This article contains spoilers of the films The Irishman and Silence.
“Well before the light, hold me again with all of your might in the still of the night”
When it was announced that Martin Scorsese was making a film that starred Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, a film that focused on the killing of Jimmy Hoffa and the world of organized crime in the mid-twentieth century, most people probably expected a film similar to Goodfellas or Casino, one that portrayed the excitement and temptation of that criminal world along with the eventual comeuppance that comes for these characters. Yet The Irishman, Scorsese’s latest masterwork, recalls just as strongly his more explicitly religious works, films like Last Temptation of Christ and Silence. In this film focusing on the life of Frank Sheeran and his connections to both Jimmy Hoffa and the mafia through famed boss Russell Buffalino, there is a contemplativeness and a consideration of issues of morality that make The Irishman not just another addition to the list of Scorsese’s great films about American organized crime, but also a meditation on life and the choices one makes throughout it.
Scorsese’s use of the song “In The Still of the Night” by the Five Satins throughout the film, perhaps most notably at the film’s opening when we first encounter the elderly Sheeran, establishes that this is a story about reflection and contemplating what one has done with their life, particularly when they are nearing the end and thus exist “in the still of the night.”
We first encounter Sheeran in an assisted-living home, Scorsese’s camera making its way to him through a long tracking shot while the Five Satins’ song plays. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Scorsese acknowledged that a connection could be drawn between The Irishman’s opening shot and the famed Copacabana shot in Goodfellas even though both what the camera shows us and how it moves is quite different. Scorsese uses the extended tracking shot in Goodfellas, following Henry and Karen’s entrance into the famous nightclub by bypassing the line and going through the kitchen, to both display the life Henry leads (getting past the rules to get ahead, in fact all the way to the front) and to display the intoxication and magic of this life and world that would draw in Karen and Henry.
Scorsese uses the same type of shot to tell a different story in The Irishman. The camera slowly moves through the halls of the assisted-living home, passing a priest talking with someone while doctors and nurses move around elderly men and women in wheelchairs, past a statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, while a song from many years ago plays on the soundtrack. While the movement of the camera in Goodfellas is floating, almost ethereal and magical, in The Irishman it has the staid and somber feel of someone going to give an important confession or revelation, a solemn march that makes it evident this is going to be a somber and considered story about reflection and assessment.
This opening, deliberate and carrying with it an appropriate weight, establishes that The Irishman will function as a cinematic examination of conscience for the Sheeran character. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines an examination of conscience as “prayerful self-reflection on our words and deeds in the light of the Gospel to determine how we may have sinned against God,” a vital component of properly receiving the Sacrament of Penance. That act of reflection occurs as Sheeran recalls a trip he and Russell Buffalino took, driving to Russell’s niece’s wedding, that also precipitated Sheeran traveling to Detroit to kill Hoffa. By drawing upon these memories, he can recall the choices he has made and the life he lived. Sheeran tells this story after everyone he’s ever known has died; he is left with only his memories of the choices he made. The film stresses the ways in which those other figures, important ones in Sheeran’s life, all kind of fall away as time progresses. In addition to seeing Russell age and deteriorate before our eyes, viewers see title cards when certain figures are introduced in the story that say how and when the character dies. Yet as everyone moves on, Sheeran remains. He is, as he tells a nurse who checks up on him towards the end of the film, “still here” and “alive.” Being the only one left, Sheeran is left in the still of the night as it were, left alone to reflect upon the life he has lived before it will inevitably end.
The appropriateness of this song that recalls the “still of the night,” a time of silence, manifests itself in perhaps the film’s most interesting and controversial character, Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, played by Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as an adult. Peggy is a silent figure for most of the film, a choice that has led many to accuse Scorsese of diminishing the woman’s place. But her silence throughout the film, her still and constant presence, gives her a power she would not have otherwise. In essence, Peggy is the voice, or perhaps more appropriately the presence, of morality in the film. Throughout The Irishman, we see her as she silently and stilly watches Sheeran, observing and seeing if not what Sheeran does, then the kind of life he’s led.
The moment when Peggy speaks the loudest—both figuratively and literally–is in the wake of Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance and death. As the news is reported on the television and her father watches, Peggy asks her father why he hasn’t called Hoffa’s widow regarding Jimmy’s disappearance, seemingly making the connection regarding her father’s involvement in Hoffa’s death. This was the final straw–the ultimate transgression–in Peggy’s eyes. Despite seeing Frank engage in so much illegal and immoral behavior throughout the film, it is this rebuke by his daughter, otherwise silent beside him and suffering while seeing these acts, that solidifies this understanding of him in our eyes. As the elderly Sheeran says, “My daughter […] disappeared from my life that day.” While the amount of dialogue that the character has is quite slight compared to characters played by DeNiro, Pacino, and Pesci, her importance is all the greater. She is the specter of morality, the eyes of God as it were, there in the silence.
