THE IRISHMAN, US, 2019. Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Jesse Plemons, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Jack Huston, Paul Ben-Victor, Barry Primus, Gary Basaraba. Directed by Martin Scorsese. 210 minutes. Rated MA (Strong violence and coarse language)
With Director Martin Scorsese turning 77, it might have been thought that this could be his final film. Not so, not at all. He has several themes in the pipeline.
But, at 210 minutes, with some of his favourite actors over the decades, this is certainly a landmark Scorsese film. It takes him back into American crime and political history. It takes him back to the Kennedy era, the election of John F. Kennedy and conflicting influence of powers from Kennedy’s father to the Mafia, and the hostility, especially to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, of the Teamsters union, led by Jimmy Hoffa. The action continues into the Nixon era, campaign politicking, Watergate… Later sequences occur in the 1990s and into the beginning of the 21st-century. Almost a half-century of American history.
Scorsese has drawn on excellent writing credits. The film is based on I Heard You Paint Houses (euphemism for hits) by Charles Brandt, author of bestselling novels based on crimes Brandt solved through interrogation during his career as a homicide investigator, prosecutor and eventually, Chief Deputy Attorney General of the State of Delaware. The screenplay was written by Steven Zaillian whose credits include Awakenings, Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York.
And, the Irishman himself? He was Frank Sheeran (1920-2003 – worth Googling, especially for basic information in Wikipedia). After war service, he delivered meat, encountered Russell Bufalino, of the Bufalino crime family, became part of the family (an Irish exception to the Italians), at times a hitman, friend of Jimmy Hoffa, working for the Teamsters. Robert De Niro has excelled himself in Scorsese films (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas). This is his creative variation on the gangster character, often frowning, less often smiling, an opportunist, betraying loyalties, an interestingly complex character).
The framework of the film is Sheeran in a nursing home, visited by a daughter, reminiscing about his life, back to the early days and the encounter with Russell, the involvement with the pro-and anti-JFK factions, anti-Castro activity. There are further flashbacks to different periods but, especially travelling with Russell in 1975 to a wedding – and the time of Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance.
Joe Pesci had also appeared in Scorsese films, winning an Oscar for Goodfellas, a more restrained performance here but nonetheless sinister and influential. Other Scorsese veterans appear including Harvey Keitel, Stephen Graham, Barry Primus. Also appearing are Ray Romano is a smilingly successful Bufalino lawyer, Jesse Plemons as Hoffa’s son, Anna Paquin as Frank’s daughter.
Al Pacino had not worked with Scorsese but here, as Jimmy Hoffa, chewing the scenery and others remorselessly, he steals the show when he is on screen.
Obviously, with such a running time, Scorsese is not in a hurry, does not have to take shortcuts, but immerses the audience in the periods, with the characters, whether we approve or disapprove of their behaviour.
In recent times, Scorsese is going back to some religious themes, especially, of course, in Silence. The Irishman is not just a portrait of Frank Sheeran as a criminal. It is a portrait of a man who has sinned, has not really repented – does not seem to know how – but, has an Irish Catholic background, the Catholic sacraments recurring thematically throughout the film, baptism, marriage, funerals (and there is also a cameo from Scorsese’s Jesuit friend and adviser, James Martin SJ). But, there is a final Catholic sequence with a young priest talking earnestly with Frank Sheeran in the nursing home, exploring possibilities of repentance, of forgiveness, of confession.
Reviewers and audiences are calling The Irishman “a masterpiece”. Who are we to quibble?
Netflix cinema release Released November 7th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.