Scorcese’s morally exhausted ‘Irishman’

Michelangelo was said to reply – apparently truthfully – when asked how he conceived his sculptural masterpieces, turning hard marble into soft flesh, “I see the image inside the block of stone and chip away everything that is not it.”. In this film, The Irishman, Scorcese saw the image, but chipped away the wrong pieces and left too much not chipped away. There is a brilliant film in here, but it is not the one I watched.

I couldn’t make it through the whole three hours. I watched this miserable movie over two nights. Three continuous hours of being water-boarded with the wet cassock of a dissolute priest is more than we should be expected to bear. That Hollywood continues to be fascinated by Scorcese’s catholic onanism is remarkable.  It produces a blindness to the posturing of grown men (not women) who act with all the faux seriousness of children  playing cops-and-robbers. Ahh! The groin-tingling delight with which actors put on that stereotypical pronunciation to pretend they are Bronx-rascals – “wha’ da fuck!”. You can almost hear them adding an ‘a’ to every-other word to indicate their Italian-ism – “wha’ ya wanna widda me!”. Mind you, for Robert deNiro to wear a green-checked kilt and constantly munch on a potato might have helped remind us that he was playing an Irishman – though he could have been a Madagascan for all the weight that carries in the plot.

There are issues of substance to this film – as to much of Scorcese’s output – there are cinematic issues and there are issues with his directing. To take the latter first:

All the energy and investment put into de-ageing the actors failed to disguise weary old-man eyes, and looked like inappropriate masks placed on arthritic bodies with clumsy hands and timeworn postures. Pacino, as ever, is impossible to direct. His histrionics show an utter lack of complexity and nuance in the lacquered stereotype, not of Jimmy Hoffa, but of his media persona. He betrays his egotism with eyes flickering constantly to the camera as though looking into a self-admiring mirror. Hoffa is the classic McGuffin, just a plot device – but as Scorcese loses control, Pacino manages to take over the movie.

De Niro is directed as a dull-witted, unimaginative, totally biddable nonentity who, somehow, runs a highly politicised trades union chapter and somehow earns the life-long respect of senior mafia figures – one of only three to wear the ‘ring of power’. His psychopathic nature is dissolved into a role of mindless loyalty and caring for the murderous Joe Pesci, for whom he kills his closest family friend and patron, Jimmy Hoffa. Harvey Keitel – for me, by far the strongest actor of the four leads – is required only to sit emanating Superman-type laser looks of darkness, and to whisper wordlessly into the ear of a willing buffoon. The script is full of gratuitous, child-like simplicities – “if they can whack the President of the United States they can whack anyone – !”. People are killed, one through a mindless mistake, but it is never a person who dies – a father, son, brother. Women are not worth killing.

The women? Well – the less said the better….clearly! Pretty, mindless adornments as per Scorcese. But wait. The one authentic character in the movie – and the one we are least asked to identify with – is De Niro’s daughter who becomes estranged from her father, having seen the horror that he is. But setting the horror aside (again, as per Scorcese) her soundless contribution is merely to serve as a focus for De Niro’s lament. A casualty of Scorcese’s catholic machismo.

In terms of cinematography, the film is unimaginative and unexceptional. There is no echo or parallel between the ageing of the main characters and the scenes that are shot, mostly, medium-range and with a flat, two-dimensional aspect. There is little or no experiment with point-of-view, angular displacement, focus, spatial arrangement or framing. De Niro has most of the close-ups, but only to reveal his slow-wittidness and clunky attempts to understand what is happening around him. As the movie shifts between at least three time-periods you sometimes have to work hard to remember which is which, since the editing provides more continuity than what should be an essential discontinuity. Remember how successfully Orson Welles showed how cine- and camera techniques help in marking the passage of time in both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons? Not a trace here.

But the most egregious failure in the film is its lack of contextual depth. Fine, we see gangsters losing their existential grip as their violence is displaced by the cruelties of ageing and the intolerance of society. But what preoccupies us today is how that gangsterism has morphed into more courteous, respectable, legal extortion and expropriation. The De Niros and Pescis of today are the Zuckerbergs and Philip Greens as elite status has shifted its ground. The shadowy figure of Keitel, meant to imply the dark inner-world of Mafiosi power elites, is possibly best represented by people who find their way into government administrations in the USA, Italy, Hungary – perhaps now the UK. The movie has to be about social change as well as ageing and the existential emptiness of greed – otherwise it’s just about a bunch of old men.

On the other hand…

….if we strip away the excess marble, lose the adornments and the protruding spurs, focus on the humanism – we discover a brilliant film. Here is a close study of a psychopath as he shambles around this moral wilderness, the closest he can come to being human is paying blind loyalty to a monster who repels his children. He finally  becomes acquainted with humanity – if not remorse – by the dead weight of ageing. His struggle, and his eventual failure to overcome his psychosis, is represented in the daughter’s estrangement – more so than the cliched and failed attempt to find faith. De Niro is as uncomprehending of his moral sickness at the end as he was at the start, dimly aware that his daughter might have been the only route to self-awareness.

Scorcese is equally failing in his attempt to cure his own moral sickness, still voyeuristically fascinated by casual violence and moral vacuity, still incapable of pulling back from the pathology he represents to put it into a fitting social, political and emotional context. The evidence of this movie is that he is as uncomprehending at the end as he was when he shot Goodfellas.


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