· Vatican City ·

Interview with Martin Scorsese on his latest film ‘The Irishman’

That little corner of humanity that survives the horror

Pope Francis with Martin Scorsese in the Vatican on 21 October 2019
17 January 2020

When Martin Scorsese and Pope Francis met again last 21 October, they resumed their conversation like two old friends who immediately understand each other might do, without any struggle. And yet the last time they had met had been almost exactly one year earlier, on 23 October 2018, during the Holy Father's meeting with young people and the elderly in the Auditorium of the Augustinianum at the presentation of the book La Saggezza del Tempo. After asking him about his wife, the Pope wished to know something about his new film, “The Irishman”. The Italian American director explained that the film is about time and mortality, friendship and betrayal, remorse and regret of the past.

A simple yet profound dialogue developed between the two that soon touched upon their shared passion: Dostoevsky, whose novels give the backdrop to the work of the director of Mean Streets and “Silence”. And it is precisely from the great Russian author that I would like to begin to continue that conversation, linking it to “The Irishman” and to its protagonist Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro) who is the only survivor and therefore can and must speak.... He is the only one alive who sends “Notes from the House of the Dead”. It is no wonder then, that as soon as the other characters appear, the screen freezes and an inscription reveals the date and the (always violent) method of their death. Frank is alive and talking, but his speech is a confession as he looks straight into the camera, into the spectators’ eyes. This movie is another profoundly spiritual film in Scorsese’s career. In a long interview with Father Antonio Spadaro around the time of his previous film “Silence”, the New York born director had said that he is “obsessed by the spiritual”, that is, with the question of what we are as human beings. In his opinion, this question forces each of us to look at ourselves closely, to look at the good and the evil that is within us.

“I’ve been exploring it in all of my films”, Scorsese says, pointing out that “The Irishman” is an “outer observation and inner reflection at the same time, that the balance shifts from outer to inner as the film goes on. It’s a question, I think — how do you reconcile the outer world of circumstances with the inner world of faith?... 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”.

One year ago, while speaking with Pope Francis, you publicly  said that as a boy you lived in  two separate worlds: the street, full of evil and violence, and the church, where there was Jesus and his law of love, and that you found the contradiction irreconcilable. The Pope replied by saying that your closeness to the people on the street gave you that wisdom that you then put into your films. What was the lesson you learned in the streets and what was the lesson learned from the men of the church?

On the streets, I learned that people make all kinds of accommodations to evil every day, and that humanity is still there, and goodness — they can exist side by side, sometimes so closely that you can’t tell them apart at first. And in the church, I learned from these men, these Diocesan street priests, priests like Father Principe, who I’ve spoken of so often, that you could be tough on the outside and compassionate within, and that the toughness is a way of fostering that compassion — or as you put it, Jesus’ law of love—within us. That’s one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received.

At first the film looks like a classic gangster movie, that recalls  your “Goodfellas”, but then comes the theme of remorse and mercy. You could say that this film is the point of synthesis between “Goodfellas” and “Silence”. On the subject of remorse, at the end of Woody Allen's “Crimes and Misdemeanors”, there is a character who manages not to feel remorse for the crime committed. Even Frank, the main character in “The Irishman”, is struggling but seems incapable of admitting his guilt. Do you think it's possible to live well while committing evil?

I think that the question is: how do we understand someone who does go on and perhaps does something good after they’ve killed? How do we project ourselves into their minds? How do we know their experience? Their soul? I admire Woody Allen’s film, because of the way that it entertains the possibility of someone who can privately suffer for a time and then just let it go. He’s saying to us, very simply and directly: “Yes, this can happen too.” But there’s a difference. In that picture, Martin Landau’s character is wealthy, upper middle class, and he’s paying someone, through his brother, to kill Anjelica Huston because she’s threatening to make his life difficult. It’s a secret that no one knows except the two of them and the man who kills her.

“The Irishman” is a very different world. This is a working class world, made up of people who had gone throughout the depression and, in Frank Sheeran’s case, 411 straight days of combat in wwii. 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. People like Russell Bufalino, Joe Pesci’s character, are born into it, and they bring people like Frank into the fold. People who are soldiers. People who see themselves as part of a hierarchy and know how to take orders. The horror of it is very real, but I’ve always thought it was important to show how that world functions and what rules everyone is following, no matter how warped and damaging. There are levels of horror: the violence itself, the matter-of-factness of it, the impact on the victims and their families and the witnesses, and then there’s the corrosion of the soul.

