Chapter 4 The Problem of Violence in Scorsese’s Films: The Catholic Gangster as Tragic Hero

In: Scorsese and Religion
John McAteer
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The problem of violence in Scorsese films is not that his movies are more violent or more graphic than other movies. In fact, they are much less graphic than typical horror movies (in terms of on-screen gore) and less violent than most superhero action movies (in terms of on-screen violent acts or even the number of deaths). Yet Scorsese’s films – his gangster films in particular – do seem more violent. This is because Scorsese is such a good filmmaker that he is able to make the violence in his films more shocking. It affects us more, demanding to be noticed and thought about. The real problem of violence is that Scorsese does not take violence lightly; after all, Scorsese’s films are about violence. Interpreting what these films reveal about violence is the primary problem.

Though many of his other movies explore the theme of violence as well (most notably Taxi Driver, Cape Fear and Shutter Island), this chapter focuses on Scorsese’s gangster movies, which take place within the social worlds of the Italian and Irish mob, primarily in New York City. Scorsese’s gangster films are tragedies in the same tradition as Medea and Macbeth. Most of these films are about people trying to escape their entanglements with the world of the mafia. The heroes of these films try to be good, but are eventually destroyed by the sins of their forefathers. Yet Scorsese’s approach to tragedy is more Shakespearean than Greek, more Catholic than pagan. That is, rather than being doomed by fate or an ancestral curse, Scorsese’s heroes are destroyed by their own choices.

Scorsese dramatizes Catholic ideas of original sin (being born into the mafia culture), penance (the attempt to counteract the effects of sin with good deeds), and the self-destructiveness of sin. All of these ideas have roots in St. Augustine of Hippo. For Augustine, sin operates like an addiction, and only the intervention of God’s grace breaks this addiction and makes it possible for us to act in accordance with our own good. Scorsese’s tragic vision is quite similar, but perhaps falls short of orthodox Catholicism insofar as all forms of Christianity are grounded in the hope of redemption. It seems significant that in Scorsese’s gangster films, no one ever actually succeeds in escaping the cycle of violence. In these quasi-Catholic tragedies the heroes are always ultimately, if not inevitably, destroyed.

The only redemption Scorsese seems to recognize is cinema itself. Scorsese believes that if he can transfigure violence through film, he can give it meaning. Hence cinema seems to operate sacramentally for Scorsese, the outward and visible sign of the motion picture image effecting an inward and spiritual transformation in the audience. Through film we can come to see the world more clearly, including the emptiness of violence, which might otherwise seem glamorous. And film can redeem violent people by helping us understand and humanize those who might otherwise seem like monsters.

After exploring the aesthetic techniques Scorsese uses in his own films to critique the glamorous representation of violence in classic Hollywood gangster films (thereby making his films seem much more violent than similar films by other directors), I use Aristotle’s theory of tragedy and Augustine’s theory of sin to show how Scorsese’s films can be read as quasi-Catholic tragedies. I then conclude by suggesting how, through his tragic approach to the gangster genre, Scorsese’s cinema might embody a kind of redemption for violent people.

1 Redemptive Violence

Scorsese’s work generally falls into two periods, the De Niro period and the DiCaprio period. Scorsese made eight films with Robert De Niro between 1973 and 1995, including four that took place within the world of the Italian-American Mafia: Mean Streets (1973), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995). He went on to make five films with Leonardo DiCaprio between 2002 and 2013, including two films about Irish mobsters: Gangs of New York (2002) and The Departed (2006).1 One important difference between the De Niro films and the DiCaprio films is that Gangs of New York and The Departed are much more violent than any of the earlier films. This is partly due to the evolving cultural standard of acceptable depiction of violence – Casino was already more graphic than any of Scorsese’s previous films – but Scorsese’s aesthetic of violence seems to have changed since the turn of the millennium as well. Whereas Scorsese’s early films were interested in the contrast between film and reality, his newer films slide more toward the sort of exaggerated Hollywood-style violence he critiqued in his De Niro cycle.

