Top 50 Films of 2019: The Irishman

The richness, artistry and grandeur of Martin Scorsese’s film-making was revealed again in his epic mob corruption tale The Irishman, which returns him spectacularly to the wellspring of his greatest inspiration: the lives of working-class Italian Americans, and those from other US immigrant communities in the 20th century. They are mixed up with organised crime, deeply influenced by the protective codes and practices of the family, the church and respectable commerce, but their conformity exists alongside a half-acknowledged life of sin and crime. The family man cheats on his wife, the churchgoer murders and robs, the hardworking small businessman evades tax, uses his business as a laundering front for the wiseguys and pays (or demands) protection – and the loyal Cosa Nostra soldier secretly wears a wire preparing to turn state’s evidence.

The Irishman is based on the true-crime bestseller I Heard You Paint Houses, about Philadelphia mob enforcer Frank Sheeran – whose nickname “The Irishman” was an important way of announcing his semi-detachment from the Italian gangsters – and Sheeran’s claim to have been the man who murdered Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa at the behest of mafiosi nervous about what Hoffa might reveal about his mob links. Scorsese assembles a superstar repertory of players: Robert De Niro is the stolid, discreet Sheeran, Joe Pesci displays his charismatic menace in the role of soft-spoken mafia boss Russell Bufalino and Al Pacino brings his A-game to the part of Hoffa.

These are all actors in their 70s, and though the digital de-ageing techniques used to represent them in middle age are remarkably successful, they have the bodies of old men and move like old men. Or is it that the top players in those days did indeed have a natural predator’s discreet, unhurried stealth and stillness? Either way, there is a wintry poignancy to their performances and to the movie, which has led to a critical consensus that this is late Scorsese and that he is saying farewell to the mob genre.

Maybe. What strikes me now about this story is not that it is sadly closing the book, but actually opening the book – and a lot of wounds – about crime and its connections with corrupt politics. The film makes clear the connection between the Cuban revolution, the collapse of the mob’s casino business there and the subsequent creation of Las Vegas as the new gambling playground, built with money illegally loaned by Jimmy Hoffa out of the Teamsters’ pension fund in return for a taste of the interest repayment and the use of mob “muscle” – like Sheeran. It also touches on the mob’s complex rage at John F Kennedy for failing to show gratitude for their alleged help in getting him elected and Hoffa’s anger at attorney general Robert Kennedy for his anti-corruption crackdown. Not since Oliver Stone’s JFK has a movie returned to the conspiracist issue of political assassination. With calm, non-cranky deliberation, The Irishman proposes Hoffa’s death as a quasi-Kennedy murder, but with no grassy knoll, no book depository, no Zapruder footage.

There is such intense fascination in Scorsese’s mastery of the big picture, the tiny detail, the flair and showmanship in the popular music on the soundtrack, and the unmistakable use of narrative voiceover, which gives his picture the intimacy of an anecdote and potency of myth. He talks of Bufalino’s’s wife, Carrie (played by Kathrine Narducci, who was Charmaine on The Sopranos) as a member of the blue-blooded Sciandra family from Sicily: “They came over on the Italian Mayflower!”

It is a very male film, and the absence of powerful women figures has been noted. I can only say that, yes, there is not much for Anna Paquin to do as Frank’s adult daughter, but the maleness and male toxicity is part of the point.

The geriatric melancholy of The Irishman is shown in the scenes in an old people’s home and in those prison facilities adapted for use by the very old (another point in common with David Chase’s The Sopranos). When the ageing Bufalino tells Sheeran he is going to mass in the prison chapel, he warns him not to laugh – and you don’t laugh, not even ironically at Bufalino’s expense. Then there is Sheeran himself, having run out of things to say at the last, and pitifully afraid of being left alone by us, the audience, and having the door shut in his own little room in the care home. The Irishman is the work by a master of cinema.