Last Rites
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman
Charles Andrews

While puzzling over the conflicting duties of the Catholic novelist, Flannery O’Connor observed that writers who are equally committed to faith and to art “may feel some friction” between honestly portraying ugly realities and desiring to shape the world toward goodness. “Just how,” O’Connor asks in her celebrated collection Mystery and Manners, “can the novelist be true to time and eternity both, to what he sees and what he believes, to the relative and the absolute? And how can he do all this and be true at the same time to the art of the novel, which demands the illusion of life?” As an example of the kinds of worldly ugliness she means, she refers to “fallen man perverted by false philosophies” and wonders whether faithfulness to artistic portrayal conflicts with faithfulness to Christian witness. Lurking in O’Connor’s questions here is the longstanding problem about whether depiction amounts to endorsement. Is the detailed, thoughtful creation of a vicious character a potential license for vice?

This moral and aesthetic problem has animated the work of Martin Scorsese from his earliest days as a filmmaker—a career that began when O’Connor wrote her essays on Catholic literature in the mid-1960s and continues today in full force. The Irishman, Scorsese’s most recent feature film which appeared on Netflix after a brief theatrical run, is a masterful exploration of an unsavory and unlikable person. Like many of Scorsese’s films, from as far back as his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967), The Irishman offers very little judgement on its despicable central character—the real life mafia hitman Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Instead, the film considers the shape and breadth of a criminal life that stretches into advanced old age, an unusual fate for underworld figures whose fast money and violent deaths are typical of the gangster genre. There is much to admire about the way that Scorsese as an older man has leveraged his prestige and the fortunes of a dominant streaming service to create an expensive epic about aging. Not only does the film tackle a subject that is rare for big budget cinema, it also serves as a career retrospective for Scorsese and a reconsideration of several of his favorite themes—including his fascination with despicable men. The Irishman extends his longstanding interest in American organized crime and meditates on his prior work with fresh though wizened eyes.

Gangster sagas have long been viewed as Scorsese’s signature genre, from the semi-autobiographical small-time hoods of Mean Streets (1973) to the mafia epics Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). But alongside his studies of Italian-American mobsters and avaricious entrepreneurs in films such as The Aviator (2004) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Scorsese has been profoundly invested in religious cinema. Works such as The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Kundun (1997), and Silence (2016) are not simplistically pious; they thoughtfully investigate the challenges and costs of living with faith and grappling with doubt. Though The Irishman obviously shares its DNA with Scorsese’s gangster sagas—down to the casting which reunites his company players including Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci, and Robert De Niro—the film is surprisingly meditative about Christian faith. Scorsese is not a Catholic Filmmaker in the way that O’Connor was a Catholic Writer, but his upbringing in the church remains a source of fascination and provocation. The Irishman, in its encyclopedic survey of Scorsese’s most cherished themes, integrates violent, criminal excess with a powerful reflection on sacraments.

Based on Charles Brandt’s splashily titled book I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irish-man” Sheeran & Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, Scorsese’s film uses an interleaving narrative structure to span fifty years in the life of a taciturn hitman who, by his own admission, was integral to the Bufalino crime family, the Teamster’s union, and the mysterious disappearance of Hoffa. That title phrase—“I heard you paint houses”—was, according to Sheeran, the first words spoken to him by Hoffa, a slangily encoded offer for Frank to join Jimmy as his enforcer,  “painting houses” with other men’s blood. The film’s outer frame focuses on Frank alone and wheelchair-bound in a nursing home, speaking in direct address to the camera in an echo of Brandt’s many years recording his story. Within this frame is a lengthy depiction of Frank’s road trip with Russell Bufalino, Frank’s boss and mentor, played with extraordinary verve, allure, and reptilian menace by Joe Pesci. Their road trip is taken with their wives and is full of thoughtfully observed images of the mundane as Russell naps, Frank fiddles with the car, and the women stop for cigarette breaks. The purpose of the trip, we eventually learn, is to instigate the demise of Jimmy Hoffa, played by a well-cast Al Pacino channeling the agitated, full-throated, gale-force blustering he has tended toward in his later years.

Throughout the film, there are several flashbacks to pivotal moments in Frank’s life—during his wartime service, his marriage, his stern and distant parenting, and his many violent murders—but the heart of the story is the pair of relationships between three men: Frank with Jimmy and Frank with Russell. Over several decades, Frank tries to navigate his friendship with both men, men he admires and who respect him. But Pacino’s Jimmy is a welter of hubris and self-destruction on a collision course with Russell and the mob. Jimmy fights to retain his grip on the union despite Frank’s repeated efforts to subdue him and broker peace between Jimmy and the crime bosses. Jimmy protests that he is untouchable, too big to be muscled or killed, and Russell hisses to Frank: “We whacked a President. Do you think we wouldn’t whack a president of a union?”

What Russell ultimately requires Frank to do with Jimmy is a crucial turning point of the film and the single most important touchstone for Frank’s regret. Many critics have challenged the veracity of Frank Sheeran’s account of his role in Jimmy Hoffa’s “last ride,” but Scorsese has stated that historical accuracy was never his goal. The Irishman is not, primarily, a conclusive solution to one of the twentieth century’s great unsolved mysteries. Rather, its vital essence comprises those themes of friendship, betrayal, and regret stretched across purgatorial time.

