A common trope of faith and film writing is that the cinema is a “sacred space,” perhaps the last sacred space in our culture, where strangers gather together in hopes of experiencing some sort of transcendence. Movie theaters are likened to cathedrals. Film stars are deemed “iconic.” We encourage readers to be spiritually aware at the movies, to be open to meeting God there.
In Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, the theater becomes a confessional. The film opens as an unseen presence emerges from the darkness into a retirement home. As the presence walks the hallway, we pass tables where elderly women and men all talk to priests. Finally we sit down with man in a wheelchair. He begins telling us his story. Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro, an Irish man working for the Italian mob; another of Scorsese’s outsiders tragically caught up in systems of power too big for him) narrates the film, another common Scorsese motif, though here the narration is entirely devoid of irony. Most of Frank’s story has to do with the events that led to the disappearance of labor organizer Jimmy Hoffa. This is sort of a red herring. We’re really hearing Frank’s confession about the way his sins destroyed his relationships. Here, at the end of his life, he seeks absolution.
Yes, this is a Scorsese mob movie, and it delivers on all that suggests. The Irishman is a swingin’ good time packed with period detail and scored with the kind of perfectly picked pop hits that make Scorsese not just one of our finest filmmakers but one off our best DJs as well. The movie moves like Sinatra on skates. The Irishman is three hours and twenty-seven minutes long, but I didn’t feel a minute of it.
There’s a touch of “just play the hits” to The Irishman, no pun intended (although, yes, there are plenty of hits in The Irishman, a movie that is kind of also titled I Hear You Paint Houses, a mob slang reference to the blood that splatters the wall when someone is shot). Regulars De Niro, Joe Pesci (in a low-key, career-best performance), and Harvey Keitel are here. And filling out the Fab Four is Al Pacino, who hasn’t worked with Scorsese before, but whose name is synonymous with mob movies. Thelma Schoonmaker is still sitting at the editing bay making Scorsese’s movie hum. As practiced as this all is for all involved, never for a moment does it feel like anyone is giving less than their best.
Especially Scorsese who uses this familiar material to plumb new depths. The Irishman is an elegiac film. Death haunts it from the opening shots that recall open graves to the epitaph-like titles that appear on the screen when we’re introduced to new characters telling how and when they died. The Irishman seeps regret. If you think that Goodfellas or Casino glorify mob life—a misreading of those films, in my estimation—you’ll be hard pressed to read The Irishman similarly. These are the wages of sin. Is there any eternal hope for Frank? Is there any hope for any of us sinners up here on the crosses next to Christ?
Since the beginning of his career, the more Scorsese burrows into sin in his movies, the closer he tends to get to Christianity and to Catholicism in particular, so, unsurprisingly, The Irishman turns out to be Scorsese’s most Catholic movie of all, yes, even more than the one about the Jesuit priest or the one about Jesus. In addition to its confessional set-up, the narrative is anchored by ritual and sacrament. Christenings, weddings, and graveside services mark important chapters in Frank’s life. Most delightfully, a primary relationship is marked by the sacrosanct sharing of bread and wine, an inviolate communion in a movie where “union” in its many forms is what matters most, shadows of more (trans)substantial matters, sure, but weighty shadows nonetheless. The film even includes a lengthy discussion on why entombment is preferable to cremation. It has everything to do with the Christian hope in eternal life. It is also an especially poignant discussion given who we’ve seen cremated in the story before that moment and what that suggests about the fate of their soul.
Though Scorsese has always been concerned with these matters, he has become direct about these matters in the last few years in a way he wasn’t before. People tend to be that way nearer to the end of their lives. The Irishman is certainly an end-of-life film. Interestingly, Scorsese doesn’t settle things here. He’s too honest for that. The intent is there though, to be reconciled to God and to others. He does very conspicuously leave the door open as well for… something, in contrast to the end of Goodfellas especially. And an open door is hope.