In Mean Streets and Goodfellas Scorsese is critiquing Hollywood violence. Intertextual allusions have been common in American cinema since the 1970s. Yet whereas, for example, the references to pulpy grindhouse exploitation films in Quentin Tarantino’s work seem meant to foreground the artificiality of his own films so that we experience them as pastiche and collage, Scorsese uses references to classic cinema to critique the artificiality of Hollywood and to showcase his own realism by undermining earlier films’ representations. He wants us to see how our understanding of gangsters – indeed how real life gangsters’ understanding of themselves – has been shaped by Hollywood clichés, and how these unrealistic representations distort the characters’ sense of morality and their understanding of the consequences of violence in real life. This is why he is so concerned to make his violence more shocking than Hollywood violence.

In Mean Streets there are three scenes where characters watch violent Hollywood movies. At one point, the film’s protagonist Charlie (Harvey Keitel) and his gangster friends rip off some naïve kids for $20, and they all have the same idea: “let’s go to the movies.” They go to a western (The Searchers), and the onscreen violence spills over into the movie theater as the people behind them get into a fist fight, which Charlie’s group finds hilarious. Afterwards they go to a bookie to collect their winnings. Charlie’s self-destructive friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) acts disrespectfully (insulting people for no reason) so the bookie refuses to pay. Charlie tries to negotiate, but suddenly the bookie punches someone and a brawl breaks out – looking at points not dissimilar to the fight from the western they had watched. Later, when Charlie and Johnny Boy need a place to hide out, they go to the movies again and watch a violent horror film (Roger Corman’s The Tomb of Ligeia). At the end of the film, after Johnny Boy is shot and his car crashes, Scorsese cuts to the mob boss watching a similar scene in an old gangster movie where someone has been shot in a car (from The Big Heat). In each of these scenes, Scorsese is playing up the way real-life gangsters’ lives mirror the violence in Hollywood movies.

Scorsese might also be commenting here on the way our memories of our own lives are mediated through Hollywood clichés. The opening credits for Mean Streets are 8mm home movies under familiar pop music, establishing an air of realism and nostalgia, but also suggesting the power of film to mediate our memories of reality. Scorsese employs a similar technique in Goodfellas. The first section of that film is a flashback to the protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) as a teenager. At least five times during this flashback section of the film Scorsese utilizes freeze frames during key scenes, often violent ones. The freeze frame technique simulates the way intense images and moments stick in our memories, but it is also the sort of self-conscious use of cinematic technique popularized by the French New Wave, which draws attention to the fact that we are watching a movie and thus emphasizes the way cinema constructs memory and even life. Similarly, Goodfellas’s toughest gangster character Tommy (Joe Pesci) is depicted as someone who cannot tell the difference between Hollywood and real life. At one point he attempts to re-enact a violent scene from a western (The Oklahoma Kid) and ends up shooting a kid in the foot. Later the same kid insults him and Tommy casually shoots him to death. This shows how Tommy (and by extension Henry and the other gangsters) sees himself as a movie character, but also demonstrates the lack of realism in Hollywood movies. When real-life gangsters act out the movies, the consequences are much worse than they are in the Hollywood fictions. Yet the characters in Goodfellas neither notice nor care that people are getting really hurt.

But if the characters do not see how their lives differ from the Hollywood gangsters they idolize, Scorsese makes sure that his film viewers do. Hollywood clichés condition viewers’ expectations about genre films, and Scorsese plays on these expectations using a method we can call “the false build up.” Scorsese slowly builds expectations for a violent event, then defuses the tension by making it seem like the violence has been avoided, before finally hitting the audience with an unexpected burst of violence that shocks viewers because it catches them off guard. It is all the more shocking because it comes at the moment the audience least expects it, just after breathing a sigh of relief. Scorsese employs the false build up many times throughout his body of work. Arguably the entire narrative of Taxi Driver is built this way. The plot seems to be moving increasingly toward the assassination of a political candidate that never happens. Then, just after we think Travis (Robert De Niro) has abandoned his violent plan, he suddenly kills another character, a pimp (Harvey Keitel) who exploits underage girls. Travis’s decision comes apparently out of the blue, and when the outburst of violence finally comes it is shocking, lacking any build up or music. As Travis makes his way down the hallway of the pimp’s apartment building, Travis shoots multiple people several times before they die, and there is a large amount of blood shown. The impact of the scene is heightened partly because of its contrast with traditional Hollywood movies (like those watched by the characters in Mean Streets and Goodfellas) where people typically die from one bloodless gunshot. In the end Travis is hailed by the newspaper as a “hero,” but the viewer knows that he is profoundly unstable. Scorsese’s ability to make Travis’s actions shocking demonstrates that violence is not really as glamorous as the media portrays it to be.