The thing is that there’s conscience, and there’s remorse, whether you recognize them and speak of them or not. And there’s always a reckoning. And then, later, a further reckoning. But while everything is playing out, and you rationalize and find your way to go on, day by day, can you do good? Maybe. But maybe someone is always watching. Sometimes, you might just imagine that person. And sometimes, that person is real, like the character that Anna Paquin plays. She’s not like her stepmother or Russell’s wife, she doesn’t train herself to look away. She’s always watching, and that’s why she sees right through Russell’s sweetness.

Humanity doesn’t disappear easily, I think. Maybe it does for some serial killers, whose brains don’t function the way other people’s do. But for someone like Frank, or Russell, or Jimmy Hoffa, it’s different. Those are the rules they live by. I recently read an article about a guy who had been inducted by one of the cartels. He said, “They stamped out everything that was human in me and they left a monster.” But the thing is that he actually was able to say that, to speak the words. Which means that there’s that little corner of humanity that was still there.

The character of Peggy, Frank’s daughter in the film, is almost mute but  central. What does she represent? Conscience?  Justice?

As I said, there’s conscience. Justice? I don’t think so—that’s more of an abstraction. And the fact that she won’t look away means that she does represent its existence for Frank. And then, you have to ask the question: why does she dislike Russell so much while she loves Jimmy? The answer, I think, is that she sees Russell trying to curry favour with her to ease his own conscience with the love of a child, while Jimmy’s affection for her is spontaneous and genuine. He’s not trying to buy her love. 

The relationship between father and daughter makes one think of a Greek tragedy: while “Goodfellas” was a drama, even  filled with irony, “The Irishman” looks more like a tragedy.  The character of Jake La Motta in “Raging Bull” who cries out “I’m not an animal!”, pointing out the dignity of man which resides in his freedom, in the ability not to be crushed by a destiny that has been already marked. In your opinion is there a destiny  that men cannot avoid?

It’s a very, very old question that might never be answered. If I move my arm, is it me or am I enacting a course of action that has been decided on a level of which I have absolutely no understanding? But, I never will have that answer, it will probably always be a mystery to all of us.

But I’m not sure that destiny is a question in my films. I suppose it is in the sense that I just want to look at these people who live this particular kind of life, in which things happen that are very far from the experience of most viewers, and for those viewers to feel their common humanity.

Luckily there is that last line addressed to the priest: “leave the door a little open” that opens out to  the hope of mercy. In the long confession that Frank addresses to the spectator, there is also room for confession to the priest. What importance does this Sacrament have for you, and more in general, the presence of Christianity in the world?

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. I know many people who have gone in another direction — toward Buddhism in particular, or toward straight atheism — but I’ve never really seen either as a choice. I don’t think it’s so easy to simply drop what’s been spiritually formative in your life and change beliefs like you’re putting on a new suit.

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 whole great organism of humanity — to actually change and evolve, away from annihilation. I don’t mean this in the cultural sense, but in the spiritual sense. The thing is that there’s going to church, and there’s the way of Christ. Those are not necessarily one and the same, as we all know. And 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.

The question for someone like Frank is: can you make a change? It’s an enormous question. Can you leave that life, a life based on sin, on a chronic transgression of all ten commandments? In order to live that way, you have to be extremely practiced in looking the other way from yourself. In that sense, I think that Frank’s daughter Peggy, 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?

The theme of mercy makes me think of a book, “The Diary of a Country Priest” by Bernanos, whose reading  was a revelation for you, the revelation of the face of the merciful Christian God. And this obviously makes me think of Pope Francis. What do you think of the current Pontiff?

I must say that the first word that comes to mind is compassion. You read the Holy Father’s words, you come face to face with him, and you see that this is a man who sees the spiritual foundation of the church. The Catholic Church is a vast institution, it’s a tradition, it’s a business — a massive organization. But at its core, it is not a matter of human or worldly affairs, but a matter of the spirit. That’s the rock: the living practice of following the example of Christ. Pope Francis is articulating this, and pleading that we recognize it. I think it’s remarkable that this man is our Pope. It’s a blessing. And I feel blessed to have met him.

Andrea Monda