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Crime and corruption

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in The Irishman (Netflix)

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Crime and corruption

The Irishman provokes spiritual questions about our corrupt nature within a sprawling history of modern America

In The Irishman, director Martin Scorsese tells, somewhat historically, the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a World War II veteran turned hit man for the mob, and his relationship with the infamous Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). For those of us who weren’t around in the 1960s and ’70s, the film is a good, surprisingly funny piece of remedial history on the union boss who disappeared in 1975, never to be found.

Rated R for sporadic but vicious mob violence and coarse language, the film frames itself as bigger than Hoffa’s headline-grabbing story. It hits select theaters on Nov. 1 before coming to Netflix on Nov. 27 and has an imposing 3½-hour running time, which you won’t really notice. De Niro and Pacino are excellent, but the real shining star is Joe Pesci, who, after a long hiatus from movies, plays mob boss Russell Bufalino.

Yes, this is another mob movie, complete with dry mobster jokes, christenings of mobsters’ babies, and sumptuous restaurant meetings. But you know you have a great film on your hands when it can be read through many different lenses: The Irishman could also be a film about growing old, or a film about modern American history, since it covers 50 pivotal years from World War II to 2000. 

Sheeran narrates the traumatic things he did in World War II, and then we see how that violence returned with him from the war. “Leave that place like you left Berlin,” a mobster orders Sheeran, directing him to torch a rival laundry business.

Netflix

Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Ray Romano in The Irishman (Netflix)

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.”