It’s no secret that Martin Scorsese was raised in a strongly Catholic household. Religion and religious themes have found their way into his work pretty much across the board, from the obvious films – The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Silence – to more obtuse examples like the messianic undertones of Taxi Driver, the disciple figures of Mean Streets and Goodfellas, the Magdalene parallels in Boxcar Bertha, and themes of resurrection in Shutter Island, Bringing Out The Dead, Cape Fear, and even The King of Comedy.
In fact, while some folks would say that Scorsese’s characters – largely criminals, hoods, and others at polite society’s periphery – lack morality, there’s an argument to be made the other way, that morality via religion has been so much a part of their lives and specifically their upbringings that it looms over them too heavily, it presents ideals too lofty to live up to, and so when their human natures fail the tenets of their religious faith, these characters form new systems of spiritual support, be those systems organized crime, makeshift families of other like-minded outsiders, or even one’s own mental perspective.
Given the influence of religion on his films, it’s no surprise that when Scorsese employs the god’s eye view – which he does often – it conveys more than just the usual meanings, but rather a feeling that the director is using the shot somewhat literally, as the actual view of god, though not “god” as a being, rather more as a point of focus for a moral system.
If you don’t know or recall what god’s eye view means, cinematically, it’s any shot taken from a neutral P.O.V. over a scene. Tarantino loves it, Nolan loves it, Kubrick loved it; it’s a staple of quality filmmaking and is also known as the bird’s eye view, for the secularly-minded.
Typically the god’s eye view is used as a remove, a way of taking the story of a film out of the character context and looking at it from a more distanced perspective, from which the bigger picture – physically and emotionally – is revealed. Beyond showing scale, the god’s eye view can follow movement, it can highlight a character or setting’s isolation in the world, it can signal a moment of freedom, personal or otherwise, and it can imply impending doom or even death.
When Scorsese uses the god’s eye, though, there’s an added weight, as though where other filmmakers use the shot to remove all personal perspective, Scorsese employs to it add personal perspective, to inject the idea of a neutral other watching over events and thus taking them out of the skewed moral perspective of his characters and re-establishing the proper vantage from which they should be viewed. Scorsese’s god’s eye isn’t vengeful, wrathful, or even mean-tempered, he/she is passive but present, trusting its presence to be enough to lead the straying back to the right path, which typically it is. Travis Bickle escapes this world having fulfilled his objective, making the streets a little cleaner, a little purer, and a little – by his own death – more moral. The finger-gun he points at his own head just before being killed and the smile he wears while doing so are signs that death holds no negative for him, it is his reward and he can go happily into its embrace now that his mission on Earth is accomplished. The same can be said of Henry Hill in Goodfellas, or Ace Rothstein in Casino, or Billy Costigan in The Departed – all were saved by jolts to their natures that came not from outside forces, not ultimately, but from changes of character that came from within, inspired by trauma, tragedy, failure, or perhaps by divine intervention.
In the latest montage from our old friend Jorge Luengo Ruiz, examples of the god’s eye view from each of Scorsese’s feature films – including Silence – have been collected into a six-minute trip through perspective, remove, and morality. Whatever his intentions, you can’t deny that when the director drops this shot it is no mere technical feat, nor even necessarily a narrative one, but rather an augmentation of the themes around which he’s been working his entire career.