A connection can be drawn to Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel Silence because of the importance that silence and the moment of declaration plays in each. In that film, two Portugese Jesuits travel to Japan to investigate whether or not their former superior has apostatized and minister to the hidden Christians. One of the priests, Father Rodrigues, wonders why God remains silent amidst the suffering of the Japanese Christians and, as he is captured by the Japanese authorities and pushed to apostatize, his own suffering. In voice-over monologue, Rodrigues says about God, “The weight of your silence is terrible. I pray, but I’m lost. Or am I just praying to nothing?”
In the climactic moment of the film, Rodrigues finally hears the voice of God as he is faced with the choice of stepping on a fumi-e as a way of publicly apostatizing, breaking that silence. As all other sounds drop out, we hear the voice of God finally speaking, telling Rodrigues: “Step on me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain.” Finally, in the closing moments of the film, we witness the following exchange in voice-over between Rodrigues and the voice of God:
Rodrigues: Lord, I fought against your silence.
God: I suffered beside you. I was never silent.
Rodrigues: I know.
Rodrigues: But even if God had been silent my whole life, to this very day, everything I do, everything I’ve done… Speaks of Him. It was in the silence that I heard Your voice.
God is with Father Rodrigues throughout Silence, suffering along with him. In The Irishman that silent presence comes in the form of Sheeran’s daughter, perhaps the figure most excluded from the world in which Sheeran is living, whose presence has true power and value.
The film ends with Sheeran, having grown old and infirm, beginning to concern himself with death and morality, precipitating a turn towards religion, specifically Catholicism. This begins as Sheeran sees Russell, who is now wheelchair bound and nearing the end of his life as well, going to a church service while they are both in prison for the crimes they committed earlier in their lives. Sheeran looks skeptically at the former crime boss, but Russell says to him, “Don’t laugh, you’ll see.” Sheeran has conversations with priests, attempting to pray, and eventually makes a good confession to one of them. Yet Sheeran struggles, unable to feel sorrow and remorse even as he attempts to reconcile himself. But despite the imperfections of his initial turn back towards God, Frank is still striving after something, if not redemption then forgiveness. In that same conversation with the priest in which he acknowledges he does not feel remorse, Sheeran asks himself “what kind of a man makes a phone call like that,”–a reference to the call Sheeran makes to Hoffa’s widow after his disappearance becomes public, with Sheeran not acknowledging his own role in Hoffa’s death.
We see the priest one more time in the final scene of the film, in Sheeran’s room at the assisted-living home saying the final words of the Sacrament of Penance and removing the purple stole from his neck, implying that Sheeran has experienced contrition and made a good confession. In the final shot of the film, as the priest leaves Sheeran’s room, he asks for the priest to “leave the door open a little,” and we see Sheeran sitting, framed by the slightly open door as the screen goes black and “In The Still of the Night” plays one final time. This calls to mind something that Hoffa himself did, as he would leave the door to his room open, which Sheeran noticed during their travels together. On the symbolic level, it reflects an openness by Sheeran for true contrition and forgiveness, in turn reflecting our own potential for penance and redemption. But it is something that can only come in the silence and “in the still of the night,” in which we must both examine our consciences and asses our sins as well as experience the feeling of forgiveness. Scorsese uses Sheehan, seemingly teeming with sin, just as he used the character of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, to convey that we are all in the world of sin and transgression, yet if we make a proper examination of conscience and ask for forgiveness, it can still be achieved.
The Irishman tells many different stories over the course of its three-and-a-half hour run time. It tells the story of organized crime in America as experienced by one man; it depicts the rise and fall of an important historical figure in Jimmy Hoffa; and it tells a story about the interplay between crime and business in America and how certain people became involved in that interplay to make their way in post-war America. In addition to all this, it is an extensive and thorough meditation by Scorsese on sin, our flawed human nature, and the need to do penance, as the film functions as an examination of conscience for the Sheeran character. Isolated from his family while all the figures he has known throughout his life fade into death, Sheeran grapples with the end of his life and what it has been. Left alone in the silence and “the still of the night,” Sheeran examines his past and assesses the transgressions that he has committed. Sheeran grapples with these sins and a desire to receive absolution for them, and Scorsese tells a story about someone who must address the life they’ve lived, what they have done and what they have failed to do, all before they reach the end of it.
Dr. Thomas Bevilacqua is a visiting lecturer in the English department of Florida State University. His dissertation, which he is currently revising into a book manuscript, examined the figure of the pilgrim in mid-twentieth century American Catholic writing.