The Past Catches Up To Us All

Written by Josh Kadish

Warning! This article contains spoilers for the collected works of Martin Scorsese!

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it on the streets.”

So begins Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, as much an encapsulation of the ensuing narrative as it is a mission statement for the auteur’s career that would follow. Over the course of dozens of features, documentaries, short films, music videos, and commercials, the New York native has staked out a sizeable acreage of cinematic real estate, wading in the waters of historical fiction (Gangs of New York, The Aviator), madness and solemnity (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Bringing Out the Dead), spirituality (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Silence), and most famously, the world of organized crime (Mean Streets, GoodFellas, Casino, The Departed). With The Irishman, Scorsese has somehow distilled all those sensibilities into an emotional epic for the ages - one that’s driven by loyalty, memory, and ultimately regret.

Yet, for all the success and esteem Scorsese’s been showered with for half a century now, he’s also grown a reputation as one of our most misunderstood cinematic artists. Certainly, the gritty, graphic, and unsettling elements coursing through much of his filmography has gotten the lion’s share of attention - but what the basest of critics have failed to address is the ocean of morality swaying beneath the surface of every narrative. Metaphorical or literal justice catches up with most of the director’s unscrupulous characters, be that the brutal and sadistic demise of Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) in Casino, the operatic car crash that sends Charlie’s (Harvey Keitel) life hanging by a thread in Mean Streets, or the misery of suburbia Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is lost inside of by the time GoodFellas comes to a close. Scorsese’s films may be driven by subjectivity, but the auteur himself operates more as a god surveying his domain: no subject escapes judgement.

Part of Scorsese’s mystique comes from the fact that he was born the son of immigrants, and an asthmatic boy to boot. Since the air could affect him adversely, he would often spend days from a multi-level balcony watching the comings and goings below in Little Italy, creating narratives for the characters of his life, in all their melodramatic glory. When he wasn’t plotting from above, a young Marty would spend hours in front of the silver screens of his neighborhood, taking in fantastical worlds created by wondrous artists known as filmmakers. This image alone sustains the key inspiration for a movie like Hugo, another misunderstood project from the director.

Soon enough, two poles of influence would beckon Marty, nearly splitting him in two: the street urchins whose everyday pleasures were driven by mischief, and the Catholic church. The unshaken sanctity of Catholicism reverberated on Scorsese’s conscience as a child, taking him to the seminary and a path that would fashion him into a priest. Yet, when film schools became more of a reality for the world at large, and Scorsese in particular, he ultimately left the church to pray at the altar of a different kind of higher power: the cinema.

In some fashion, Scorsese never truly left the Church - he took the moralistic building blocks of his childhood and stitched them into the crude and cruel world that would surround the beacon on a hill that was his faith. It’s why works like Mean Streets are so complex in their spiritual implications. The final image of the film features an elderly woman of Little Italy (Scorsese’s own mother, Catherine) shutting the window on the violent scene below, all while the yearly Festa celebration is winding down and a dirge-like version of “There’s No Place Like Home” is sung in Italian*. With this blending of image and sound, Charlie has been metaphorically cast out and excommunicated from his faith, his family, his community - an island with no center.

When the gangster picture reached its heights during the Golden Age of Hollywood, an entirely different moralistic (and faith-based) organization extolled judgment on the films themselves: the Hays Code. The original Scarface (1932) famously shot two distinct endings to placate the ratings board - one in which Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte was tried and convicted in a court of law...the other ending in a hail of bullets. Howard Hughes, the film’s producer, wound up paying a sizeable fortune to the board to release the film with the more violent (and more engaging) ending in the long run, effectively buying off the clergy of Hollywood. Scorsese was later tasked with telling Hughes’ story when he made The Aviator, a bit of irony that likely wasn’t lost on the filmmaker.

For all the subtle moralizing present in his filmography, popular culture has a messy way of co-opting Scorsese’s narratives for the least developed minds. There’s a reason why posters for The Wolf of Wall Street, Taxi Driver and GoodFellas are adorned on so many dorm room walls. It’s true that elements of all those movies tap into the ugliest parts of our id - the fantasy of sex, violence, and bacchanalia without the consequences of the real world. When given the opportunity to see humanity’s most craven desires projected on a big screen, humanity has a nasty habit of neglecting to interrogate the fallacy of said desire on even the slightest scale, even if the movie is doing that work for them. It’s perhaps why Marty has been more keen in recent years to address said fallacies more bluntly.

Silence, Scorsese’s long in the works interpretation of the Shûsaku Endô novel, focused on a pair of Jesuit priests traveling to 17th century Japan to rescue their mentor from torture, all while reckoning with an internal crisis of faith. A passion project that the director had been developing for nearly 30 years, the film was ultimately a commercial failure, and one that potentially derailed the prospects of Paramount (the studio that released it) from financing The Irishman. Yet, the film remains one of the most mature and complex large-scale features to be released by a major studio in the past two decades. There are no answers, and no certainty, granted the characters traversing the moral grey-zone of the narrative - just an impassioned plea to reckon with their actions, their beliefs and ultimately their faith.

Such ambiguity sets the last third of The Irishman apart from Scorsese’s other gangster pictures. Gone is the slam-bang aesthetic that builds and builds throughout GoodFellas and Casino. Instead, the malaise of melancholy and regret stings Frank Sheeran’s (Robert De Niro) conscience as his friends slowly disappear, along with all meaning in his life. It’s because of Frank’s code to sustain loyalty to Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) that he dispatches Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), who he once shared an endearing friendship with for decades. It’s quite purposeful of Scorsese to have taken the exact opposite approach of something like GoodFellas when constructing the masterful hit sequence that serves as the narrative climax of this film. Without a single music cue or flashy edit in sight, Frank traverses from car to plane to car to house, and back again, quietly. He might as well carry a cross over his shoulder as he does so - such is the weight of his decision here.

What does Frank get for his code of violence, for his loyalty to devils in silk suits? A family he shares no relationship with, a head full of nightmarish memories, and a life where he has to make detailed arrangements for his own funeral. ”You don’t know how fast time goes by until you get there,” mutters Frank at one point in the film. The words are spoken with temerity, with sadness, with knowledge that things might have been different if he had chosen a life with less bloodletting. Scorsese always knew he didn’t want to be a gangster - he’s just never been this clear-headed about it until now.

*Referenced using this article: