The Dark Gospel of Martin Scorsese

The director’s lifetime achievement is an unflinching vision and evolving theology that pulls the redemptive parish church out into the mean streets of a flawed humanity.

Author: Patrick Griffin ’87

In one of the more violent scenes of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman, the protagonist — a hitman named Frank Sheeran, played by Robert DeNiro — enters Umberto’s Clam House to kill “Crazy Joe” Gallo. By anyone’s standards, Gallo deserves it. He “went against everything and everybody,” Sheeran says. Gallo likes, as the mobster Fat Tony Salerno puts it, to make a lot of noise, turning himself into a celebrity and ruthlessly taking out rivals with no concern for the mob pecking order. For these sins, Gallo must pay, and Sheeran’s overlords ask him to collect the bill. What better place than New York’s Little Italy? Here, in Umberto’s, celebrating his birthday with his family, Gallo would be “more comfortable, more relaxed.”

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Illustrations by Andy Friedman

As the scene unfolds, Sheeran tells us how to make a hit. He is, if anything, clinical. You have to choose the right gun. Make that two guns. No silencer. Nothing too big or too small. A .22 won’t do, or a .45. The .32 is perfect. Don’t get there too early, Sheeran says. The tourists from Idaho might not yet be in bed. Next, you have to take out the guy guarding the target. Don’t shoot him in the face or chest. Just disable him. He didn’t do anything wrong. And, believe it or not, you want his kids to see it. They should witness the just desserts of a life like Crazy Joe’s, one of breaking the codes that should guide those in the underworld. Finally, “you might want to go to the bathroom first.” Someone might be hiding out there. More to the point, you don’t want to be uncomfortable.

Sheeran enters, looks into the kitchen, turns to Gallo, and then pursues his plan with a studied efficiency, nailing the bodyguard first, then Gallo. As Gallo stumbles out of the restaurant, Sheeran fires and fires, putting bullet after bullet into his target, nine in all.

Gallo dies in the streets. And not just any street, but Mulberry Street, near where Scorsese grew up. With this scene, Scorsese brings us back to his past and his preoccupations with gang violence and the sometimes bizarre code of honor that haunts it. In Goodfellas, in Raging Bull, in Gangs of New York, in Mean Streets, in The Departed, and now in The Irishman, the Academy Award-winning director suggests that it is in the streets where life is lived, where it has meaning, where it breaks down into its most basic elements. Hence his attraction to gangsters, the men who ruled the streets he chronicles so thoughtfully. And in nearly all of these pictures, Scorsese chooses actual people and real events to tell his story. Frank Sheeran died in 2003 at the age of 83, having earned an infamous reputation as a cold-blooded killer for the mob. Gallo, Salerno and the film’s many other characters are all historical figures, setting up The Irishman to appear to be just the latest installment in a series that has made Scorsese synonymous with the gangster genre — movies that made his reputation.

Gallo dispatched, Frank jumps into a getaway car. And his life of murder continues. This hit is just one of many.

We could stop things there, and argue, as have many, that Scorsese — though devoted to Catholic themes and images — does not do redemption. As his parish priest once put it, Scorsese’s films have “too much Good Friday, not enough Easter Sunday.” Others, like Father Robert Lauder, in an essay in America, have noted that he is into retribution, particularly on the streets. But not salvation. Think of Taxi Driver. Made in 1976 and also starring DeNiro, the film follows one man’s reckoning with a hell-like New York on the verge of bankruptcy, a place defined by perdition and hopelessness. Travis Bickle styles himself an avenger intent on expunging the corruption around him, but he becomes a violent and deranged representation of all that is wrong with modern America. In Taxi Driver, as in many of Scorsese’s films, people pay for their sins, but they do not find God.

The Irishman would seem to fit this pattern. In fact, Sheeran may be the most despicable of Scorsese’s protagonists. He approaches the end of his murderous life with little remorse. But this is only part of the story. With Sheeran the sociopath, Scorsese makes a quantum leap of sorts by challenging us to consider, of all things, the ways grace works.

