GoodFellas (1990)

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As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. Martin Scorsese’s astonishing portrait of Sicilian-Irish Henry Hill’s 25 year rise through the ranks of Italian-American hoodlums – and his eventual fall – is re-released this month and it still exerts a visceral thrill. Between Coppola and Scorsese we have a reference book on this topic and so many of the tropes and lingo of this subculture are common parlance thanks to them. Nicholas  Pileggi adapted his book Wiseguy (with Scorsese) and with an exegesis on true crime and punishment, violence,  family, honour and dishonour, cooking, drugs and horrible taste,  it has a panoramic sweep we pretty much take for granted. Not for nothing did some of the cast become mainstays of The Sopranos, which wouldn’t exist without this. However it is not the sociological examination we think it was:  it’s a film of no particular depth or self-knowledge, not if we’re depending on Henry’s voiceover. Instead it’s a stylish compendium of cinematic vocabulary, with flourishes influenced by everyone from Anger to Visconti, boasting a particularly nice tribute to The Great Train Robbery in the closing moments. And there are a lot of great, queasy moments here, with gore to spare:  Joe Pesci has the lion’s share as the psychopath Tommy DeVito; Paul Sorvino as the main guy, Paulie Cicero;  and Catherine Scorsese has some nice bits as Tommy’s mom, a keen amateur painter; De Niro is good as Jimmy Conway, the other Sicilian-Irish guy who can never be truly Mafia; Lorraine Bracco is superb as the whining Jewish wife who develops a taste for cocaine; and Ray Liotta could never be better than here, even if he’ll never be a made man. A funny and scarifying tour de force of surfaces, textures and moviemaking.

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Silence (2016)

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The biggest news about the latest Martin Scorsese epic is how it’s been shut out of the awards lists, thus far at least. And it’s easy to see why. No guns, no gangsters. Plus in this minority-appeasing year it’s a film about white Christians defending their faith against mindlessness (think about where you might find that analogy at present even if it’s been Scorsese’s passion project for decades). He and Jay Cocks adapted Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel and in terms of the director’s oeuvre it is most assuredly in the ‘one for me’ category. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver are the Portuguese Jesuits who get smuggled into seventeenth-century Japan to find their missing mentor, priest Liam Neeson, whose eight-year old letter detailing the torture of his fellow believers at the hands of Buddhist Inquisitor (Issey Ogata) leads them to uncover hidden communities of Christians. Their presence elicits attention and villagers suffer. Garfield is taken in several times by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) who has taken them to the country and eventually betrays him repeatedly while constantly pleading for forgiveness in confession. It’s grim stuff and the analogy with episodes of Christ’s own suffering is made several times. Garfield is eventually forced to watch others’ torture and the film then clarifies its several narrative strands, even while posing some problems of a meta cinematic nature:  you can’t help but be reminded of Monty Python, especially as the Jap inquisitor has a high-pitched voice and Bugs Bunny teeth;  Kichijiro is clearly a folkloric trickster;  Garfield looks into water and sees both himself and Christ, indicating that faith is often a matter of extreme narcissism. And then there’s the issue of Neeson’s reappearance in garb we know he wore in Star Wars. But given the long running time, it’s nice to be able to sigh and laugh in recognition occasionally and be glad you’re not there amid this epic of endurance. Driver’s deterioration does not inspire the same humorous recognition:  it is utterly shocking. And these are the postmodern ideas that make this work, an overlay of relief from the relentless series of questions:  what is faith? Is it about God and love or is it about rosary beads and crucifixes? Is it purely about ego? (One recalls the old saw that if you replace the word ‘God’ with ‘I’ you get closer to what fanatics and believers are really about – themselves – and we all know plenty of those, don’t we. The daily churchgoers and penitents who are rifling through your pockets and avoiding paying taxes!) What is religion for? Is it a form of delusion devoid of relevance to real life? Is the Son of God more important than the Sun of God? This ideological tussle is all played out as Garfield is repeatedly taken through crowds of Japs attacking him and having the inquisitor play mind games of persuasion and then terror that take you right up to the twentieth century and ideas of psychology and marketing and war (and you’ll also remember that Shinto Buddhism was the motive force behind what the Japs did in WW2.) Ultimately, this is a work of monumental significance. However there are pacing problems and after Kundun et al one expected a more beautiful photographic immersion in this spiritual odyssey. And there are issues with the depth of the writing, reflected in Garfield’s performance which seems too simplified at times. But I don’t see how a film of philosophical dimensions and thoughtfulness will receive an award since it goes against everything that is current and it’s clear that the gifted Garfield will not be in line for an Oscar for Acting While Black. (This, too, shall pass.) A tough film for true movie believers. Apostasise Now?