Goodfellas, too, utilizes the false build up technique several times, most notably when Henry calls Tommy “a funny guy.” Henry is trying to give him a compliment, but Tommy pretends to take it as disrespect. There is genuine tension where the audience worries that violence will break out for no reason (as it has before in the film). But then Tommy says he was just kidding about being angry, and the tension releases. Then Tommy really does explode and starts beating another man while people continue to laugh because they assume Tommy is still kidding around. The scene follows the same false build up structure as Taxi Driver. Here again the violence is shocking, because it is unexpected. Moreover in Goodfellas Scorsese adds the element of humor – not just in this scene but throughout the film. The combination of humor and violence both makes the violence seem starker in contrast and also makes us feel bad for laughing, thereby making the violence seem worse than it would apart from the humor.2

In general Scorsese attempts to make the violence in Mean Streets and Goodfellas shocking and horrifying for the audience while portraying it as banal for the characters. But starting with Casino, Scorsese has moved away from this approach to violence. Casino does involve a few truly extreme scenes of violence – most notably scenes where the gangster Nicky (Joe Pesci) has a man’s head put into a vise and where Nicky is almost beaten to death with a baseball bat before being buried alive. But for the most part the violence in Casino is filmed in Hollywood style: slow motion gun shots and explosions but usually without any blood. Often in Casino Scorsese groups scenes of violence into sequences so that they happen one right after another in increasing intensity and explicitness with a kind of bloody exclamation point at the end. This gives the violence an operatic feel too stylized to seem very shocking.

In Gangs of New York he maintains a bit of this operatic feel, but this time he achieves his effect by making the violence extremely graphic. The film begins with a street fight between two New York City gangs in the mid-1800s. At first Scorsese films it like a typical Hollywood fantasy movie, and the initial battle scenes are no more graphic than The Lord of the Rings or The Avengers. The first round of attacks show no blood, despite the fact that many of the combatants are using knives and even swords. But as the sequence progresses the violence increases in bloodiness, made extra visible since the street is covered in white snow. People’s limbs are broken or chopped off in truly horrific ways. Here Scorsese gives the scene the feel of a real war, not just a street fight. Later, by the close of the gangs’ graphic and gory final battle at the end of the film, the streets are literally covered with blood like some sort of surreal Hieronymus Bosch hellscape.

By the time he gets to The Departed Scorsese uses violence as an ordinary punctuation mark in his editing – often a comma or a semicolon more than the exclamation point he employed in Casino. Throughout the movie we see short flashes of violence – people being shot, strangled, beaten to death with sprays of blood, blood-stained dead bodies, etc. – usually intercut with other scenes. For example, at one point the film’s protagonist Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio) is in a psychologist’s office talking about how his undercover police work requires him to lie and use weapons. The scene is intercut with him participating in his first murder. The violence is bloody, but the editing renders it less shocking than it might have been in a different context.

With Gangs of New York, The Departed, and (to a lesser extent) Casino, Scorsese’s aesthetics of violence is operatic and stylized so that, although bloodier, it is no more shocking than the typical Hollywood violence he critiqued in films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas. But while his aesthetic of violence has changed throughout the years, Scorsese’s films maintain a consistent intention in their depictions of suffering. Scorsese’s gangster films portray a world in which those born into sinful systems have little hope of escape. No amount of penance can repay their debt, and there seems to be no redemption for violent people in Scorsese’s cinematic world. Yet Scorsese’s films critique violence, showing it to be empty and self-destructive. This they share with classical and Renaissance tragedies.

