In the last decade, Martin Scorsese has shot very different films: Shutter Island, a thriller set in a criminal mental hospital; the Parisian fable of Hugo Cabret; the rise and fall of a broker in The Wolf of Wall Street; Christian persecutions in Japan with Silence. But now we can say that the Italian-American has returned home: The Irishman is a movie mafia that by the cast – Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel – and setting recalls the great masterpieces of the past.
The Irishman does not mark Scorsese’s simple return to the most congenial terrain but stands as a meditation on time, the fruit of the search for a fifty-year career that adds a mature piece to the director’s poetics. Already the substantial minutes – about three and a half hours – indicate the desire to build an epic that goes beyond mere entertainment. In Scorsese’s film the life of a man, of an era and, by osmosis, of half a century of American history is condensed.
The events of the film weave fiction and historical reality in a cohesive and plausible way, inspired by the book by Charles Brandt, I Heard You Paint Houses – a reconstruction that is based on a series of interviews released by Sheeran on his deathbed and published posthumously. Philadelphia, the 1950s: Frank Sheeran, known as “the Irishman”, is, like many of his generation, a veteran of the Second World War. He deals with delivering wholesale meat, and in order to earn something more, he decides to become a mafia courier. From here he will begin his criminal ascent: at first marginally involved in the business of the organization, Sheeran, since he is reliable, is given assignments of increasing responsibility, entering the sphere of influence of the Bufalino clan, whose summit is Russell, played by Joe Pisces, a man who hides the cynicism of the boss behind the good-natured appearance and behavior.
The trend is that of Goodfellas. The work of the underworld labour force is shown: the movements and the stalking, the compulsion to become a killer, all that constitutes the “dirty work” within the organization. But the real quantum leap for Sheeran comes when he becomes the liaison between the Bufalino and Jimmy Hoffa, the chairman of the hauliers’ union, who thanks to the money of the mala begins to expand his power, becoming a public figure, leading a lobby is able to oppose the Kennedys.
Here the story of Scorsese is intertwined with the chronicle of sixties America: Hoffa was a great adversary of the Kennedy family, a figure loved by supporters of the union and in close contact with the pockets of the illegality of American society. Scorsese’s intention is to tell a shadow area not always beaten in the triumphant story of the America of the boom. Hoffa is the anti-hero who reflects all the contradictions of an America that sees the Kennedy saviours. A family dismembered by tragedies, and to which Hoffa survives, as if to ratify the victory of cynicism, the ferocity and the recourse to subterfuge which then characterized the Nixon presidency, of which the trade unionist was a supporter. Sheeran will accompany Hoffa in his ascent but will have to decide whether to be on his side or not at the time of the fall. And this choice, played on the living flesh of friendship, will mark it for the rest of existence.
But it is in the last part that The Irishmangives the best of itself. If we crossed Frank’s entire parable – following his successes, remorse, decline – we now accompany him in the last segment of life. We see his hair turning grey, his lines deepening, his skin becoming covered with spots. He is no longer the threatening gangster he used to be, he is just a man left alone by his family, who survived his friends and who has to deal with a cumbersome criminal past. Frank is a man who survived his glory years, a relic of a value system that no longer belongs to him. His horizon is restricted to a daily life of which he is no longer the master: doctors, nurses and confessor fathers mark the rhythm of his hours. Hours that slip from the life of Frank, and give neither wisdom nor oblivion: Sheeran is a lonely man and has to deal with death.The death of Ivan Il’ ič, Tolstoy’s classic with which the director shares the ability to fix every detail in the process of physical and mental decay.
The Irishmanmemorable characters are dashed – and it could hardly have been otherwise with a cast of such calibre. Starting with Frank Sheeran played by De Niro, who has the ability to embody in-depth the various ages of the character. The early Sheeran is hesitant, always respectful, not yet comfortable dealing with criminals. We see on the screen the transformation of the protagonist: in contact with the boss he lets himself be intoxicated by the power, he becomes more self-confident, to the point of pretending to command economic safety in the private life, with the family or with those who make him a saguaro, turns into a more acute will to dominate. At the height of maturity, Sheeran is able to deal on a par with Russell or Jimmy. But the best years do not last long and the decline of his business is accompanied by physical decline:
Perhaps only the acting test of Al Pacino can obscure that of De Niro. His Jimmy is histrionic, charismatic, capable of winning any dialectical confrontation. The ambition that animates him is the same one he finds in Sheeran, which is why he elects him as his adviser, he becomes his friend, he trusts him despite being the man the Bufalinos sent to monitor him. The strength of Hoffa, courage, a courage that makes him able to challenge on a legal and media level a character of the calibre of Robert Kennedy, also hides his weakness: stubbornness. In fact, Hoffa is not afraid of the mafia, does not recognize itself in the affiliate codes, does not intend to bend to the value system of its business partners. His arrogance is always on the verge of overflowing, just as Bufalino’s patience is one step away from the end.
To complete the trio of the main characters is Joe Pesci, in the role of Russell Bufalino. The meeting between Bufalino and Sheeran initiates the latter’s criminal career because Russell knows how to read the desires of men. On the contrary, Bufalino’s gaze leaves nothing to show: the boss is always calm, ironic, controlled even when he has to make the most difficult decisions. Bufalino seems infallible, yet he must surrender to advancing age, the fight against time is not comparable to that against a business rival, because he admits only one destiny, only one winner.
Scorsese’s good boys have aged, just like their narrator. Many have concluded their parable in the blood of a violent death, which is almost honourable for those who have chosen the criminal life. Others, instead, are veterans of their own myth and have to deal with a slow decline: the passage of time that unites us all, leaders and subordinates, and that makes us slip into an inexorable destiny. Scorsese wonders if the ambition and initiative of youth, once past, are still worth something if reality does not pale in comparison with the end. In the excavated faces designed by the director there is no wisdom, but only bewilderment, Russell and Frank must carry the burden of the past, between remorse and regret.
We do not know if this dark vision of old age also belongs to Scorsese, but one thing is certain: the director, following his own poetics, has given us a universal reading of the last phases of existence. A raw and problematic point of view, which highlights the cruelty of time. Yet in the author’s vision, there is a point of human understanding, the awareness that sooner or later we will have to face decay, and that beyond our experience we will find ourselves equally unprepared. From today we have a new tool to exorcise that encounter: a work of art that amuses and moves in its simplicity, the story of a man’s life, to the end.