Martin Scorsese is a master filmmaker. Believing a film can be an art form on a level with music, dance, and literature, the one-time seminarian director wrestles with themes of free will and the unforeseen consequences of sin in his latest work, “The Irishman.”

Martin Scorsese recently criticized Hollywood’s current cash cow—the comic book superhero film. He said the marvelous Marvel movies were like theme parks, not cinema. In a further interview, Mr. Scorsese elaborated on his understanding of the art of film. He said Cinema was about revelation – aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters – the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”

Mr. Scorsese says the comic book movies are not only like a theme park, they’re a franchise. They’re market-researched, audience-tested, revamped and audience-tested again until the final product, like a new sandwich at a burger chain, is a sure-fire hit. In contrast, Mr. Scorsese believes a film can be an art form on a level with music, dance, and literature. A major problem with the comic book franchise is that they dominate the space available in theaters and soak up a large amount of the money available for film making.

This is one of the reasons Mr. Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman, moved quickly to the streaming distributor Netflix. While some in the film industry look down on Netflix as a kid brother of film consumption, because The Irishman was available on Netflix I was able to give it the second viewing it deserved. I wouldn’t have paid twice to see it in the cinema. Furthermore, because the film is three hours long, I was also able to watch it the second time in two installments—viewing when I wanted as I wanted. Not only was this method of viewing more convenient, but it also allowed me time to watch the film more closely and think about the film more deeply.

In The Irishman, Mr. Scorsese returns to the scene of organized crime and his favorite content, actors and themes. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci team up as they did in Raging Bull, Casino, and Goodfellas. Mr. De Niro plays real life mafia hit man Frank Sheeran and Mr. Pesci mafia boss Russel Bufalino. Harvey Keitel rejoins Mr. Scorsese to play mob boss Angelo Bruno. Surprisingly, Al Pacino (who’s played plenty of gangsters) makes his debut in a Scorsese film as teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa.

The film is based on Frank Sheeran’s memoir, I Heard You Paint Houses, and the film is therefore based on real life. Mr. Scorsese and his team re-produce America of the fifties, sixties, and seventies flawlessly, and weave the historic events of that tumultuous time into the storyline. With extensive use of flashback, the film used cutting edge “de-aging” digital film technology to knock decades off the appearance of Mr. Scorsese’s aging stars.

Too often Mr. De Niro seems to be simply reprising the same brooding, grimacing, and menacing man of violence we saw in his previous Scorsese movies. Messrs. Pesci and Pacino, however, are both brilliant. Mr. Pesci branches out from his usual banty rooster psychopath, underplaying Russel Bufalino as a quietly terrifying and ruthless crime boss. Not since Marlon Brando’s dead-eyed don have we seen such a penetrating, heartless godfather. Mr. Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa is equally mesmerizing. One moment a dominating, ugly bully, the next moment he’s a warm-hearted family man. One moment he’s a cunning, vengeful creep, the next a vulnerable pal and a slightly tipsy jokester.

The Irishman is a Scorsese masterpiece, but on first viewing I wrote it off as just another Scorsese gangster movie with three hours of Mr. De Niro frowning and looking as nasty and menacing as possible, enlivened by the occasional car bomb or a victim getting his brains blown out. I was critical of the heavy use of flashback and voice over—both techniques can be a lazy cop-out which slow a film down and shift the storytelling from the visual to the aural. Not good for a motion picture.

A second viewing changed my mind. Mr. Scorsese is a master filmmaker. In his hands flashback and voice over are not the scriptwriter’s easy way out. Instead, they allow for more reflection and an exploration of the film’s themes. As usual, one-time seminarian Martin Scorsese is delving into the themes of free will, temptation, sin, and its unforeseen consequences. He makes us take a walk on the wild side, but he does so with a certain gritty grime that somehow glimmers with a grim kind of grace.

I won’t spoil the plot completely, but will point out that the main characters—Russel Bufalino and Frank Sheeran (Messrs. Pesci and De Niro) stride through the film doing their crime business with a nonchalant and confident air. And yet the gangsters interact throughout the film with their Catholic faith. We see them at their child’s baptism and a family wedding, and in their old age both struggle to re-evaluate their lives of crime and deal with their guilt.

For both men, their understated struggle with conscience comes to a head. In prison, Bufalino is hit with cancer and is wheeled into church. When Sheeran asks why, Bufalino says, “You’ll find out!” In two scenes toward the end of The Irishman, Sheeran meets with a priest who tries to spark remorse in the killer without success, but in the final scene we get a hint that the priest has granted the elderly Sheeran absolution. The hit man must have been hit with forgiveness at the end.

That Mr. Scorsese offers such violent killers forgiveness is a powerful plot point in the film, but it is Sheeran’s relationship with his daughter Peggy that complicates it neatly. Peggy (Anna Paquin) who has very few lines, functions as an incarnation of Sheeran’s conscience. She seems to know instinctively that he is a killer, and she ostracizes him. Although we do not see it, Mr. Scorsese suggests it is this dart that finally penetrates Sheeran’s tough hide and impenitent heart.

Mr. Scorsese’s films are never easy to watch, and one may draw back from the strong language and violence, but like the novels of Graham Greene, Mr. Scorsese takes us into the heart of darkness. There in the void all is ambiguous, characters are blinded by their sin and truly chained in the prison house they have made for themselves. That there are glimmers of grace in the purgatorial pit is Mr. Scorsese’s subtle reminder that despite mankind’s grim gulch of blood and guilt there is another force at work, striving—always striving to bring light to the darkness and to somehow set the prisoners free.

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The featured image is a poster for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019).

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