2 The Tragic View of Life

We often use the literary term “tragedy” very loosely to describe any sort of disastrous event, whether in real life or in fiction. Even when we are focusing on literature, many readers still tend to think of tragedies simply as stories with unhappy endings. But in fact tragedy is a specific genre of literature that originated in ancient Greek drama. If Hamlet or Death of a Salesman are tragedies, they are insofar as they resemble Greek tragedies like Oedipus the King in some relevant way.

Aristotle defined tragedy as a form of drama aimed at “accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.”3 The reference to the emotion of pity implies that tragedies are stories of suffering. Yet the mere representation of suffering itself is not necessarily tragic. Modern horror and action films, for example, present suffering as pure spectacle and are designed to arouse the audience’s sense of excitement and even desire.4 Tragedies, however, evoke an emotional response Aristotle called “pity and fear”.

Unlike other representations of suffering, tragedy frames its characters’ suffering in a way that asks audience members to contemplate its meaning and to reflect on their own reaction to the suffering depicted, and, indeed, to real-life suffering. In short, tragedies are stories about suffering.5 Viewing a tragedy, an audience feels pity for the suffering hero, but they also feel fear “born of a recognition of the uncontrollability of the forces in human life that have brought the suffering on its victims.”6 The element of “uncontrollability” leads to “mortal bafflement at the workings of the universe.”7 The baffling universe here need not be conceived as predestined. Greek tragedies are not invariably about fate, but they do suggest a fundamental irrationality in the world at the basis of life. In the tragic view of life justice is not guaranteed. Classical tragedies involve virtuous characters who end up in misery due to no fault of their own. This is what Martha Nussbaum called “the fragility of goodness” or “the vulnerability of good people to ethically significant reversals.”8

This is, of course, one central reason Plato did not approve of tragic literature. Plato thought tragedians presented a morally false view of the life. In the Apology Socrates says “a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death.”9 Plato believed that bodily pain or imprisonment is morally irrelevant. The only true harm a person can suffer is harm to one’s soul, which he believed is entirely under one’s own control. Goodness is therefore invulnerable. Aristotle disagreed, which is why Aristotle thought tragedy is morally beneficial, leading to a “catharsis” or a clarification of our moral cognition.10 Thus tragedy reminds us about the various ways in which one’s goodness is not entirely under one’s own control.

3 Toward a Catholic View of Tragedy

Early Christianity followed Plato over Aristotle on this issue. The morality play is the quintessentially Christian dramatic form, not tragedy. In a morality play, misery is due to vice and happiness is due to virtue – a view which corresponds to the Platonic tradition. Influential Christian Platonist Augustine of Hippo agreed with this tradition that true goodness is invulnerable to harm. For example while he argues in City of God that suffering is unavoidable in this life due to original sin,11 this does not prevent us from achieving true happiness in this life. Ultimate happiness will be found in Heaven, but if we live in hope of Heaven, directing all our love toward God’s final order, we can be said to be happy in this life.12 Even if we suffer, virtue is able to make good use of that suffering, for example giving us greater love for the future peace we hope to experience in Heaven.13

We can see this theory illustrated in the story of the death of Augustine’s friend Nebridius in Confessions Book iv. Augustine is overcome by grief, and he attributes this to his inordinate love of a finite good. He loved his mortal friend “as if he would never die.”14 “Misery,” Augustine concludes, “is the state of every soul overcome by friendship with mortal things and lacerated when they are lost.”15 This implies, however, that if we loved something immutable, then we could never lose it and therefore could achieve lasting happiness. Augustine, of course, finds this immutable good in God. “Our heart is restless until it rests in you [God],”16 he says, and “wherever the human soul turns itself, other than to you [God], it is fixed in sorrows,” because finite things lack the kind of permanence and stability that can only be found in God.17 If we love finite goods “in God,” however, they “acquire stability by being established in him.”18

