Martin Scorsese’s new film, “Killers of the Flower Moon”, is based on a true story, but it is especially a “real” story. As Alessandro Zaccuri wrote, this latter detail is more significant. The film tells a “real” story, that is, one rich in humanity and meaning, and therefore open to hope, despite being one of the saddest and most painful films in recent decades.
The story is set in Fairfax, Oklahoma, in the 1920s. The Osage Nation discovers that there is an abundance of oil beneath their land, and this discovery soon makes them the wealthiest — and therefore, the saddest and most fragile — people in the world, exposed to every form of adversity. In fact, the rush for black gold immediately ensues, the offspring of one of the most powerful divinities of this world: avarice, or, to cite another great film, from 1924, Greed, directed by Erich von Stroheim. This is the backdrop to Scorsese’s film: the wretched, miserable epic of human avarice. Together and counter to that greed, the viewer also witnesses the grand epic of grief because Scorsese reminds us that among human things, there is nothing more sacred than suffering. The sacredness of suffering is the weight on the other side of the scale that “balances” the enormous weight of greed that seems to drive the entire story.
If the “frame” is made of these two “colours”, then the “painting” is shaped by the actions of the three main characters: William K. Hale, Ernest Burkhart and Mollie Kyle. The first (Robert De Niro) is the wolf-landowner, obviously in sheep’s clothing, driven by an unquenchable greed that will infect his young nephew, Ernest, magnificently played by Leonardo Di Caprio. They are the two killers the title refers to, while Mollie, played by Lily Gladstone with an Oscar-worthy performance, is one of the flower moons, the predestined victim, the woman of grief, the Osage whom bad luck made into a billionaire. Uncle Bill first pushes his nephew to marry and then to try to kill young Mollie in order to inherit her fortune. But something will hinder his cunning criminal plan. If William and Mollie are polar opposites, almost two hypostases of evil and good, then the most interesting character is Ernest, the true man, who struggles between the two, between greed and love. Ernest is interesting because he is a “grey” character, with many shades that seem to escape even himself. He appears to be a fragile man, confused and impulsive, and above all, manipulable. The narrative arc of his parable resembles that of Henry Hill, the young main character of another of Martin Scorsese’s masterpieces, Goodfellas, from 1990. Like Ernest, Henry has a guardian, an “uncle”, also played by De Niro, who drives him, one temptation at a time, to a life of crime up to such an extreme point where it seems that every trace of humanity has been lost, where something inside the young man breaks and gives way to rebellion, more for survival than dignity — a bit like the prodigal son — against the guardian-father-landowner.
In a memorable way, Ernest and William represent a difference Pope Francis has often referred to when speaking of sinners and corrupt people, stressing their divergences. He spoke about this recently, during the Angelus on 1 October, when he said that “there is always hope of redemption for a sinner. For the corrupt on the other hand, it is much more difficult. In fact, the corrupt person’s false ‘yesses’, elegant but hypocritical façades and habitual false pretences, are like a thick ‘rubber wall’, behind which to take cover from qualms of conscience. And these hypocrites do so much evil! Brothers and sisters, sinners yes — we all are — corrupt no! Sinners yes, corrupt no!”.
Di Caprio is the man, the sinner; De Niro is the corrupt one. The sinner falls but can get back up, his life is a struggle on account of a persistent fragility that keeps him from bettering himself. Instead, the corrupt have made an “improvement in quality” on the journey of evil: they are people who have closed themselves off from every possibility of redemption, of reawakening their own conscience, which is no longer restless. They have started to call evil good, and they are convinced that they are behaving honestly despite committing all sorts of iniquities. In short, they are hypocrites who lie to themselves and others, and who end up believing their own lies. Wolves in sheep’s clothing. Having shut off the voice of their conscience, they become insensitive even to the interventions of Grace which can do very little for them. One could think that in becoming corrupt, they blaspheme against the Spirit, which according to the Gospel, is the only truly unforgivable sin.
Watching Scorsese’s painful film, which begins and ends with an image of nature, of the murdered “flower moons”, one feels the terrible vertigo that arises from becoming aware of the possibility of committing that sin which “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Mt 12:32).