In the film, Scorsese takes us on a number of tangled journeys through 20th-century American life and into the soul of Frank Sheeran, all to ask if even the most corrupt of us may know mercy. In answering this question, Scorsese reveals that he has been on a journey of his own. He is quite comfortable calling himself a pilgrim; he has even likened filmmaking to a pilgrimage. What he cannot admit is what he has also become with time: In The Irishman, we encounter Scorsese as theologian.

Admittedly, it takes a bit of patience to see the film as a theological statement. Scorsese offers us about 3 1/2 hours of murder and betrayal. The film tells us the story of a working-class guy from Philadelphia who is drawn almost effortlessly into a life of killing. Sheeran first learns his trade in the Second World War when he executes German prisoners. Next he becomes a truck driver who steals from his employer and has no problem justifying what he does. He then befriends a mob boss named Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci, and, at Bufalino’s behest, guns down whomever he is ordered to kill, or whoever stands in the way of his rise up the ladder. Killing after killing, he seems to feel nothing. His life highlights not the glamour but the banality of evil, of the slide into it step by step, murder by murder, and how a soul becomes hardened. Sheeran even characterizes murder in the most macabre and unsympathetic way, comparing it to painting houses. The blood that splatters on walls reminds him of the work of a housepainter.

We soon come to the logical conclusion of a life thus lived. Sheeran’s litany of murders culminates with the killing of the one man who has offered him some sort of understanding, who repeatedly tells Sheeran that he loves him: Jimmy Hoffa, head of the Teamsters union, played by Al Pacino. Sheeran even betrays Hoffa with a Judas-like kiss, using the trust between them to lure Hoffa to his death.

Given this basic storyline, The Irishman seems to complete the trilogy of Scorsese mob movies — all starring Pesci and DeNiro — that begins with Goodfellas (1990) and continues with Casino (1995). In these earlier exposés of the gritty, unrefined and unromanticized world of mobsters, nothing is redeemable about the men who murder for power, security or the allure of the streets. The man who kills Joe Gallo at Umberto’s would appear to fit right in with those killers without conscience.

Yet Sheeran is different. He comes to reckon with his sins, and struggle with some of them, even if he never really pays for them. While all of his associates are killed or die in prison, he ends his days in a nursing home, alone with his thoughts and his sordid tales and wasted life. And here Scorsese does something very clever, breaking the story of Sheeran’s life into three journeys or narrative threads defined by perdition, betrayal and grace.

The movie starts with a long-tracking shot down the corridor of a Catholic nursing home. We hear the old doo-wop tune, “In the Still of the Night,” as the words “I remember . . . I remember” echo through the halls. Saint Theresa, Our Lady, crucifixes and a priest in collar appear as we journey past orderlies, nurses and the elderly, all quietly nestling in clutches, to a back room. Here we meet Sheeran, aged, alone and thinking of death. He remembers. Then he talks.

 “When I was young,” he begins by saying in his head and then aloud, “I thought housepainters painted houses. What did I know?” Through voiceovers, the elderly Sheeran recounts his long slide into a life of life-taking. The first journey, the road to perdition, begins with the much-younger Sheeran driving along a highway through Pennsylvania.

The voice of the old man comes and goes as he moves between this distant past and the more recent story of how he came to betray Hoffa. This mid-life tale, the second journey, is Sheeran’s road to betrayal, unfolding as he drives from Philadelphia to Detroit on the same highway he traveled as a younger man. Frank twice shows us the route, drawn in red across a map, and he senses that the destination will be Russell Bufalino’s order to murder Hoffa.

The film intersperses these two storylines with the aged Sheeran’s face, made to look innocent by infirmity. He considers his life. And he tells us his sins. This third and final journey envelops and even overshadows the other two. The movie begins and ends with it, this road to grace. Only at the film’s end do we learn that Sheeran has been talking to a priest all along. They discuss forgiveness. They mumble a Hail Mary together. They pray that God may teach them to see themselves as He sees them. They discuss God’s mercy, how intentions of sorrow for evil deeds matter as much as true contrition. “Do you feel anything for what you’ve done?” the priest asks. Frank is unsure about the murders, but he feels anguish about the betrayal. Forgiveness, the priest tells him, starts with a “decision of the will.” We can, he argues, “be sorry without feeling sorry.”