A truly virtuous person would thus be invulnerable, because all human suffering is due to sin. Sin, on Augustine’s view, is an “immoderate desire” for a lower good over a higher good.19 This definition has practical consequences. Lower goods are unstable apart from God and are therefore subject to loss; consequently they can be harmful when pursued immoderately.20 But more fundamentally, disordered desire is itself a state of misery in that the disordered soul lacks the harmony which itself constitutes happiness. Thus sin is its own punishment: “the punishment for every disordered mind is its own disorder.”21 In other words sin is self-destructive, and therefore virtuous action – what later theologians called “penance” – can overcome the self-destructive effects of sin and help us develop the sort of virtue that would make us invulnerable to suffering.

Despite this Platonic emphasis on individuals’ personal responsibility for their own misery, Augustine understood that sin resembles an addiction more than the sort of miscalculation Plato took it to be. Augustine took seriously the idea of inherited sin, which implied that individuals are born already with a propensity toward sin, a propensity not of their own making. In City of God Book xiii Augustine tells the story of creation in which God originally made the entire cosmos in complete harmony with itself based on God’s own good laws of nature. Humanity, in the form of Adam and Eve, was also created good. For Augustine badness is a matter of disorder, which can only occur when a will (wither human or demonic) freely chooses to create disorder out of God’s good order.22 When Adam freely chose to turn against God’s will, he separated himself from harmonious relation to God. This separation is spiritual death.23 Moreover, Adam’s offspring inherited this same disorder, since, Augustine argues, Adam’s offspring could not possess a moral order Adam himself did not have to give.24 Thus all human beings, being descendent from Adam, inherit Adam’s sinful disorder, a state that Western theological tradition has come to call “original sin.” This disorder will inevitably lead to the complete separation of soul from body that constitutes physical death.

Thus on Augustine’s view, while death is a kind of “punishment” for our sin, it is also a “natural consequence” of being born in a disordered state.25 In this disordered state, we are born “ignorant” of God’s will.26 We develop sinful habits in infancy, long before we have the cognitive capacity to know right from wrong,27 such that by the time we learn God’s will we have become so “enslaved” to our habits of sin that it becomes difficult even to choose to do right.28 Our only hope is to submit our will to God and receive the grace to overcome these sinful habits.29 If we remain in a state of misery, it is due only to our own free choice not to turn to God for help.

While Augustine’s doctrine of original sin might seem to suggest a tragic dimension to the human condition, he remains firmly in the Platonic tradition. Augustine’s doctrines of free will, the self-destructiveness of sin, penance, and grace imply that suffering can always be redeemed, that goodness is ultimately invulnerable, and, consequently, that classical tragedy assumes a false world view. But Augustine’s view of original sin also allows for a kind of Christian semi-tragic literature. When Shakespeare (following pioneering contemporaries like Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe) attempted to revive classical tragedy for the Renaissance era, he had to make it work in a Christian cultural context. Shakespeare still has characters lament the irrationality of life (particularly in Macbeth and King Lear), but he links their suffering more closely to their choices and character defects – the so-called “tragic flaw” described by A.C. Bradley.30 On Bradley’s view Shakespearean tragedy always links a hero’s fall with human sin, and always includes among the causes the hero’s own choices. Bradley writes, “The calamities of tragedy do not simply happen, nor are they sent; they proceed mainly from actions, and those the actions of men,” adding that the hero “always contributes in some measure to the disaster in which he perishes” and that “the main source of these deeds is character.”31 The hero in a Shakespearean tragedy reflects “a fundamental tragic trait” (or tragic flaw) which is both the source of his heroic greatness and ultimately of his fall, following some error of judgment or unlucky circumstances.32 Thus, unlike their Greek predecessors, Shakespeare’s tragedies are not fatalistic.33 Shakespeare’s world is a Christian world in which suffering is due to human sin, not the capriciousness of the gods (regardless of what Macbeth and Lear claim in the midst of their self-caused suffering). At the same time, Bradley insists that it is not quite right to claim that Shakespeare’s tragic heroes “deserve” their suffering.34 Instead the suffering is excessive in relation to the hero’s sin. While in the end a moral order does reassert itself in destroying evil, nevertheless such defeat of evil is tragic in that it “involves the waste of good.”35

