigms, of serious climate and economic challenges. We now need the genius of a new language, of powerful stories and images, of writers, poets and artists capable of shouting the Gospel message to the world, of making us see Jesus.
Script for a film on Jesus
I was deeply moved by His Holiness’ introduction to Father Antonio Spadaro’s forthcoming book about Jesus, Una Trama Divina, and stirred by his call to artists. I wanted to respond, and I decided to do so in this form.
We begin in darkness.
A painted image of the face of Jesus suddenly illuminates the frame… and just as quickly fades back into darkness.
CUT to a series of images: a plain wooden cross hanging over a neatly made bed in a tenement apartment… stained glass scenes of the life of Jesus … a marble sculpture of Mary cradling the body of Jesus in her arms… a small gold cross next to a mass-produced image of Jesus praying to the heavens… a boy sitting at a table looking up at the cross alongside elaborate full-color drawings for an imaginary movie called The Eternal City.
More images of Jesus: more mass-produced familiar portraits, brief moving images from Intolerance, the silent version of King of Kings, The Robe and the sound version of King of Kings.
VOICE: Like millions of other children around the world, I grew up with images of Jesus all around me, all based on a shared idea of how he looked and carried himself: handsome, beautiful long hair and beard, otherworldly, pious…
A clip from Pasolini’s Il Vangelo secondo Matteo: the Sermon on the Mount
VOICE: As the idea of making films became a reality, I planned a film about Christ in the modern world, in modern dress, shot in black and white 16mm on the streets of New York with apostles in suits in old, layered, weathered hallways, with the crucifixion set in the west side docks and cops instead of centurions – my world. But then I saw Pasolini’s Christ. The setting wasn’t modern but the feeling was. The immediacy of Christ was evident. Pasolini showed us a Jesus who was often impassioned and angry, who fought… His film made the one I was planning somewhat redundant, but it inspired me to go further
An editing table. An image on the musty screen of an old editing table, which is stopped. Hands appear, take the film in hand and make a cut.
VOICE: How do you represent Jesus in the cinema? I’ve thought about this over the years, and made my own attempts. And His Holiness’ words have given me a new urgency and another framework.
The hand at the editing table goes to a canvas “bin,” with numbered strips of film hanging on hooks along the top. One strip is selected, placed on the splicer; the tape is applied and the hand presses down the metal to seal the marriage of the two images.
VOICE: In the cinema, it’s never just a matter of a single image. It’s images in motion, but more importantly, images joined together. You take one image, you put it side by side with another image, and a third image is sparked in the mind’s eye. And that is cinema—it communicates by way of an impression or an idea created in the mind and the heart that doesn’t exist in reality. It’s in this eternal sphere, between the images of the real, of our world, where the presence of Jesus can be felt.
CUT TO Grand Central Station, New York City.
Constant movement from every direction: people exit trains and board trains, people rush to the subway, people search for other people, and some people just… go… A Bruegel canvas in motion, threatening to spill over the sides of the frame and envelop us.
VOICE: Jesus contains multitudes. He is constant. He is present in every effort when we’re compelled to act from love, whether we’re successful at it or not. He’s there in every inkling of love. Not love for a specific thing or person, but love as a source of power.
The camera flies through the crowds and slows, focusing on this face, then that face, then another and another – individual lives being lived right here and right now…
One young woman walks into the subway, where everyone stakes out their individual places and takes out their phones and starts scrolling… she’s no exception.
VOICE: In Matthew 10, Jesus says he’s come not to bring peace but a sword. Is it a call to violence? Of course not. I believe that it’s a call to look through any doubts and search for God within ourselves, the true feeling within all of us to act from love.
The subway doors open.
A man gets on. He is filthy, unwashed, and wears tattered clothing.
He pulls a cup out of a big, reinforced plastic bag stuffed with newspapers and plastic cartons and comes right at us.
He makes a speech – he’s lost his apartment in a fire; he needs three more dollars to get a clean bed for the night – and then he sings in a grating voice.
He lurches forward through the crowded car with his big bulky bag.
Everybody is on edge. Eyes are averted. Some passengers shoot quick glances. Most keep their eyes fixed away from him.
He gets aggressive, even insulting.
The woman stays focused on her phone.
It’s almost her turn. He’s coming closer.
Her money is in her purse, but…
…are the dollar bills folded under the bigger bills or is it the other way around? It would be awkward if he saw her going through 10s and 20s to give him a dollar.
If she’s the only one who gives him money, what will the people around her think? Will they judge her?
He approaches. Closer…
She looks up from her phone and directly into his eyes…
… he looks into hers. We hold our focus on them, we stay within their exchange.
VOICE: You surprise yourself; you really see someone and recognize their humanity… there is Jesus’ sword, severing every tie with all the habits and alibis and unspoken behaviors that keep us at polite distances from each other… and going right to the heart of love.