The priest’s admonitions work. The last scene shows him absolving Sheeran. He takes off his stole and wishes him a good Christmas. Sheeran asks him not to “shut the door all the way.” He prefers it ajar. We are left looking at Frank through the slightly opened door. The end.

That ending leaves us with a question and its answer. Is Frank Sheeran saved? Well, the door is open.

Viewed this way, The Irishman seems to complete a different series in Scorsese’s oeuvre begun by Mean Streets (1973) and Raging Bull (1980). Both films offer profound, albeit incomplete, theological statements. Years after they were made, Scorsese told Father James Martin, S.J., in an interview published in America that he could see how religious themes marked both films, though, he admitted, “I didn’t know it.”

It is remarkable he could say that. As his protagonist, Charlie, says at the beginning of Mean Streets, “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.” Played by Harvey Keitel, who has a small role in The Irishman, Charlie is a small-time hoodlum with a heart of gold who calls Little Italy his home. He tries his best to keep Johnny Boy, played by a very young DeNiro, on the straight and narrow in a harrowing world of sin and temptation. Throughout, Charlie tries to manage the tension between the City of God and the City of Man, that classic tug-of-war between the here-and-now and the Kingdom of God. He tries to remain a good man despite the fallenness and treachery around and within him. Yet he fails. He cannot escape the human condition. He cannot save others, most especially Johnny Boy, who is mortally wounded at the end of the movie. He cannot save himself. Mean Streets leaves us with the expectation that Charlie’s tension should be resolved, but it never is.

Raging Bull does much the same thing. Like many good boxing films, Scorsese’s tale about the rise and fall of the great middleweight Jake LaMotta is suffused with religious imagery. In this story of the making of a man who could withstand extraordinary punishment and becomes a lout in the process, we see crucifixes everywhere, along with images of Mother Cabrini, rosaries, Sacred Hearts, Immaculate Hearts. The film opens with that lovely and haunting score from an Italian opera set on Easter morning, with Jake dancing in the ring while wearing what looks like a monk’s cowl. Scorsese pulls us back into the world of deep Catholic culture that was LaMotta’s Bronx in the 1940s. Jake is a sinner, and this is how he sees himself when he is able to see himself at all. He betrays those around him — or rather, his demons do. Jake, in another extraordinary DeNiro portrayal, turns on his wives, his friends and most tragically his brother Joey, played by Pesci. He seems at moments to be on the verge of stifling the pride that holds him back, and Scorsese punctuates these moments with images of water, conjuring notions of baptism. A hand stays in an ice bath, a trainer douses Jake with water in an almost ritualistic way. And then Jake slips again. “I’ve done a lot of bad things, Joey,” he admits. “Maybe it’s comin’ back to me.” Indeed. As Joey tells a mob boss, “Jesus Christ could come off the cross” and it would not change Jake. Most significantly, he cannot forgive himself.

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The film seems to prepare us for Jake’s redemption, which is certainly what the opening music would suggest. He is in one scene drenched in blood and water — a sacramental take on the boxing ring — and he wins the championship. But true to Joey’s prophecy, Jake does not change. His demons will not let go.

The film ends with Calvary. Jake loses a fight to the great Sugar Ray Robinson. He is able to stand and refuses to go down, though Robinson’s punches have made him as blind as he has been throughout the film. His blood is everywhere, and in an especially compelling shot, Scor­sese shows us the ropes dripping with his blood, as if Jake has been scourged. This is his Passion.

The Good Friday aspects of these films always play with our expectations of Easter. Without Easter, Good Friday makes no sense.

