It’s initially a story of the corruption and violence in American unions and politics—but then Scorsese suddenly makes it a story of our corrupt, sinful nature. How does a daughter view her violent, hit-man dad? How does God view him?
After the screening I attended, Scorsese summed up these threads of American history and spiritual sickness: “My feeling is that when JFK got killed, the shock was very strong no doubt, but there was a naïveté, I felt, in the country. I was about 21. The [idea]—‘It can never happen here.’ It already happened! ... There was a complacency that set in. One ignores the true dark forces that are in our nature.”
A pivotal quote in the film comes near the end, when a priest prays to God with one of the characters: “We ask You to help us see ourselves as You see us.” Maybe that means God sees the characters in the film—mobster murderers, unfaithful husbands, or the American nation—as sinful. Maybe it means God can see us as something else when we repent.
A young Catholic producer from Mexico is one of the reasons The Irishman exists. Gastón Pavlovich stepped in to save Scorsese’s last, heavily religious film, Silence, and also provided key funding at a pivotal moment for this very expensive film. His backing may also give a hint as to Scorsese’s spiritual intentions here.
After Pavlovich came on board, Netflix also swooped in with its deep pockets to pay for the pricey de-aging technology that makes De Niro and the gang look decades younger. I talked to Pavlovich three years ago when he was in New York for Silence’s release about the portrayal of faith in that film, which may also apply to this film even though it is less explicitly religious.
“There’s good sermons out there in most churches in the world,” Pavlovich said in 2016. “In movie theaters a lot of people want to have the story speak to you. ... If Martin Scorsese says it ... there’s different ears paying attention.”