This is a Christian view of tragedy, but it is not “pure” tragedy in the classical sense. Shakespearean tragedy may present suffering as a “painful mystery,”36 but it is not ultimately unjust or irrational. There is always the hope of redemption; divine providence may make good come from evil. At the very least we must be able to hope that God will compensate the suffering hero in an eternal rest. Yet, as George Steiner argues,

[W]here there is compensation, there is justice, not tragedy. The demand for justice is the pride and burden of the Judaic tradition. Jehovah is just, even in His fury. Often the balance of retribution or reward seems fearfully awry, or the proceedings of God appear unendurably slow. But over the sum of time, there can be no doubt that the ways of God to man are just. Not only are they just, they are rational. The Judaic spirit is vehement in its conviction that the order of the universe and of man’s estate is accessible to reason. The ways of the Lord are neither wanton nor absurd.37

To be a fully orthodox Christian tragedy, then, redemption must be possible. Characters can’t simply be destroyed by fate or even bad luck. As Augustine argued, though we are born in sin, we can choose to turn to God, and God’s grace can enable us to be happy even amidst our suffering.

4 The Gangster as Tragic Hero

The most Catholic of Scorsese’s gangster films is Mean Streets, which dramatizes the ideas of original sin and penance. The film begins with a voice over a black screen: “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.” Immediately the protagonist Charlie (Harvey Keitel) awakes as if from a dream. He is haunted by the need to make up for his sins, but he rejects typical acts of penance such as reciting the prayers “Our Father” or “Hail Mary,” because he thinks “they’re just words.” As another character tells him, “It’s all bullshit except the pain.”

Charlie believes his primary act of penance is looking after his self-destructive friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). Johnny Boy certainly gets Charlie into plenty of trouble through his disrespectful treatment of the various loan sharks and other mafia connections Charlie makes for Johnny Boy, including Charlie’s uncle Giovanni, a mob boss. Giovanni warns Charlie against associating with Johnny Boy, saying it is honorable to help your friends but honorable people also stick with honorable people, and Johnny is not honorable. This is a classic tragic dilemma: Charlie must choose between his loyalty to Johnny Boy and his loyalty to Giovanni. Charlie, moreover, is not responsible for creating this dilemma. Johnny Boy’s family has a longstanding friendship with Charlie’s family. Just as we are all born into a state of original sin, Charlie was born into a situation where he must be disloyal to one of his kin. In the very next scene after Giovanni’s warning, Charlie holds his hand over the flame of a stove, feeling its pain. He says “fine,” resolving within himself to continue helping Johnny Boy as an act of penance, knowing that suffering will follow.

Goodfellas emphasizes personal responsibility (sin is its own punishment). At the start of the film protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) reflects, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” When he begins to get involved in the mafia, he confesses, “It was there that I knew that I belonged. To me, it meant being somebody in a neighborhood full of nobodies.” People treat him better when he joins the mafia, and Henry feels like he has “respect.” But Henry gets caught up in drug addiction and spirals out of control until the mob boss Paulie (Paul Sorvino) cuts him out of the mafia, and Henry’s friend Jimmy (Robert De Niro) decides to have Henry killed. Henry feels he has no other way to save himself than to testify against Paulie and go into the witness protection program. Henry is set up with a new life in the suburbs and becomes what he calls “an average nobody,” precisely what he entered the mafia to avoid in the first place. The movie ends with him closing the front door to his new home which is overlaid with the sound of a prison cell closing. Henry has survived, but his new life is far from a happy ending.

