“It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” – William Makepeace Thackeray, The Luck of Barry Lyndon
A recurring motif in fable and parable is that of the man that loses, trades or sells his shadow in his earthly pursuits. The motif can be seemingly benign as in “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” or rather more troubling as in Von Chamisso’s “Peter Schlemihl,” or Hans Christian Andersen, but it is invariably loaded with existential and symbolic consequence.
For, what is a shadow? And, if we lose it, who will ever know? After all, a shadow does not have a life of its own, a will of its own, it weighs nothing and it does nothing — except, perhaps, anchor us to the ground, thus testifying, for a fleeting moment, that we exist.
Wisdom is needed in film these days. You can find energy, spectacle or attitude in abundance. But wisdom? That is harder to find. And rare is the filmmaker whose skill, experience and connection with the zeitgeist can channel it through. Looking back, one can invoke late Renoir, Bresson, Bergman, Oliveira or Kurosawa, but the list gets meager when you reach current American cinema – conceivably because in its youth-obsessed culture, it seems to phase out the sage in favor of the maverick.
Martin Scorsese is both.
He has long been the primary chronicler of violence and greed in America, as he clearly understands that one cannot exist without the other and that they are both touchstones of a way of life and, probably, the country itself.
“Do you wanna be a part of history?” asks Jimmy Hoffa to Frank — “Yes,” he answers — and neither man can imagine how that will become true…
Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is ascetic — the depuration of decades, the result of his explorations of both the earthly and the spiritual — his orchestration of film is now astonishingly precise in its nakedness. His camera moves are Zen brushstrokes, the soundtrack is parsimonious and exact. This is the work of a Master coming back to his themes, not only to repeat or perfect, but to complete. This is a corollary to a trilogy that encompasses a healthy part of his life and career-
If “GoodFellas” and “Casino” were the vanitas (the mortified splendor framed by tragic downfall), then “The Irishman” is the memento mori. Remember, death is the true north of life, it seems to say. “The Irishman” reaches deep. It is a granite mausoleum — erected to man lost in the tides of history, surrendering his soul to obedience. In this parable, every character carries his own epitaph. This, too, shall pass.
Far away is the mythology or the glory. The temptations and rewards seem paltry now. Scorsese has often juxtaposed moments of domestic vulgarity with bursts of dispassionate violence, but in “The Irishman,” they’ve been stripped of all exuberance.
Where in “GoodFellas” or “Casino” the camera roamed or craned — seeking, riffing — it now chronicles with mortified, deliberate distance. A road trip or a murder deserve the equal diagrammatic travelling shots, and the futility of a car wash gets elevated to symbolic heights (the impossibility of cleansing a man’s soul) by awe-inspiring high-speed shots. And the last scene preceding one of history’s most enduring puzzles is a petty argument about fish. In a similar vein, via flashback and flashforward, Scorsese shows us the ruthless gangster co-existing with his diminished, elderly self. Oblivion reigns supreme.
To forget, it is said, is the greatest pardon or the most ruthless punishment. In “The Irishman,” Scorsese shows us that it is both. In clear contrast with the beat lyricism of Henry Hill or the clinical certainty of Sam Rothstein, “The Irishman” delivers voice-over rambles that trail off into nonsense. Memory is not a shrine anymore: it’s a labyrinth and no one gets out alive.
“The Irishman” is, above all, an epic about loss: Its scale does not necessitate armies of extras or extravagant spectacle. It’s sufficient that we follow the last of a breed — a man standing alone on the brink of oblivion — symbolizing an entire epoch: Dead are his enemies, and the places in which they dwelled. Gone are the reasons for their demise and the laurels of his victory.
There he stands in the lateness of the hour, with his ghosts, consumed by regret — lacking any comprehension or insight — overwhelmed by the final silence. Bypassed by history, forgotten, abandoned by all.
Even his shadow.
Guillermo Del Toro won the director Oscar for “The Shape of Water.” His other films include “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy,” “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Crimson Peak.”
Read more from Variety’s Directors on Directors, in which filmmakers praise their favorite movies of the year, here.