No political correctness here, no catharsis, no punishment for the offender and no glorification of the American dream or any other dream.
When you watch “The Irishman” or “I Heard You Paint Houses” by great American filmmaker Martin Scorsese -- the former having been screened at the opening of the Cairo International Film Festival last November -- you have to put aside all you bear in mind not only about films in general, or American films in particular, but about the process of watching films itself.
Scorsese does not – and doesn't want to – respect cinematic or even political rules. His only interest is to put another building block -- that the present writer is one of many people who believe it is the last one -- in his favourite cinematic project to disclose the alliance between organised crime and political corruption, or between the mafia and the ruling class, in the United States; he wants to unmask the American society as an entity based on the logic of force, financial corruption, abuse of influence and forgery, even in the election that is said to be the most democratic worldwide.
Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Ray Romano, and Craig Vincent in The Irishman (Photo: IMDb)
The film, however, is not the work of the imagination of its writer and maker, it is based on real characters and events dealt with in a book with the same title (I Heard You Paint Houses) by Charles Brandt.
The veteran director doesn’t glorify the idea of the American dream, he rather reminds the Americans and others, as he has done in previous films, of the nightmare of building the American "civilisation" with force, suspicious financial transactions, corrupt politicians and leaders of organised crime. The US flag appears only to challenge the Federal Union itself.
When Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the teamster union leader allied with the mafia, notices the American flag lowered on the union's headquarters to mourn the assassination of president John Kennedy, he hurries in anger to raise it, not out of respect for the flag or for the nation it represents, but out of refusing to mourn Kennedy whom Hoffa hates because he thinks he made his way to the White House with the help of the mafia. However, he appointed his brother Robert as attorney-general to pursue its leaders and make their lives miserable. Thus, the camera of the film is higher than the flag when it is raised again.
Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Kathrine Narducci, and Stephanie Kurtzuba in The Irishman (Photo: IMDb)
On the dramatic level, Scorsese doesn’t care whether the audience knows, from the very beginning, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro)’s fate, and understands, in a crime film based on excitement and suspense, that the hero won’t be killed. By starting the film with the hero in his 80s in an old home, the filmmaker kills suspense.
In fact, he doesn’t seek the usual kind of suspense in this film; he uncovers every character’s fate as soon as it is shown on the screen, with a sentence written on a fixed shot, except for three main ones: Sheeran whose fate we know from the very beginning as mentioned above; Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) who will live safely and whose fate we can deduce as he is a main character represented as “a little God” controlling everything; and Hoffa whose fate is hidden as the only surprise in the end. Instead of the usual suspense, the filmmaker wants the audience to share the hitman Sheeran's long confessions with him, as the audience is all he has left after the death of all his friends, and after his wife and daughters abandoned him. He realises, too late, that they suffered from his career and bad deeds, especially his daughter Peggy, played wonderfully by Anna Paquin, who realised how cruel he is in her childhood and decided to abandon him.
Scorsese and scenarist Steven Zaillian want us to share the confessions to the extent of conspiracy, not only with Sheeran but also with Bufalino and Hoffa. You might find yourself sympathising with one of them, or even convinced with what Sheeran gives as reasons of his crimes; that he wanted "to protect his wife and daughters from surrounding dangers" and had no other means to do so. Nevertheless, after your "conspiracy", Scorsese doesn’t give you any kind of (catharsis) usually used in classical drama; Sheeran doesn’t pay for his crimes; he moreover doesn’t repent in the attendance of the priest. When the latter asks him, “Don’t you feel sorry for the families of the victims?” he answers: “No, because I don’t know any of them, except for one.”
Stephen Graham and Al Linea in The Irishman (Photo: IMDb)
As the dramatic construction of the film is based on the continuous overlap of times and flashback scenes, it was difficult to have three young actors to play the three main characters when they were younger. De-aging technology was used to enable De Niro, Pesci and Al-Pacino, who are all over 75, to play the roles of the three characters in their 30s and 40s. The new technology was tested when De Niro recreated some of his scenes in “Goodfellas”, a previous Scorsese film, and achieved amazing results. De Niro said that this technology could prolong his career for 30 more years. De-aging requires shooting with two cameras, each with three lenses. It wasn’t an easy task in a film of 309 scenes and 108 days of shooting in 117 locations. That is why its budget jumped to $159 million.
However, it is more difficult on the artistic level. Using technology isn’t enough to make old people young; performance has to cope with the shooting results of the two cameras and six lenses. The three stars have to keep their backs straight; their heads raised, and increase the speed of their rhythm. You can imagine the great effort they put into this movie. With the help of stunts in many scenes, Scorsese also exerted a great effort, in addition of course to his talent and long experience. With an amazing result on the screen, it is impossible to distinguish any of the previous tricks while watching. You keep asking, instead, how did they do that?
Put aside technical details, De Niro, Pesci and Al Pacino’s performances are marvellous and could stand as a lesson in acting. Al Pacino as Hoffa, in particular, is one of the best cinema performances I have ever seen.
Martin Scorsese at an event for The Irishman (Photo: IMDb)
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