Faith & Family Media Blog

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Dec 16, 2019

BASED ON: 'The Irishman' Is a Confession and a Lie...Sort Of

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a 2016 USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

The Irishman written by Steven Zaillian and directed by Martin Scorsese; based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. Rated R for pervasive language and violence. (Spoiler alert.)

If one didn’t have the time to read the Frank Sheeran biography I Heard You Paint Houses, two vital takeaways contextualize the arrival of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman (available in theaters and on Netflix). One, it’s Frank Sheeran’s confession, of sorts. Second, it’s a lie from Frank, sort of.

Regarding the former, Charles Brandt’s book reveals the life of true crime hitman, Frank Sheeran. Brandt lays bare Sheeran’s sins, factual killings that his interviewee does not deny. One famous hit remains disputed, however. The decades-old mystery of "Who killed Jimmy Hoffa?" Sheeran claims he killed Hoffa, urging the Feds to investigate the supposed murder site. They did. The book omits the fact that the DNA of blood stains discovered there didn’t match Hoffa’s. Nice try, Frank.

The line “I heard you paint houses” does not refer to a literal painter but is Mafia code for “Are you a hitman?” “Yes,” was always Sheeran’s quasi-truthful reply. He does technically paint houses, but only spots of them, if you catch his drift. Interestingly, while officially titled The Irishman, the opening of the film flashes the blunt title cards: I Heard. You. Paint Houses. The film, then self-consciously follows in this pseudo-truth tone and is not intended as a factual biography.

The film proceeds slowly, as an opera would. If seeing it in a theater, grab lunch beforehand. Paired with previews, emerging four hours later will leave you hungry for dinner. I waited until the film landed on Netflix and was able to simultaneously watch it while completing mundane tasks of the day: brushing my teeth, completing a crossword, calling my parents to tell them I love them and so on.

Perhaps, the streaming version then simulates something better than opera. This drifting in and out of the film reminded me of the few times I’ve attended the Divine Liturgy … the marathon structure of the Eastern Catholic style of worship necessitates parishioners’ traipsing in and out of church -- making bathroom runs, stretching their legs, calming a petulant child, etc.

This converging of the sacred and profane forms the world of Sheeran and his fellow mobsters. Whereas The Godfather juxtaposed sin and grace in a single famous scene, Scorsese does so throughout the whole movie. The wiseguys’ entire existences would indeed be godless, if not for the sacramental punctuation marks of a baptism, wedding, funeral and prison Mass. And for all the ethnic connotations of a film named The Irishman, both swarthy Italians and fair-skinned Irish eventually face the same God.

So the question of who killed Hoffa pales in comparison to whether God’s impending judgment will lead Frank to remorse or not. A closing scene shows a priest (played by Father Jonathan Morris, who's been asked to be laicized from his priestly state) finishing confession with Frank in his assisted-living room. We’re not privy to what was said, as, in reality ,only God, Frank and his confessor know. My best priestly guess is that he owned up to his fabrication of killing Hoffa, really a last-ditch effort to sell more copies of the book and secure the financial welfare of his beloved daughters.

Scorsese suggests Frank’s measured effort of allowing grace in, reinforced by a final image of Frank’s partially open door. Astute viewers may remember a contrasting image from The Godfather of a closing door before credits rolled. Critics called that film an American masterpiece. With the subtle handling of sin and grace; justice and mercy, Scorsese offers something greater.

The Golden Globes nominated The Irishman for Best Picture, Supporting Actors (Al Pacino, Joe Pesci) Director & Screenplay. SAG honored the film with Ensemble Cast, and Supporting Actors (Pacino, Pesci). Robert De Niro was snubbed for Best Actor by both for his portrayal of the title subject.

Image: Netflix

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