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Martin Scorsese (ph. Nicolas Guerin)

text Emanuele Bigi
photo portrait Nicolas Guerin

December 3, 2019

The Italian man

Martin Scorsese in Rome to present The Irishman tells about his passion for Italian cinema

Martin Scorsese has special ties to the city of Rome and to Italian films, a passion since his youth, when he used to go down to New York’s Little Italy after school to watch the great masterpieces of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. Those afternoons inspired the love of film that led him to become a director and produce such masterpieces as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. His Italian blood (his grandparents emigrated from Sicily in the early twentieth century) may also have helped, of course! Scorsese observed the Italian film scene with curiosity from the States, fascinated by the “Hollywood on the Tiber” (as Rome was nicknamed between 1950 and ’65) which inspired Fellini’s La dolce vita. In 2000 the Italo-American director paid homage to Cinecittà by filming his blockbuster Gangs of New York with Leonardo DiCaprio. Scorsese has always had a special relationship with Italy’s capital city: he first came to Rome in 1970, the year he met Rossellini. More recently, in 2006, he and the actor known for Titanic opened the first Festa del Cinema in Rome with a preview of The Departed, while in 2018 Scorsese received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Paolo Taviani at the festival. At this year’s Festa di Roma, he presented The Irishman (available on Netflix), starring his good friend Robert De Niro: a gangster movie that shares the melancholy of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Further evidence of Scorsese’s ties with Italian film!

When did you realise your life was going to revolve around film?

When I started watching the films of Pasolini, Rossellini, Antonioni, De Sica and Fellini, at the cinema and on TV. In two or three years, everything changed for me. The first time I saw Accattone, it came as a real shock: I identified with those characters. They were so real! And what to say of Fellini? He’s just sublime. Antonioni’s L’avventura was a piece of modern art that I had to learn to understand, while Visconti’s Il gattopardo combined melodrama with a political message. But I got the sense of humour behind Goodfellas from Pietro Germi’s Divorzio all’italiana.

In The Irishman, you go back to the gangster movie, and above all, you go back to working with De Niro, almost 25 years down the road. How did this project start?

After Casinò (1995), De Niro and I were looking for a story and a character worth telling. It was Bob who suggested I read Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, narrated by Frank Sheeran (De Niro, ed.), a mafia hitman. The book, like the film, is about organised crime and corruption in the US, from the post-war years to the nineties, when the bosses infiltrated the trade unions, the government and business. Bob was convinced and thrilled by this affair that dug right into the heart of America, and above all into the heart of the narrator.

It’s a film about more than organised crime.

It’s a story about life, love, death, remorse and betrayal. Who killed who? It’s a question that goes unanswered, that becomes unimportant in view of Frank’s solitude and his life flowing on toward death.

The Irishman takes us into the past to find out about the life of a trade unionist known in America as Hoffa (Al Pacino), but it is also rooted in the present. 

Of course: moral conflict is timeless. The story is told in the past tense, but the narrator’s emotions, thoughts, decisions and immorality are relevant to people today. 

In this film, gangsters are not the heroes, as they often are in film.

I didn’t want to create Scarface-type characters. I set aside the dramatisation of crime. We saw the spectacle as being an internal one.

What was it like to be back on the set with De Niro?

I hardly ever talked to Bob; we bared our souls and allowed ourselves to be led by Frank’s character.

This was your first time with Al Pacino, on the other hand.

Yes, but I met him in the ’70s thanks to Coppola. In the ’80s we were supposed to work together on a project about Modigliani, but it was never completed. It was Bob who had the idea of calling him. They had known each other for more than 40 years, and you could tell, on the set: when they were acting, something really special happened.

Was it complicated to make a film three and a half hours long that was more like something out of the past than one of today’s gangster movies?

We could never have done it without Netflix’s help. All the cinemas want these days is funfairs, films made from comic books and stuff like that. You can make any kind of movie, but you shouldn’t allow young people to believe that’s what film is all about. 

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