Morality and power: Martin Scorsese’s 'The Irishman' hits the big screen

The film uses visual effects that features stunningly young-looking Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino

Actors Al Pacino and Robert De Niro pose with Director Martin Scorsese as they arrive for the world premiere of the film "The Irishman" in New York City, New York, U.S., September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Actors Al Pacino and Robert De Niro pose with Director Martin Scorsese as they arrive for the world premiere of the film "The Irishman" in New York City, New York, U.S., September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman premiered last week at the New York Film Festival, finally raising the curtain on the director’s long-awaited, 209-minute crime-drama opus.

Though the film’s genre and cast, including Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, has led some to expect a gangster thriller in the mould of Goodfellas or Casino, The Irishman is a more reflective, less flashy rumination on morality, violence and American power. Through de-ageing visual effects, the performances by De Niro, Pesci and Al Pacino span decades.

The Irishman was screened for members of the press ahead of its evening red carpet premiere as the opening night gala for the New York Film Festival. Reviews from critics were largely laudatory. Variety called it “a coldly enthralling triumph” and “a stately, ominous, suck-in-your-breath summing up”. The Hollywood Reporter called the film’s length a weakness but still hailed “a sprawling gangland saga that’s by turns flinty, amusing and richly nostalgic”. The New York Times called it “a gift for cinephiles … but also a sombre acknowledgement of limitations”.

The film is also one of Netflix’s biggest bets yet. The streaming company plunked down $159 million (Dh583.9m) to make The Irishman after other studios passed. Scorsese, speaking in a Q&A session alongside cast and producers, said Netflix was the only one willing to bankroll the movie. “We couldn’t get backing for years,” Scorsese said. “It’s a costly experiment, but [Netflix chief content officer Ted ­Sarandos] and everyone at­ Netflix was like, ‘We’ll go with it.’”

Scorsese called his film “an interesting hybrid” as both something made for cinemas and watching at home. It will begin streaming on Wednesday, November 27. “All of us now are in an extraordinary time of change,” Scorsese said. “But when it comes down to it, I felt – Bob [De Niro] felt – the picture had to be made for ourselves.”

Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, The Irishman has been in development, on and off, for more than a decade. It stars De Niro as Frank Sheeran, a mafia hitman and high-ranking Teamster official. Shortly before his death, he confessed to killing Jimmy Hoffa (played by Pacino). Pesci plays the mob boss Russell Bufalino. The Irishman surveys Sheeran’s long life in crime – but where Goodfellas was glamorous, The Irishman is sober.

It’s a big statement for Scorsese, 76. He and his producers offered some impressive statistics on the movie’s scope: 108 days of shooting, 117 locations, 309 scenes.

The ambitious size of The Irishman is part of what scared away other studios, along with the expensive de-ageing process used to make De Niro, Pesci and Pacino appear years younger in significant sections of the movie. Nine cameras were used to film those scenes. Scorsese initially did a screen test and compared his digitally altered De Niro to the De Niro of Goodfellas. When the actor, 76, saw himself de-aged, he joked that he could extend his career another 30 years.

THE IRISHMAN (2019) Ray Ramano (Bill Bufalino ) Al Pacino (Jimmy Hoffa) and Robert De Niro (Frank Sheeran). Niko Tavernise / NETFLIX
'The Irishman' (2019) stars Robert De Niro (right), Al Pacino (centre), and Ray Ramano. Netlix

Scorsese described the intensive effects process as more than making their faces more youthful. “It isn’t just about noses and computer imagery, it’s about posture, it’s about movement, it’s about clouding the eyes,” said Scorsese, noting that meant giving De Niro directions like reminding him that he had to stand up from a chair “like you’re 49”.

For many, the biggest excitement about The Irishman is seeing Scorsese and De Niro back together for the first time since 1995’s Casino. Pesci has acted only a handful of times in the two decades since Lethal Weapon 4. And even though many assume they’ve made numerous films together, this is Scorsese’s first with Pacino. “Finally,” the director said.

Updated: October 1, 2019 03:52 AM

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