We remain there, with those faces…
VOICE: Revelation can come anywhere at any time—in a boardroom, in the Oklahoma hills, on the yard of a maximum security prison, in an airport or a Starbuck’s, in a museum or in a cardboard refrigerator box that someone has turned into a makeshift shelter, in a concert hall or a torture chamber.
The moment ends; the man doesn’t bother waiting for money and trudges on, the woman gathers her things.
VOICE: Life never stops. But that moment can open the door to real change. Yet, to step through the doorway? That’s another matter. It’s scary. Maybe that’s why Jesus used the image of the sword.
The woman gets off… and is swallowed up in the swarm of humanity. Bruegel again.
VOICE: Painters, composers, novelists, choreographers, filmmakers… we keep trying… It’s not a matter of looking for answers or making statements. We’re trying to create something like life as it’s lived… to give form to… what? To this inexplicable mystery, always changing. We keep trying, and we hope that we’ll end up with something that expresses that mystery. For some of us, trying to describe what happens around those moments of revelation is at the heart of our work.
A clip from the 1945 French film Le père Serge
VOICE: I’ve always felt that there is no such thing as old or new in art—it’s an ongoing conversation. And the stories and films that have inspired me are also part of this mosaic portrait. An example is Tolstoy’s story of an aristocrat disappointed in love who becomes a holy man – he believes he’s achieved spiritual truth by isolating himself in a cave. He has a violent realization that he’s done nothing of the kind, and then goes out into the world, searching…
A clip from Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (the priest interacting with the lying girl)
VOICE: Georges Bernanos’ and Robert Bresson’s account of the ailing country priest who fights to the death for the souls of his parishioners, no matter how much they taunt and scourge him…
A clip from Europa ’51 (Irene waving to the people she’s helped from the window of the hospital)
VOICE: Roberto Rossellini’s story of the woman moved by the death of her son to give all of herself to everyone in need, which results in her commitment to a psychiatric hospital… where she just keeps on helping others.
A clip from Silence: Kichijiro, coming back after another betrayal / A clip from The Irishman: Frank asking the priest to leave the door open a little
VOICE: We all reflect on the attempts we’ve made in our own work… the people who hover at the doorway to redemption, filled with fear and trembling…
A clip from Raging Bull: Jake La Motta in a ray of light in the Dade County Stockade
VOICE: … and the people who somehow find themselves at the doorway and walk through
A clip from Mean Streets: Charlie in church
VOICE: The people who presume that they can choose their own penance and get off the hook…
A clip from Silence: Ferreira confronted with the fumi-e (the stepping on the crucifix) / a clip from Bringing Out the Dead: Frank carefully intubating the man who’s had a heart attack.
VOICE: …or their own spiritual role
A clip from Casino: Pesci and Stone coming together for the first time, in a fever
VOICE: …or the people who live in a state of delusion.
The editing table – the image from Casino freezes
VOICE: We try to find endings for our stories that bring form to life as we all live it. Stumbling along, I realize I might be creating pictures that lead to more questions, more mysteries.
A cut is made – the hands search in the bin for another shot – the shot is found – a splice is made – the film is threaded back into the machine
VOICE: So what about the ending of this provisional film?
CUT to Saint Catherine’s Monastery, at the foot of Mount Horeb and Mount Sinai.
We follow a man, a woman and a girl through the gates of the monastery, led by a guide.
VOICE: On a trip to Egypt I took with my wife and my youngest daughter.
We walk down ancient stone corridors and around tight corners.
VOICE: We’re at the foot of Mount Sinai, at Saint Catherine’s, an ancient monastery, a museum within – relics, sacred objects on display, so precious that they’re lit for only for a minute at a time.
We find ourselves in a small room in darkness.
VOICE: I turn a corner – the light suddenly comes up…
On my face – stunned – between my wife and daughter, also stunned.
VOICE: It’s Jesus as Pantocrator, Byzantine, 6th century.
The painting we glimpsed in the beginning, the light falling on it.
VOICE: It was painted with the hot wax encaustic technique, which enhances and deepens its power.
My daughter’s face, almost terrified.
VOICE: Its power to do what?
My wife’s face, entranced
VOICE: For whatever the reason—the time in my life, the fact that I was with my loved ones, the fact that we came upon it without any warning—of all the representations of Jesus that I’ve seen, this is the one that met me head on…
On my face, looking.
VOICE: …that commanded me to respond. It had the impact on me that His Holiness describes, deep within. A question formed, and came into being. The question…
On my face, my voice asking: “What does Christ want from us?”
Cut to the painting.
