Mean Streets (1973)

Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets is Martin Scorsese's deepest religious exploration. The original Scorsese-Mardik Martin script, Season of the Witch, was much more clearly and almost laboriously religious in its construction. What the revision and paring down did was make a film that, while commenting more obliquely on religion, also does so much more convincingly and profoundly. It also disguises itself, or, more accurately, reveals itself, by subsuming its allegorical meanings to the life of the neighborhood, Little Italy.

The Last Temptation of Christ, seemingly more directly concerned with religion, is in many ways a remake of Mean Streets. But Mean Streets is told from the point of view of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), the Judas figure to Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) as the Christ figure, while Last Temptation is told from the point of view of Christ (Willem Dafoe), as opposed to Judas (Harvey Keitel). Also, Mean Streets is much more effective because it does allow itself to stray from the pure construction of Last Temptation in ways that allow the characters to be more flesh and blood.

It's interesting to look at Mean Streets from the perspective of Last Temptation. Many things which might seem to comment quite obliquely on religion, when seen in this context, become much more central. Practically the only thing which separates the two films, besides their settings, is the point of view. Christ in Last Temptation is a real human being, trying to come to grips with the reality that he has been chosen for a certain destiny which causes him to act in ways that will not be understood by anyone, not even himself completely. Judas is the pragmatist who puts his own agenda on hold simply because he trusts that Christ is going to do that. Whether or not his trust is justified is largely left unanswered. While it is strongly suggested that it was, Scorsese also shows us, starkly, the possibility that it might not be. Judas's rebuke to Christ on his deathbed within the temptation framework is cold and the audience identifies with it completely.

In Mean Streets, Charlie is an individual torn between his religion and the life of the streets. These two worlds inevitably collide, with profound results for Charlie and those he has tried to help. But similarly to Judas, Charlie has put his "faith" in a certain way of living which requires him to trust in another's destiny. Johnny Boy is not nearly as explicated a character as Christ, but he is not meant to be. He is Christ as Christ would appear to others, not as Christ would struggle with himself, as in Last Temptation. Charlie can't know whether or not his backing of Johnny Boy is going to turn out one way or another. Indeed, he is not even allowed to ask. He prods Johnny Boy as Judas prods Christ. He rebukes, tries to sway, cajoles, slaps upside the head, all as Judas does in Last Temptation--"You're a Jew killing Jews!"--but in the end, when it comes to a head, he can only throw in with Johnny Boy as Judas does with Christ and hope for the best.

This formulation applied to Mean Streets also creates a parallel between the life of one street hood, Johnny Boy, a sort of mad saint, who manages to stay above danger while constantly courting it until the end, and the life of Christ himself. Christ flouted tradition and the accepted version of the truth. Johnny Boy just acts, without remorse, however his spirit moves him. And yet Charlie, like Judas, is just as redeemed and damned by following him. Last Temptation is a weighty religious statement; Mean Streets is a story which democratizes Christianity, and Catholicism, in a joltingly dissolute way.

Women are deeply ingrained in both stories, as well. In Last Temptation, the dealings with women occur with the main character, Christ, as they do in Mean Streets with Charlie. There are two opposite ends of the spectrum, as has frequently been mentioned with Scorsese's films: the Madonna and the whore. In Last Temptation, Mary, Christ's mother, is saintly, patient, and devout, but ineffective to the real mission of Christ's life. He has to leave her to fulfill his destiny. Mary Magdalene is the whore, literally, and yet Christ learns truly to look past that as part of his purification, which, incidentally, takes place during his temptation. Charlie has no real mother figure onscreen, though his offscreen mother looks after him and is treated, as is his grandmother, with veneration. Catherine Scorsese also appears in the film, suggesting the same theme. Theresa is the "whore" or "c--t--wait! It was only a joke!" Charlie needs to overcome that fixation like Christ does with Mary Magdalene, but Charlie is not the Christ figure, and so he never achieves it. The possible meanings of the roles of women are many. Scorsese is saying that the Madonna/whore demarcation, in Last Temptation, is false. In Mean Streets, it is still being worked out. But Mean Streets may be more noble for being so enmeshed in the complex. Last Temptation suggests that it must be resolved as some sort of moral imperative, therefore it may not be truly overcome, but only overcome because that's the right thing to do.

Other things repeat from Mean Streets in Last Temptation. The symbol of the lion, in Mean Streets, occurs when Tony shows off his big cat to the gang. It is tame to Tony, but Tony is training it to defend him. In Last Temptation, the lion appears to Christ in the desert as a form of Satan, and offers him the whole world. Christ replies, "Step into my circle and I'll rip out your tongue." The lion represents the temptation of power. In Mean Streets, it paints the picture of how street life can enslave majesty, and it sustains Charlie's determination not to give in himself to the easy path of the streets.

The rock and roll soundtracks of both films are also important. Mean Streets uses old classic rock and roll (contrasted with opera for the older generation and also for the violent end) to create a feeling of forward motion that is powerfully stylish. It's an irony of the film that Charlie and the others are being pulled toward a violent end, dancing all the way. The Peter Gabriel soundtrack of Last Temptation, on the other hand, creates a similar forward momentum toward a violent end, but the redemption comes through the crucifixion. The redemption comes through Christ's literal crucifixion in Mean Streets as well, but not nearly as easily. The redemption is always there in Mean Streets, and yet the obstacles are large, while that redemption is being created in Last Temptation.

Tantalizingly, Scorsese also casts himself in both films as a heretic to whatever religious statement is being made. In Mean Streets, he is literally the killer of Christ when he shoots Johnny Boy. In Last Temptation, he throws a rock at Christ and taunts him as a yokel incapable of bringing anything new to the society. "Why should we listen to Jesus of Nazareth, Mary's son?" These casting choices hearken back to the Catholic idea that Christ is tormented constantly by everyone who is in sin.

At the end of Mean Streets, Scorsese has a few bars of music play: "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home." At first it seems corny, but on repeated viewings it begins to drive home the point of the democratization of religion which is the major theme of the film. Instead of saying, "Ain't my neighborhood wacky?" it begins to say, "This is my story, the one I have to tell, but not the only one that can be told. Every story can be told." It becomes a challenge and a wake-up call. However painfully Charlie fulfills his destiny, whatever circumstances prevent a happy ending, he has at least been heading in the right direction. It's hard to do--hard to be that close to Christ, and Charlie doesn't come out ahead. Judas doesn't come out ahead. But the beauty and the pain they experience are inseparable.


Links for Mean Streets

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review

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