Books & Culture

Martin Scorsese’s Cinematic Splendor

Despite the criticism, “The Irishman” director has made a cinematically powerful film.

Martin Scorsese’s new feature film, now showing on Netflix, came highly anticipated by critics and audience alike. The anticipation shouldn’t come as a surprise because Scorsese is a director of high stature, who has been making films for over 50 years. The newest film, “The Irishman” has drawn some negative criticism, mainly from the critics. For the most part, the criticism has been something along the lines of “do we really need another movie about the mafia and gangsters?” or “that make-up is really bad” or “Al Pacino sucks.”

Although it’s certainly not the most perfect film in Scorsese’s oeuvre, the criticism has been undeserved. Like many of his films, “The Irishman” is three-and-a-half hours long, but even this is not a serious issue. Scorsese is known for the operatic nature of his cinematic output, and his latest is no exception.

The story revolves around three men: Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). The film itself is based on a book by Charles Brandt, I Heard You Paint Houses, in which he presents Frank Sheeran’s confession that he killed Jimmy Hoffa, the one time president of the most powerful labor union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The hit on Hoffa, according to Sheeran, was arranged by the powerful mafia Bufalino family, and Sheeran dutifully carried out the job.

The mystery of Hoffa’s 1975 disappearance has been a part of both American labor union history as well as American myth and legend. Similar to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the disappearance of Hoffa has moved away from forthright investigations of truth and history into the territory of conspiracy theory. But as with any conspiracy theory, one wonders how many kernels of truth there may be in some of these outrageous explanations. As they say, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

[Another view: “The Irishman” Stinks]

Whatever the truth or the lie behind Hoffa’s disappearance may be, Scorsese’s intent is not to solve a mystery but rather to present the intricate relationship of the corrupt triangle personified in the lives of Sheeran, Bufalino, and Hoffa. The film doesn’t move in a chronological way. Rather, it creates a collage effect of images that shed light on the progression of events leading up to the murder of Hoffa. (I say murder because it is presented as such in the film not because of any evidence proving the veracity of that explanation for Hoffa’s disappearance).

Sheeran becomes an errand boy for Bufalino, which includes casual murders (are there any other kind in the mafia?), as well as a go-between for Bufalino and Hoffa. As is to be expected, political corruption is part of the set up in which it is revealed how much Hoffa hates the Kennedy family (especially Robert), who was intent on destroying Hoffa on charges of various corrupt dealings.

What drives the film is not necessarily the events themselves but the tangled relationships of these men. Criticism involving the lack of chronology may be warranted, but given the fact that Scorsese focuses on the relationships between characters, it is useless to dwell on the veracity of the story or the expected chronology. Scorsese is not interested in these things because that is not the story he is telling. As a result, most performances in the film reflect Scorsese’s intent to get under the skin of characters.

Scorsese is not a filmmaker who specializes in the extreme interiority of the characters, such as Ingmar Bergman or John Cassavetes. Rather, the approach is much like the wide and sweeping shots of building interiors—we move away from the character only to be confronted with his face and expression. Scorsese retains the mystery of the person, precisely by moving back and forth from exterior and interior shots.

The best performance, by far, is Al Pacino’s because he doesn’t really play Al Pacino as he does in so many other films. He plays Hoffa as a man who thrives on the insistence that he will not be mocked or destroyed or dethroned from his position as the leader of Teamsters. Pacino’s exposition of Hoffa’s stubbornness as well as an inability to speak to Bufalino or other mobsters directly becomes a constant method of his dealing with events that are thrust upon him. This is not say that we ought to view Hoffa as a victim but in the grand scheme of things (as far as the film is concerned), Pacino’s Hoffa is a character who deserves some compassion.

By contrast, Bufalino and Sheeran are the ones who should be detested. Bufalino for his machinations, and Sheeran for following orders without question. Pesci is not some irritating and whiny mobster, which was a role he played in Scorsese’s Casino (1995). Rather, he brings seriousness and significance only visible in the underworld of corruption.

Of the three main characters, the weakest performance, undoubtedly, is the one offered by De Niro, who plays, well, De Niro. Whatever powerful essence he may have had in the past, De Niro has lost. Unlike the other actors, he has not been getting better with age. Instead, he’s operating on thespian autopilot mode. It’s difficult to take him seriously precisely because of his typical De Niro grin, which at this point, has turned De Niro into a kind of caricature of himself rather than anything more substantial.

But even this weak performance has some redeeming qualities, namely that we see moments of absurd comedy during which De Niro’s Sheeran functions as an awkward messenger between Hoffa and Bufalino, whose petty and stubborn arguments resemble two old women bickering in Italian over the quality of the spaghetti sauce.

There are many brief performances and cameos in the film: Harvey Keitel as Angelo Bruno is superb. The mere gaze of Keitel carries a certain level of gravity. Ray Romano as Bill Bufalino was also quite surprising and shows that the comedian is up to the challenge of playing a serious role. One curious cameo was that of Fr. James Martin, S.J., who plays an actual priest officiating at an infant baptism. It left me wondering whether priests are allowed to act in movies playing priests. Isn’t there something theologically and pastorally odd about this?

Despite the criticism, Scorsese has made a cinematically powerful film. He has stayed true to the notion of “film as artform,” and what weakens the film, more than anything, is De Niro’s uninterested performance. Scorsese’s work, however, remains grand, expansive, and aesthetically profound.