That vision of purgatory which extends through the film’s final third is perhaps its most masterful element. It is certainly its most surprising. Scorsese has in the past offered fleeting glimpses of retired criminals in the final minutes of his epics. Henry Hill bemoans his boring middle-class life in witness protection at the end of Goodfellas, and Ace Rothstein yearns for the halcyon days of mafia-run Vegas before its modern Disney-fication in Casino. But The Irishman devotes nearly an hour to Frank’s late years of growing decrepitude and isolation. The style of the film shifts from Scorsese’s familiar cinematic language of dazzling tracking shots, rock’n’roll needle drops, and shocking violence into a style more reminiscent of his religious meditations—slow, quiet, observant, and mournful. Scorsese has long championed the Italian neorealist films of the 1940s that he saw as a child, works such as Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1948), which lingers in the poverty and despair of a struggling fishing village after the ravages of war.

The last act of The Irishman embraces that neorealist style, lingering on Frank’s increasingly feeble body, distance from his family, and contemplation of his corrupt life. Without moralizing or scorning Frank’s condition, we are left to feel his intense loneliness—loneliness that cannot be bridged because Frank has spent so long building his own isolation. It is unusual for gangster sagas to investigate their protagonist’s dotage, in part because violent criminal lives infrequently ripen into old age. One of the stylistic flourishes throughout The Irishman is a freeze frame and title card that pops up whenever we are introduced to a new character, informing us of his name, date of death, and method by which he was killed. This device orients us to the vast secondary cast, but it also insistently reminds us how soon these criminal hotshots will be dead—and often how prematurely and violently they died. Frank’s advanced age might seem like a success, outliving all his rivals, but it functions instead as punishment, living past his prime with little to hold onto but his sins.

It is also in this final act that Scorsese underscores the sacramental vision that had flowed as an undercurrent in the narrative. Several times throughout the film, Frank and Russell meet to discuss business in a plush restaurant that functions as their headquarters, and their conversation begins by tearing pieces of bread from a loaf, dipping them in wine, and eating. They do not remark on this ritual of scheming plus intinction, but they are clearly sharing a kind of Eucharist. Their ritual echoes a similarly recurring image in Mean Streets where Harvey Keitel’s Charlie orders whiskey in a bar and holds his fingers over the glass in imitation of receiving the communion chalice. While in Mean Streets this ersatz Eucharist emphasizes Charlie’s pious upbringing and guilty conscience, the meaning of the bread and wine in The Irishman is more ambiguous. Frank and Russell are hardly pious and never guilt-stricken. Frank especially embodies a calm that borders on sociopathy. It seems instead that Scorsese is showing us a ritual that functions—mysteriously and accidentally—regardless of the participants’ intentions.

The last time they share this rite, Russell and Frank are in prison, and Russell is lost in dementia near the end of his life. They dip contraband bread in prison-sanctioned grape juice, and their conversation painfully touches on Jimmy’s demise. Their last interactions are confusing and unfocused because of Russell’s diminished faculties, but there is a rich and deep pathos in these final moments together, sustained and hallowed by their partaking of a sacrament that is unrecognized and unacknowledged. In spite of the evil these men have done and the punishment they deserve, there is a glimmer of holiness produced by their sacramental ritual.

Interwoven through the scenes of Frank’s exploits are other key sacramental moments in his life, such as the weddings of his crime associates and baptism of his children. But perhaps the most significant sacrament for the film is confession. Very late in Frank’s life he is visited by a priest in the nursing home who patiently invites Frank to give penance for his sins. Frank seems to want this, or at least to want something meaningful at the end of his life, but he is unable to offer confession. The priest asks if he feels sorry for all that he has done, for the hurt he caused so many families. Frank shakes his head, saying it’s all “water under the dam.” The priest then says that it is possible to be sorry without feeling sorry, to see confession as an act of the will. Frank joins him in a prayer for forgiveness while flipping through a stack of photographs of the people in his life, including those closest to him, the ones he had hurt most. He stutters his way through a question to the priest: “what kind of man makes a phone call like that?”—a reference to the last fumbling conversation he had with Jimmy Hoffa’s wife following Hoffa’s “disappearance.” This broken question is as close as Frank comes to admitting remorse or offering confession—unless, of course, you consider the film’s structure. Like many Scorsese movies, The Irishman indulges in a great deal of voiceover, emphasizing the subjective nature of the images rather than objective, documentary history. That the film is Frank’s point of view and in Frank’s words means that it is his act of confession, and we are his confessors. We are not required to excuse Frank or pardon him. Indeed, we may recoil from his vile acts. But by listening to and watching him, we are witnesses to Scorsese’s effort at conveying “time and eternity both,” as O’Connor put it. Eternity breaks into the long passage of time through physical signs—the bread and wine and listening ear—signs of grace more mysterious and wondrous for being so undeserved. We must hope that The Irishman is not Scorsese’s final film, but as a culminating statement, it functions extraordinarily well as his last rites.


Charles Andrews is professor of English at Whitworth University.

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