He is reborn but, as blind as he ever was, he becomes an overweight, divorced lounge act, doing a comedy routine with no humor, reciting the lines of great poets with no sense of meter. He wears the white of redemption but remains blind. All he can do is quote from On the Waterfront, another film featuring the walk to Calvary. However, unlike Marlon Brando’s character, Terry Malloy, who must endure beatings and humiliation and walk alone to atone for others’ sins at the end of Elia Kazan’s masterpiece, Jake bleeds but refuses to die to self.

We see glimmers, but only that, of grace at work in Mean Streets. The film begins with Charlie kneeling in a church and wondering why he does penance if he is destined to commit the same sins again and again. His pride presses him to seek redemption on his own terms. Charlie struggles with reconciling the world of grace inside the church and the profane world he sees around him. “Charlie chooses his own penance,” Scorsese told Father Martin, laughing. “You can’t do that.”

In Raging Bull, the relationship between the sacred and the profane transcends mere tension to become a question: Can grace overcome sin? Can Jake forgive himself and take himself off the cross? Alas, he cannot, but at least we are asking the question.

The Good Friday aspects of these films always play with our expectations of Easter. Without Easter, Good Friday makes no sense. With Easter’s promise, even if the resurrection is not achieved, Good Friday draws our eyes to the meaning of pain and suffering. These things are ennobled, even if unredeemed.

In The Irishman, Scorsese fixates intentionally on the religious. He again juxtaposes violence in the streets with serenity in the church, as we witness weddings and baptisms, with smiles abounding, in the aftermath of murders. The film also suggests that the wisdom of the streets trumps that of the altar. But then Scorsese does something dramatically different, confounding our expectations. Rather than leaving us in the streets, he takes us there to redeem them. “On the streets,” he said in a recent interview, “I learned that people make all kinds of accommodations to evil every day, and that humanity is still there, and goodness.”

Even for someone like Sheeran, there is salvation. Throughout the film, clues abound to the forgiveness to come. They center on voice. At key turning points along his road to perdition, and in those few instances when the elderly Sheeran tries to stifle his remorse, he stammers and stutters. He cannot utter what he has become. Further, Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, played by Anna Paquin, plays a key role in the film even though she has few lines. She may be especially important because of what she does not say. Critics have argued that Peggy’s voicelessness represents a blind spot for Scorsese — a vestige of his sexism, some say. And it is true that he does not often give prominent roles to women. Scorsese’s films are of men and for men. Maybe.

Yet such criticism misses the point Scorsese is at pains to make. Peggy is the conscience of the picture’s tangled journeys, always bringing Frank up short through her refusal to speak of the evil he has committed and how it has affected even those closest to him. Peggy hates those who joined her father on his roads to perdition and betrayal. And her silent pleas haunt Sheeran. He remembers the date they last spoke: August 3, 1975, a few days after Hoffa’s disappearance. Her last words to her father question why he hasn’t called Hoffa’s wife, Jo. They are seared into his soul. They are what he thinks about before he confesses. For the theologian-filmmaker, Peggy is a vehicle of grace.

Let’s go back to Umberto’s. If you walk just 10 minutes north along Mulberry Street from where the restaurant stands today, past the tourists and hipsters and the little bit of Little Italy that is still left, you pass Scorsese’s childhood home near Prince and Spring streets and come to his parish church, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. Now a basilica, this was the mother church to the successive waves of Catholic immigrants that inhabited lower Manhattan. First were the Irish — and you see the church’s construction in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) — then came the Italians. Here Scorsese served as an altar boy. Here he thought for a while of becoming a priest. Here the same priest who mentored him and who noted his attraction to Good Friday introduced him to the intellectual life of the Church — and to some of its greatest writers, like the English journalist and novelist Graham Greene.

Scorsese returns to Old St. Patrick’s time and time again. In his earlier work, he suggested that the church confronted the streets. This is the very church where Charlie prays at the beginning of Mean Streets, where he confronts the struggle between God’s ways and the ways of the street — a struggle in which grace does not prevail. With The Irishman, Scorsese revisits the church metaphorically, proposing instead that the streets exist in the shadow of the church. Forgiveness conquers even the most heinous, the most unimaginable act. All sin occurs in the shadow of grace, just as Peggy’s silence shadows Frank’s evil. Good Friday always brings us to Easter. The road, like Mulberry Street, leads us to it.

