Martin Scorsese, cinema’s most famously tortured lapsed Catholic, is always making movies about the three enemies of the soul: the world, the flesh, and the devil. The flesh and the devil are perennially popular in Hollywood – consider the romance and horror genres, respectively – but two of Scorsese’s greatest films offer unusual insight into the unique temptations posed by the world.
The claim that “the world” is one of the great enemies of the soul requires some clarification, for God made the world and declared it good. To say that the world is an enemy of the soul does not mean that matter is evil, just as to say that the flesh is an enemy of the soul does not mean that the body is evil. And yet “the friendship of the world is enmity with God” (James 4:4), and “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). The world is an enemy of the soul insofar as it becomes the ultimate reference point of the soul’s life, the end toward which all its actions and motives are directed. The world has a way of eclipsing anything beyond itself, of claiming priority over God, but the world taken without God is finally hopeless and terrifying. The soul will last forever, but the world is always inevitably passing away; to dedicate an immortal soul to an all too mortal world is a bleak prospect.
The world as such is the subject of C.S. Lewis’ essay, “The Inner Ring.” Lewis suggests that the world exerts its most powerful domination over human action in the form of the longing to enter the “Inner Ring” – to be one of the inside crowd, to live by the world’s esoteric rules, to be part of its secret hierarchies. The desire to be a member of the Inner Ring cannot be reduced to the desire for tangible benefits like money or power or sex, though they often accompany membership. Lewis instead suggests that the lure of the Inner Ring ultimately boils down to the desire for “the delicious sense of secret intimacy.”
Lewis’ description of the Inner Ring bears a remarkable resemblance to the world of New York high society in the late 1800s, as depicted in Martin Scorsese’s lavish Edith Wharton adaptation, The Age of Innocence. As the film’s narrator (Joanne Woodward) puts it, “They all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world. The real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” Roger Ebert notes, “Those words could also describe the world of the Mafia in Scorsese’s films.” At first glance, The Age of Innocence seems an odd outlier in the Scorsese canon, a single stuffy, PG-rated costume drama among so many exuberantly violent pictures of violent men. However, the world of the Mafia, no less than that of repressed Old World socialites, operates by codified innuendo. In The Irishman, Scorsese’s latest and likely greatest Mafia film, the central euphemism is “painting houses,” a veiled reference to gangland hits: that is, painting a man’s house with his blood. The director’s fascination with the Inner Ring – with its allure, and its terrible cost – reaches across the boundaries of genre.
According to Lewis, “Unless you take measures to prevent it, [the desire for the Inner Ring] is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing – the life that will come to you of its own accord… If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an ‘inner ringer.’” The Irishman centers on a man who has spent his life drifting with just such a stream.
The heroes of Scorsese’s gangster movies are typically men of violent passions and fiery temperaments, but one of The Irishman’s most peculiar qualities is the resigned passivity of its central figure, Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro). Frank’s rambling, addled narration – delivered, we finally discover, to a priest in a nursing home – relates his own shocking crimes with disturbing matter-of-factness. The way Frank tells it, he has simply spent his entire life following orders. A flashback to his days of military service in World War II drives the point home: after compelling two disarmed German soldiers to dig their own graves, Frank impassively murders them, explaining, “You know, you got orders, you follow them. They tell you to bring some prisoners into the woods, they don’t tell you what to do, but… you know, they just say, you know, ‘Hurry up.’” In this remarkable speech, given to Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the Mafia boss sizing him up for a position in the organization, Frank reveals the complete malleability of his conscience – his willingness to follow orders, even implied orders, no matter how awful they are. All of these are desirable traits in a Mafia hitman, and Frank gets the job. As Lewis puts it, “Of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
“Once I saw that I was getting through the war,” Sheeran tells Bufalino, “I looked around and said, ‘From now on, whatever happens, happens.’” This philosophy echoes ever more darkly through the rest of the film in the slightly amended form, “It’s what it is.” Frank’s story takes on a mood of increasingly bleak resignation as he is gradually enmeshed in a tug of war between the Mafia world, to which he has given his unquestioning loyalty, and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the friend who will not play by that world’s rules. In the end, Sheeran murders Hoffa not because he wants to but because he must; because “it’s what it is;” because he can no longer conceive of doing anything other than following orders. He is utterly governed by the unspoken rules of the world he lives in. Then, in the end, Frank outlives the world he gave his life to, the world he forfeited his soul for. What does it profit a man…? One by one, all of his gangster compatriots die in prison, leaving him haunted by his betrayal of his only real friend.
The Age of Innocence makes for a striking counterpoint to The Irishman. Both center on men whose worlds close in around them, but while Frank Sheeran goes to his fate mutely, passively, with no outward show of struggle, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) chafes against the restrictions of his “hieroglyphic world.” Engaged to marry May Welland (Winona Ryder), Newland suddenly falls for her cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is lately returned from Europe under a cloud of delicately implied scandal. Their relationship is hemmed in by the unspoken codes of their world, but it is also built upon a fundamentally tragic impasse. Newland is attracted to the independent Ellen because, to him, she represents a way out of this cloistered world; but she is attracted to him precisely because, to her, he represents a way into it. “If we act any other way,” she tells him, “I’ll be making you act against what I love in you most… Don’t you see? I can’t love you unless I give you up.” Later, he tells her: “You gave me my first glimpse of a real life. Then you asked me to go on with the false one. No one can endure that.”
There is another respect in which Newland’s situation turns out to be the opposite of Frank’s. Whereas Frank’s world inexorably compels him to sin, Newland’s world restrains him from sin at every turn. More precisely, Newland’s world restrains him from open sin; merely abstaining from vice is not the same as actually cultivating virtue. Cornered in a position where his natural longing for honest intimacy cannot be lawfully gratified, forced reluctantly into a life of conventional happiness with May, Newland continues to nurse his illicit desire for the Countess. At every juncture, he is denied the opportunity to make a meaningful choice; instead, like Frank, he has his decisions dictated for him by the unquestionable loyalties and unspoken obligations of the world he lives in. After the death of Newland’s wife, their son tells him, “She said she knew we were safe with you and always would be because once, when she asked you to, you gave up the thing you wanted most.” Newland’s reply cuts to the aching, bitter heart of the matter: “She never asked. She never asked me.” His self-sacrifice was not freely given but implicitly coerced.
Like The Irishman, The Age of Innocence ends with its hero an old man who has outlived the world he dedicated his life to but is unable to leave it behind. Given a second chance at happiness with the Countess after the death of his wife, Newland receives a vision of the “real life” he once lost. He turns away from it. Perhaps it is too painful. Perhaps he is too bitter, or too tired. Or perhaps, despite the yearning he once had to be otherwise, he is simply “old-fashioned.” As Ebert puts it, “The story told [in The Age of Innocence] is brutal and bloody, the story of a man’s passion crushed, his heart defeated.” Or, in Lewis’ words: “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it.”