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Justice, Mercy and The Irishman

By Joey Royal

This Post Contains Spoilers

I spent the last Saturday in November watching Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which had just been released on Netflix. The movie is very long, about three-and-a-half hours. Whether you describe it as a “slow burn” or a bore will depend on what you’re looking for in a Scorsese movie, or any movie really. I loved it. The performances are all outstanding, especially from the lead actors. The biggest surprise was Joe Pesci’s understated performance as mafia boss Russell Bufalino. It also has Al Pacino as labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, and Robert De Niro as the titular Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran. Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano and Anna Paquin are all there in supporting roles.

The film, based on a book, is Frank Sheeran’s account of his simultaneous rise in organized crime and the Teamsters union. Of all his relationships in those two worlds, the most important are with Russell Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa. As the film unfolds Sheeran becomes more and more entangled in organized crime, and torn between his loyalty to Hoffa and his loyalty to the mafia, and Bufalino in particular. Ultimately his loyalty to Bufalino wins out, and at the film’s climax  he reluctantly guns down Hoffa, a man whom he respected and to whom he had grown close. That is the basic plot of the movie, but fundamentally the movie is about relationships within families, which includes biological families, but also includes “families” bound together by organized crime and labor unions (in this film those two things often don’t look much different).

Scorsese’s depictions of violence are as gritty as ever. Guns go off, blood spurts out of fresh bullet holes, dead bodies crumple on the street, victims shriek and scream. It all looks horrific, and so it should. In Scorsese’s films violence is seldom sanitized and glamorized. You feel shocked and repulsed when you see it. This is in stark contrast to typical Hollywood movies, where violence is often choreographed to look exciting and aesthetically pleasing. Scorsese’s characters live by the sword and die by it; often when a new character is introduced in The Irishman the frame stops and the character’s date and cause of death are written on the screen.

One criticism of the film I’ve heard is that there are few strong female characters, and the few there are have barely any dialogue. Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, played by Lucy Gallina as a young girl and Anna Paquin as a grown woman, is arguably the film’s strongest female character and she hardly says anything. These critiques miss the point for a couple reasons. First, the world of organized crime is a male-dominated one. Yes, some of Scorsese’s previous gangster films have had strong female leads (e.g., Sharon Stone in Casino), but by and large he depicts a world filled with powerful men. That world is essentially masculine – a combination of violence, machismo, competition and loyalty.

Second, the presence of Peggy in the film is so powerful largely because of what she doesn’t say. Her gaze – or rather, her glare – communicated more than pages of dialogue. At key moments in the film she looks at her father, in an icy, distant, frightened way. As a young girl Peggy watches her father beat a man on the sidewalk, then looks on as her father is drawn further into a world of violence and corruption. Peggy is the moral core of the film; her presence is a judgment on her father’s choices, and a judgment on a way of life that operates according to a warped moral code. Morally, she anchors the film in a way that the male characters do not and cannot.

As is typical for Scorsese, the movie is full of Catholic themes and imagery. The gangsters have their babies baptized, and recite the liturgy from memory in Latin. We see priests in clerical shirts now and again. We also see statues of Jesus and Mary in key scenes, as if to remind us that the world of The Irishman is not godless even though it often looks like it. At the end of the film De Niro and Pesci’s characters are in prison, their aging bodies breaking down. They break bread together and dip it in red wine, but their “Eucharist” is only a parody of the real thing, just as their lives – once so full on the outside but empty on the inside – are but parodies of the abundant life the gospel promises.

Scorsese’s Catholicism is a topic of great interest to me. He has talked about this in the past, and he continues to identify as a Catholic – albeit a lapsed one – whenever he’s asked. Speaking of the tension between his divorces (Scorsese has been married five times and divorced four times) and the teaching of the church, Scorsese said: “I am living in sin, and I will go to hell because of it.” That judgement on himself seems to me refreshingly honest but also overly severe. Does he see himself as beyond forgiveness?  If so, that may provide insight into the main characters in The Irishman, who seem to see themselves as irredeemable.

It’s as if the grace of God is available to everyone except for the Frank Sheerans of the world, those whose patterns of life have seemingly insulated them from God’s grace. It is remarkable that, even as everything crumbles, none of his characters truly repent. They just crumble along with everything else. The world of The Irishman is a deeply moral one, with a strong sense of retribution and justice, but without much hope of reconciliation or redemption for its central characters.

The movie ends with a priest visiting an elderly Sheeran in his nursing home, trying to coax a confession from him. He asks Sheeran if he feels remorse over his actions. He doesn’t, or at least is unwilling to admit he does. The priest then tells him sometimes we need to confess to God and ask for forgiveness even if we don’t feel it. Sheeran repeats the prayer of confession, mumbling much of it. The last scene has the priest leaving his room telling him that he’ll be back to visit after Christmas. Sheeran asks him to leave his door open a crack, and we glimpse the once strong Sheeran sitting in the wheelchair, broken and alone. Even at the end he is unable to repent, unable to reconcile with his estranged family members, and unable to sympathize with the many people he has hurt.

That final scene left me wondering what it would look like for Frank Sheeran to repent. How is a man whose life is so disordered redeemed by the grace of God?  What would true conversion entail for a man so weighed down by his own troubled past?  As it stands, The Irishman exists between the poles of justice and mercy, never fully settling on one or the other. Sheeran largely evades justice and entirely resists mercy. Thus the film ends in ambiguity, leaving the viewer to reflect more deeply on the complexity of human life as it is lived before a just and merciful God.

The Rt. Rev. Joey Royal is a suffragan bishop for the Diocese of the Arctic in the Anglican Church of Canada.


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