It has certainly led Scorsese there. In an interview in L’Osservatore Romano published with the film’s release, Scorsese recalls how “the teachings of Christ made a deep impression on me at an early age. They were a part of what formed me, which means that they’re a part of who I am today.” For a while, Scorsese struggled with the Church — or, as he put it in another interview, “dabbled” — but he always remained Catholic in some fundamental way. He could not escape the Church’s culture, its worldview, its rituals and aesthetics, or his upbringing, any more than Charlie could. Or Frank, for that matter. Scorsese wanted to create a character tied down by “the matter-of-factness” of evil and “the corrosion of the soul.” And he wanted to explore whether for even someone like this, or like Jake LaMotta, there could be redemption.

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Scorsese continued: “I believe that confession is one of the most powerful spiritual tools the Church has. It’s a real examination of who you are, of all your doubts and fears and your transgressions, and the very act of confession opens the door to trying again, to having another chance. Even if you don’t receive absolution, you’ve still opened the door.”

Pain, too, could provide an opening for grace. “I think that Frank’s daughter Peggy,” Scorsese went on, “by rejecting him, gives him a precious gift that allows him to open the door, and to leave it open at the end, even if it’s just a crack. And that question remains: Can someone like Frank really redeem himself?”

No, we could say. But God can.

Scorsese has examined how our tangled compromises with evil might yet be overcome by God’s mercy.

It is almost trite to say that grace operates in the The Irishman in an unanticipated, Flannery O’Connor sort of way. It can — and should — confound and surprise us. Grace causes pain because, as the great Southern, Catholic author knew, it transforms us.

Or, more to the point: For Scorsese, grace works like Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought it did. “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves,” the Lutheran theologian argues in The Cost of Discipleship, published eight years before his execution by hanging in a Nazi concentration camp. It “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.”

Genuine grace might be freely given, but it is never pain-free. It never arrives as we would expect it. It is not fair. But it comes, whether beckoned or not. At the end of Greene’s Brighton Rock — maybe not coincidentally a novel about gangsters and Catholic understandings of sin and redemption — an elderly priest consoles a troubled young woman in the confessional, saying, “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”

So it is with Frank Sheeran. Scorsese seems to be arriving at answers to his deepest questions about the faith that animates him as he grows older. Taken as a trilogy, Mean Streets, Raging Bull and The Irishman may comprise Scorsese’s progress as a pilgrim. “It’s a question, I think — how do you reconcile the outer world of circumstances with the inner world of faith?” he concluded in the L’Osservatore Romano interview. “It has preoccupied me for most of my life, and it’s present in most of my pictures. I’ve approached it differently at different points of my life. At this point, at the age of 77, I suppose that the inner reflection becomes more prominent.”

The Irishman is a personal statement. Its plot maps onto the timeline of Scor­sese’s own life, beginning with the postwar period of the 1950s and ’60s, when Catholic working-class culture was at its height and stood at the center of America’s cultural life, when the sons and daughters of immigrants felt confident in carving out a niche for their children, and when one of their own, John F. Kennedy — by means fair and foul — was elected president of the United States. The totemic events of the period — the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy’s assassination — that marked Scorsese’s young life fill out the picture.

Scorsese, like Sheeran, watched as this world began to disintegrate in the late ’60s and ’70s, as labor unions grew sadly obsolete and irredeemably corrupt in the postindustrial economy. In his films, we witness the steady decline of the Catholic worldview that would have sustained Scorsese when he was young, as well as the broader disenchantment of American society. As Sheeran says, during this period, everything falls apart. Scorsese lived through these seismic changes while making movies about them. They challenged his faith and its certainties, like they did for nearly everyone.

The Irishman is a meditation of someone who has emerged, through the hopelessness of much of modern life, into a new and deeper appreciation of how our ordinary lives are punctuated by the divine, an understanding developed over time and through pain and experience. Drawn increasingly to these themes, Scorsese has examined how our tangled compromises with evil might yet be overcome by God’s mercy.