VOICE: The question lingers. And this painting from the 6th century that looked deep into my soul, this very personal experience, opened the door to new images of Jesus, new ways of seeing Him… here… now… I believe that if I had such an experience, others can and will also find their own way to reflecting Jesus back to us in a new light.
Light radiates from the painting, flooding the room and then the entire frame.
“Why is the world not being shaken by the body and blood of Christ?”
Antonio Spadaro, SJ
On March 3, 2016, I ring for the first time the doorbell at the Scorsese home. It is a cold but bright day. It is 1 p.m. I am greeted in the kitchen, like a member of the family, by hot coffee and Helen, Martin’s wife, who strikes me with a grace that shines through physical suffering. We sit on the same couch. We begin a slow, deep conversation. When Martin arrives, the pace quickens and intensifies, but remains as if guided by Helen’s gaze. We recall his life as the son of immigrants in various neighborhoods of New York City, his time as a breathless altar boy sick with asthma. What emerges is a mixture of blood ties, violence and the sacred. Memories merge with those of a young boy who unknowingly makes the street his first film set: that of his imagination and dreams.
But also the memory of a priest: “When I was a boy, I was really lucky, because I had an extraordinary priest, Father Principe. I learned so much from him, among other things, respect for myself and for others. Of course, sometimes he embodied the figure of the strict moral preceptor, but his example was something very different. The man was a true guide. Maybe he spoke sternly, but he never forced me to do anything. He would guide you. He would admonish you. He would persuade you. He had a very extraordinary love,” he tells me.
Since that day, whenever I am in New York I try to continue those conversations. They have resulted in two interviews for La Civiltà Cattolica, but also in a book (The Wisdom of Time) and a Netflix miniseries (Stories of a Generation). One theme has always consistently emerged: a sense of grace. “I am surrounded by a form of grace,” he once told me with a smile, looking at Helen. But the grace of which he speaks to me would be completely incomprehensible without the damnation.
Last October, for the first time since the pandemic, we gathered at their home for dinner. Before we sat down, he gave me a small book from his library entitled The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a Carmelite friar from the mid-17th century with a preface by Dorothy Day. I note a few highlightings. In particular they are of a passage which states that to be with God we need only “make an oratory of our hearts wherein to retire from time to time to converse with Him in meekness, humility and love.”
Once again we spoke of Marilynne Robinson, who wrote something that struck him: “we are brilliantly creative and equally brilliantly destructive.” This makes human beings inexplicable, irreducible to explanation: it is “the great mystery, astonishing, of our being, of living and dying.” When he was an altar boy, going out on the street after Mass was over, he wondered, “how is it possible that life goes on as if nothing had happened? Why has nothing changed? Why is the world not being shaken by the body and blood of Christ?” It is an excruciating, mystical question. How did Scorsese carry it with him through the decades of his life?
Undoubtedly thanks to cinema, from Raging Bull to Silence, via The Last Temptation. For the latter film he went to Jerusalem: “They took me to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher,” he said. “I was there with the producer, Robert Chartoff, who passed away recently. I stood at the tomb of Christ. I knelt down, said a prayer. When I came out, Bob asked me if I felt a little different. I answered no that I was just impressed by the geography of the place.” We got back on the plane, a single-engine plane, and … “suddenly,” he told me, “I felt a total feeling of love…” Here is the answer to the question then: “something changed.”
I told him about A Divine Plot, the book on Jesus that I was finishing: not a biography, but a commentary composed of cinematic scenes. Pope Francis wanted to write his own preface to it, reflecting on the figure of Jesus. I felt I had to share it with Scorsese. The pope’s text concludes with an appeal to artists to show us Jesus with “the brilliance of a new language, of powerful stories and images.”
Scorsese felt the force of a personal invitation. Via e-mail he wrote that he felt the need to respond. Not with an essay, but as a director, with a screenplay, “something that captures the eye and the mind in an unexpected way.” When I received it I was shocked by this gesture. Also because, after reading and rereading this script, I felt that in there – “perhaps the basis for a film,” he added – there is so much of his work and of himself. And especially the voice of his wife Helen.
Scorsese finally wrote to me, “I am just trying to embrace the pope’s call to artists with a possible response, which could lead to further responses.”
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 7, no.2 art. 8, 0223: 10.32009/22072446.0223.8
 A. Spadaro, “Silence: Interview with Martin Scorsese”, in Civ. Catt. En. June 2017, https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/silence-interview-with-martin-scorsese and Id., “Asthma and Grace: An interview with Martin Scorsese”, in Civ. Catt. En. July 2020, https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/asthma-and-grace-an-interview-with-martin-scorsese/
 La saggezza del tempo. In dialogo con Papa Francesco sulle grandi questioni della vita, Venezia, Marsilio, 2018
 Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The practice of the presence of God, Springfield (IL), Templegate, 1974, 68.