Saturday, February 22, 2020

Martin Scorsese | The Irishman

the history of evil
by Douglas Messerli

Steven Zaillian (screenplay, based on the book by Charles Brandt I Heard You Paint Houses), Martin Scorsese (director) The Irishman / 2019

On February 19, 2020 I finally gave in and watched Netflix’s Martin Scorsese film The Irishman.

It’s not that I don’t like Scorsese as a director. I’ve reviewed positively several of his films, and I recognize him as a cinematic creator with a wide range of concerns, including the spiritual (as in The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence), dark comedic tributes to film (After Hours and Hugo), somewhat romantic tales (The Age of Innocence and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) and, of course, dramas of machismo crime and murder (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Casino).

It was simply that I knew The Irishman was in the latter category, my least favorite of his film’s concerns—although I also realize they are the most popular among his audiences.

I was pleasantly surprised at how sanguine and emotional was this version of his tough guys, mafia figures, and simple murderers—the last of which, after all, is what Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) really is.

How the regular truck driver Sheeran came to be invited into the Bufalino family (represented by Joe Pesci and Ray Romano) to become someone who “paints houses,” or in Mafia parlance, a man who is willing to spill blood upon the walls of the victim’s home, is never completely made clear; he simply explains it as a way to support his wife and daughters. Obviously, that’s not enough of an explanation. But then, this is a kind of confessional piece, with the audience serving as the priest and priestesses, who are required to absolve him of his numerous “sins,” of which his daughters—particularly the eldest, Peggy (Anna Paquin)—will not.

Scorsese’s film darts back and forth through time, digital restoration allowing it’s three major figures, De Niro, Al Pacino (as Jimmy Hoffa)—Sheeran, through his mob connections becomes a local union head beyond his murdering and bodyguard duties—and Pesci as Russell Bufalino to become young again despite their now seriously senior facial contours. My guess is that this is their last reunion. And Pacino’s Hoffa figure is cremated, which would truly explain his complete disappearance. Concrete decays and might have revealed the remains of his body by now.

Nonetheless, these excellent actors give it their all, storming through history with aplomb and a kind of madness that is hard to explain. In the end, all wind up in prison for periods of time, and the director constantly reminds us through short on-screen biographies, of just how many of the movie’s characters were shot dead or ended up in the clink for the rest of their lives. Being a thug truly ain’t good for one’s health. And even Sheeran isn’t spared, now dying—after serving his own time in jail—in an assisted living home, with no family members willing to even visit him. Only a priest—a stand in for the cinema’s audience—dares hear his endless tales of wrong-doing.

This might seem also to be long requiem for so many of Scorsese’s and even Francis Ford Coppola’s and Michael Camino’s works which finally express not just the masculine pleasures of greed, violence, and chaos, but, I finally perceive, have provided us a history of US evil, as legendary as that might be portrayed to have been. All of the figures in these films end up destroyed by their own propensities—along with their families. And the musical alone gives us a semi-history of the period through our ears.

If there might be a kind of glorification of the male ego and its never-ending attachment in the US to the culture of guns and murder, there is, particularly in The Irishman, a sense of remorse, a statement of extreme guilt, a recognition that even old “house painters” eventually must themselves face the ax of death. Today it appears that some ruthless figures of our society cannot even imagine that they live only a very few years, and their actions mean, ultimately, nothing over time.

I wondered, while watching this film, how many young people even knew who Jimmy Hoffa  was, how many experienced the painful television news report, represented in this film, of John F. Kennedy’s shocking murder in 1963, or even knew how fiercely Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General—far braver than the current Attorney General William Barr—risked his life to bring Jimmy Hoffa to justice? This film suggests, not the first, that both their deaths might be tied to the Mafia and to Hoffa’s maneuvering.  

Scorsese is not sensationalizing his criminals and crooks as much as he is as holding them up to the light, forcing us to realize the deep historical relationships our country has had always with murder and violence, our connections with greed and the attempt to control all others. “Them and us” was at the very heart of the early Italian immigrants’ perception when meeting the hostility of numerous ethnic communities that had arrived before them.

If Scorsese’s works are clearly not documentaries, they do represent a kind of terrible historical diary of the evils at the very heart of our society.

Los Angeles, February 22, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2020).

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