Silence (2016), the last film Scorsese made before The Irishman, is a case in point. Two Jesuit missionaries in 17th-century Japan publicly abjure the faith, avoiding martyrdom but, importantly, doing so to spare others who profess Christianity. The priests must renounce eternity in order to ensure it for others. Scorsese says he wanted to explore “the depth of faith” by “stripping away everything else around it.” He told Father Martin, his spiritual director, that faith is “an invitation, and it keeps calling you.” Though apostates, renouncing even the Church and the sacraments to hold onto their faith, the priests challenge us with an invitation of sorts. The movie leaves us with the proverbial door ajar. As the body of one of the former priests is prepared for cremation, we see in his hands a simple cross, a gesture toward the power of redemption over our sordid and difficult choices. Is the priest saved? Well, maybe not in the canonical sense he would have embraced. But is it possible God has other plans? With The Irishman, Scorsese offers a subtle but unambiguous answer to this question. Sheeran is saved. His sins are forgiven. The view of the priest’s stole after the absolution is all we need to know.

Though Scorsese has made films like The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) that directly engage religious themes, The Irishman is his most compassionate and challenging interpretation of the faith journey. Scorsese is proposing that the Irishman is everyman, the sinner we all are, an idea that offers a clue to the film’s title. Why “The Irishman”?

Nothing is particularly Irish about the film. Sure, on the face of it, the protagonist happens to be, well, an Irishman. He sticks out among Italian mobsters, the stock characters of Scorsese’s work, but this means he was not born into the world of evil he comes to inhabit. Instead, he creates this life, murder by murder, becoming coarsened to it as he walks his road.

Think of Sheeran like Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas. Another DeNiro character, Conway is an outsider working to get in, a knowing witness to the grisly proceedings around him. He sees awful things with fresh eyes. More to the point, his life does not choose him. He chooses it. So does Sheeran. “He’s a guy trying to put food on the table, this is the world he’s living in, and working for the mob and committing acts of violence and murder was a choice that was available and potentially lucrative,” Scorsese told L’Osservatore Romano. “People like Russell Bufalino, Joe Pesci’s character, are born into it, and they bring people like Frank into the fold.”

And with this Scorsese suggests that we are all Irishmen. We choose our paths. We are complicit in the evil we commit, even if we become blind to it and blinded by it. Yet even so, we act in the shadow of grace. This, too, has been Scorsese’s path, one that has taken him away from Old St. Patrick’s, but back to it near the end of his career.

Sheeran’s thoughtless slide into evil is ultimately our story, a story of how we change with time and in stages and become disenchanted, of the evil we can acknowledge and that we easily fall into, as well as of the deeds we dare not utter, those betrayals that mark us and mark others. Sheeran is a sinner. So are we. He becomes inured to sin. So it is with all of us. He betrays those who love him. So do we all. Presumably, the door for us stands ajar as well.

The Irishman did not win any Academy Awards, though it was nominated for 10. No matter. It’s a good bet the voters of the academy would not have appreciated what Scorsese is up to, or the challenge he presents to the viewer. What we see in this film is not a simple nod to Catholic themes, and certainly not a simple mob story, but the witness of an artist who has come through the ebb and flow of life to a more mature understanding of the human condition and the divinity that, he suggests, surrounds us all, whether we see it or not, whether it is acknowledged, ignored or resisted. For that is what the film really is: a window into a complex and tangled examination of conscience, and a meditation on a sacrament Scorsese believes “opens the door” and leaves it ajar.

It also is the closing chapter in the long journey of one talented storyteller, one of America’s best, to discover how, where and when heaven meets earth. When asked about his thoughts on Christianity, Scorsese answered, “I believe that the way of Christ is the only thing that makes our survival possible. It’s the only path I see for humanity.” The Irishman stands as the culmination of a life’s work dedicated to asking life’s ultimate question and — with time — daring to search for its answer.

Patrick Griffin is the Madden-Hennebry Professor of History and the director of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at Notre Dame. He was born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey.