Boomer film buffs might see Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman as a kind of summative look back at the mafia culture depicted by Hollywood over the last few decades. But this film’s conclusion, in which an aged hitman attempts to make a genuine confession and find forgiveness with the aid of a priest, makes it a cautionary tale for our times.
It’s a war epic in a way, delivering more than three hours of spiritual warfare being lost, or barely waged, over the course of the life of Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro), and across moments of American history spanning the second half of the 20th century. Sheeran’s early experiences as a soldier in World War II shape his later life. As he treats the effects of this war with materialistic coping mechanisms, he is afflicted by what could be called a case of “post-traumatic sin disorder.”
For me, the story hits home on the deepest level in the two encounters Sheeran has with the priest as he numbly awaits death in a Catholic nursing home. The priest sees that the hitman is unable to feel penitential remorse for the lives he has snuffed out, including that of the dubious, narcissistic mentor he had adopted decades ago. His confessor reminds Sheeran that an apology to God, an effort to reconnect with the incarnational truth of a love that overcomes brokenness, is ultimately an act of the will rather than emotion. Sadly, the criminal’s will is almost as badly damaged as his submerged, confused feelings. But, when the priest returns, the viewer is left with some hope. A door is left open, literally and figuratively. Perhaps Sheeran will still be healed, thanks to the stubborn Catholic faith that has been present (although sidelined and superficial) throughout his life.
Growing up when gangland hits occasionally made news and films like The Godfather became box office successes, I never understood the co-existence in legendary mobsters of extreme violence and Catholicism. The Irishman, one of the few mafia stories I’ve ever consumed, gave me clues: a culture of death, with “values” based on hierarchical respect, obedience, loyalty, tradition, family, mystery, and a sense of protection, tries to imitate—and dwells in the shadows of—a Catholic culture of life which possesses parallel features. In this regard, the gangsters’ misappropriations of holy things and actions, which Scorsese has planted throughout the film, reminded me of philosopher Peter Kreeft’s observation: “Abortion is the Antichrist’s demonic parody of the Eucharist. That is why it uses the same holy words, ‘This is my body,’ with the blasphemously opposite meaning” (Jesus Shock, 144).
This interplay of good with evil makes Scorsese’s last film timely and chilling. Just as Scorsese uses imaging technology to allow De Niro to play the younger Sheeran so we can see how his coping mechanisms gradually led him to nursing-home numbness, we need to reflect on where spiritual risks are accumulating for generations alive today.
Are we allowing our culture to dismiss Christian values and replace them with a focus on the wrong things? Are our desperate needs for self-protection and our loss of trust in the God-given virtues of humanity—the symptoms of the “post-traumatic sin disorder” Sheeran suffered—causing us to form tribes that play a zero-sum game? For Christians, the ultimate danger is what Sheeran and the priest experienced—the radically hardened heart that can hardly hear God’s voice anymore. The risk is not just that we won’t see the need for Confession and Communion. For some, reconciliation with the reality of God’s love could become impossible if they sufficiently suppress any trace of remorse or impulse toward repentance.
Hollywood might honor The Irishman as a great film about the mafia. I’ll remember it as a film that sounds a warning about the wages of sin and a glimpse of the stubborn hope that repentance offers.