Peter Stockland: 'The Irishman' takes long road to genius

  • December 13, 2019

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is already scooping up movie awards despite its swerve to Netflix barely a month after being released in theatres. 

Whether it will make a straight best picture run from the less-well known National Board of Review to and through the Oscars remains, of course, to be seen. It is eligible. It’s also probably the 77-year-old Scorsese’s last major ($140-million budget) cinematic epic. Nor can his favoured acting cohort of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci (both 76) and Al Pacino (79) rely on fountain-of-youth movie gimmickry indefinitely. Take all that together and someone who bets would not be unwise to lay some money down on this being the year the ultimate film awards go to The Irishman.

Gambling, like life in the mob, is ultimately a mug’s game of last best risk. Risk, of course, involves countervail, and there are a number where The Irishman is concerned. Scorsese roiled powerful forces in the industry with the Netflix switch that meant his film was readily available through the subscription service on home screens of all shapes, sizes and technical specifications almost before the butter was on the popcorn in the few cineplexes where it was shown. 

Anyone who wasn’t livid over that gambit was likely still steaming from his published attacks on the multi-billion dollar generating Marvel movie franchise as unforgivably fake film making. Outside the Hollywood hothouse, many ordinary folks are annoyed at what seems its self-indulgent 3.5-hour length. 

On Facebook recently, a wag said the one thing he wished for was a time machine to let him travel backwards and shoot Jimmy Hoffa in Times Square just so The Irishman would a) be that much shorter or b) never be made at all. A novelist friend, whose story telling and editing gifts I admire immensely, complained severely that sheer length aside, The Irishman is simply protracted narrative emptiness from beginning to end. Everyone’s a critic, of course, but in this case the critic is a genuine critic.

My response to the criticism is that it misses a critical point of The Irishman, which is that the visible nothingness on so many of the actors’ faces is precisely where the film’s genius lies. And that’s not a matter of De Niro and Pesci particularly being utterly brilliant craftsmen. Expression in the film isn’t rendered inert by facial muscles trained to be inflexible masks. They are active agents in the suppression first of moral life, and by extension of the natural human inclination to fight against that immorality.

There is no “good man driven to desperation” proto-Godfather figure in the film. There are simply people who carry out horrific acts because it’s their duty to do what they are told by unseen figures — more a collective consciousness, really — acting out the duties they owe to even higher figures. 

The one message made clear is that fighting back is futile, and not merely because of differences in brute strength and power. The operative principle is acceptance of the inviolable dictate that even desiring to fight back is really a form of weakness. 

Such weakness is more than the trope of disrespect. It signifies, in The Irishman’s universe, detachment from reality. It’s a sign that the one who would even consider fighting back has lost all understanding of where, what and who he (The Irishman is overwhelmingly male) is.

That is far from nothing. Indeed, from a Catholic perspective it is a summary of everything we must fight against. Our call as Catholics is to fight, first within ourselves but also in the wider world, from a spirit of obedience, yes, but obedience in charity, in truth, in union with Christ. We are called, of course, to honour God before all others, and in prudence and wisdom to honour His image in the dignity of our fellow human beings. 

The world The Irishman presents to us seeks negation of that call, which is why Scorsese’s movie is such a vital film for Catholics to see. It’s not just an overlong period piece. It is the world as it is without Christ.

(Stockland is publisher of and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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