The Irishman at LFF: Scorsese’s epic gangster chronicle
Cinema’s greatest heroes have finally assembled, but if you’re thinking about the latest Marvel flick, I’m afraid this review is not for you.
I’m talking about Scorsese. DeNiro. Pacino. Pesci. Keitel.
You don’t need to be a cinephile to shiver when you hear that they’re all in the same picture – it’s a natural reaction. Yet, a decade ago, when Martin Scorsese pitched his new film to Hollywood, the studios were not interested. Executives wanted him as a director and strived for DeNiro as a lead – but not in a project together. It’s an ancient formula that belongs to the past. Only Netflix, 10 years later, committed to grant Scorsese’s wishes, giving him full control and finally allowing him to realise his biggest, longest, production – 3.5 hours, 302400 frames of pure cinema.
When the screening was over, I heard someone commenting with a satisfied grin that Scorsese was back. The truth is, he never left. Sure, after exploring 17th century Japan, Wall Street’s rags and riches, and Parisian train stations, the iconic New York director has revisited the familiar places of his personal life and career. Once again we find ourselves in the glamorous Copacabana nightclub; in shady Little Italy’s restaurants surrounded by spaghetti-eating mobsters with absurd nicknames; on the dirty, wet sidewalks of Lower Manhattan. Yet, this time there is a different atmosphere, and it does not look the same.
You don’t have the feeling that Travis Blickle will turn the corner in his yellow cab, or that Johnny Boy will walk in a Church with a couple of hookers. This time you don’t think there’s a Jake LaMotta boxing match taking place down the street, and you can’t hear Tommy DeVito laughing and shooting at waiters while playing poker with his friends. It’s the same place, at the same time, portrayed by the same people… but through different eyes.
It’s been 25 years since we last dived into the italo-american mafia with Casino (1995), which also marks the last collaboration between Scorsese and DeNiro up until this new chapter. But now the legends have gotten old, and it is necessary – inevitable, even – that they add to the ancient formula a dose of experience and nostalgia. The playful style, with ingenious camera movements, cutaways and monologues breaking the fourth-wall, is more or less left intact, but the main themes have changed – or rather, evolved. This time, the focus is not on the gangster’s rise to power among the mafioso ranks, but rather on the regrets that came afterwards. Scorsese doesn’t present this as an appealing world to be part of, not anymore: it is now bitter, lethargic and dangerous.
In The Irishman, women are not objects of desire – tempting creatures who corrupt the protagonists’ success. There are no femme fatales, and the only female character that has an importance in the life of Frank Sheeran, masterfully played by DeNiro, is no longer his mistress/wife/lover/hooker… now it’s his daughter, and he desperately seeks to reconstruct a relationship with her, compliant to the desire of an old, lonely man. In other words, the creator grew old and, in a natural way, so did his art – developing in a way that remains coherent without becoming redundant and a parody of what it used to be.
Having said that, the intimate and yet grandiose epic, spanning 40 years of American history (not far from what Leone had already achieved with Once Upon a Time in America), has its own flaws. After all, it’s hard to meet such high expectations.
And no, CGI is not the problem. The reason behind months of intense post production, millions of budget, and Scorsese’s greatest fear, works perfectly fine. After the first shot of a DeNiro in his ‘40s, it is almost impossible to notice the CGI employed to rejuvenate the actors (on Joe Pesci it works even better!), and the gripping narrative bridges the uncanny valley. Yet the question remains if, in a few years, these effects, now so innovative, will be considered obsolete, thus dating and ruining the film.
Computer graphic effects quickly expire, becoming outdated by the fast growing CGI industry, and what seemed real before is soon rediscovered as ridiculous. Anybody remember Avatar? But Scorsese never considered having younger actors to play DeNiro & Co., as most of the film takes place in flashbacks. That is a simple, overused and unrealistic technique, and as the director remarked, his employment of CGI is just advanced make-up: if you accept to dye the actors’ hair, then you must accept this too.
Despite mediocre cinematography capturing unrealistically timeless shiny cars and clothes, resembling a vintage convention more so than a film set, it’s a pleasure for the eyes and the soul to see these pillars of film history shining on the silver screen again. If Scorsese managed to reinvent himself, keeping his career fresh and poignant, the same cannot be argued for his leads. Pesci, after a handful of sad, small roles following Casino, disappeared into oblivion. DeNiro and Pacino faced a harsher reality, distinguishing themselves by accepting to be part of cheap comedies. I’m sure everybody facepalmed when Pacino seduced Adam Sandler in Jack and Jill, and cringed to death watching a bare-chested DeNiro dancing in in the trailer of Dirty Grandpa (I say trailer as I hope nobody reading this review has actually committed the crime of watching this profanity). With The Irishman, finally, it’s redemption time, granted by Scorsese Almighty.
Great characters come alive from these legendary actors, who keep outshining each other scene by scene, and who clearly have not run out of talent and still have a lot to give us. Scorsese’s style, this time almost leaning towards Kazan, steps a little aside, entirely concentrating on the intensity of their outstanding performances.
I personally don’t know if Martin Scorsese will revisit 1960s Little Italy. I don’t know if we will ever see again Joe Pesci pointing a gun, or DeNiro wearing shirts with an exaggeratedly long collar. I don’t know if we will go to the Copacabana again. But I do know that with The Irishman, we have another chance to glimpse at this unique world of spaghetti and bullets, to conceive this classic universe crafted by Scorsese now completing its human life cycle, and, maybe, we are finally ready to accept its farewell.