At first glance Goodfellas seems closer to a morality tale than a tragedy. Henry is, after all, far from an innocent victim, but the film can be read as tragedy along the lines suggested by Robert Warshow’s 1948 essay about classic Hollywood gangster movies “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” On Warshow’s analysis gangster films are a critique of the fundamental optimism of the American dream: “the gangster speaks for us, expressing that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and the demands of modern life, which rejects ‘Americanism’ itself.”38 Gangster films always take place in the big city, which Warshow reads as a symbol of “the modern world.”39 The city is a place of upward mobility that attracts those driven by a desire for success, but the city is also a place of crowds where the individual disappears into the masses. Thus in the city “one must emerge from the crowd or else one is nothing.”40 Yet the very aggression that allows the gangster to assert himself as an individual is also what leads to his downfall: “The gangster’s whole life is an effort to assert himself as an individual, to draw himself out of the crowd, and he always dies because he is an individual; the final bullet thrusts him back, makes him, after all, a failure.”41 Warshow rejects the idea that gangster films are morality tales. Instead he takes the gangster genre to expose a tragic structure at the heart of the American dream:

[T]he gangster is doomed because he is under the obligation to succeed, not because the means he employs are unlawful. In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness, all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty and defenseless among enemies: one is punished for success. This is our intolerable dilemma: that failure is a kind of death and success is evil and dangerous, is – ultimately – impossible.42

It is easy to apply this reading to Goodfellas. At the end of the story Henry has a nice house in the suburbs. To all appearances he has achieved the American dream. But he has also become “an average nobody.” Insofar as the American dream is synonymous with the middle class, it is about the sort of conformity that might as well be a prison. The mafia lifestyle offers a way to become “somebody” instead of a “nobody,” but the price of success is to opt out of the American system. Henry and his friends look down on ordinary law-abiding citizens as “suckers.” Seeing how easy it was for the mafia to control the government post office in the neighborhood where he grew up, Henry wonders in retrospective narration, “How could I go back to school after that and pledge allegiance to the flag?” The mafia undermines American civic virtue. “To me,” Henry says, “being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.”

Yet Goodfellas does not completely follow Warshow’s framework. Henry’s downfall is not simply due to his success. This is a Catholic tragedy in which Henry is undermined by his own sin. According to Goodfellas, once you opt out of the traditional system of morality, your values become warped. To the gangsters, being a “good fella” (a good and virtuous person) just means being “one of us.” Likewise doing “the right thing” just means following the “rules” of the mafia, as when Henry says that after stealing half a million dollars from Air France “we did the right thing,” by which he means “we gave Paulie his tribute.” Even Henry’s wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) says, “Being together all the time made everything seem all the more normal.” But once doing whatever you want becomes “normal” – once you step outside the system of morality to become an individual – it is difficult to sustain the new alternative code of gangster ethics. Henry ends up killing the wrong person – a “made” man from an important family who disrespected him – and eventually starts dealing drugs as well (contrary to mafia policy), which he is unable to hide from the boss. Thus Henry violates both traditional morality and gangster rules. His downfall is due to a tragic flaw of hubris, thinking he was above any sort of law. As viewers, we cannot help thinking that Henry both earns his fate and could have avoided it had he not chosen to join the mafia in the first place.

Casino is more pessimistic. The film’s protagonist Ace (De Niro) tries to escape his entanglement in the mafia system in order to become a legitimate businessman, but he cannot get free of his past. Ace’s situation mirrors the Catholic view that, apart from the miraculous intervention of grace, we are all trapped by the original sin into which we are born. Ace has a gift for sports gambling which is illegal in most places but flourishes in Las Vegas. He says anywhere else he would be considered a “low-life” or even a criminal, but in Vegas he was a respected businessman: “For guys like me, Las Vegas washes away your sins. It’s like a morality car wash.” He compares Las Vegas to Lourdes, the Catholic pilgrimage site whose water is believed to have healing properties.

But Las Vegas has a darker side, too. According to Ace, “the only kind of guys who could get you that kind of money” to buy a casino, were the mafia. So the town rests on crimes buried – sometimes literally – in the desert beneath it. Ace tries to keep this side of the business hidden from his legitimate business partners who “don’t want to know” where the money comes from and “don’t ask” about his use of gangster methods like intimidation and bribery. But Ace’s old friend Nicky (Joe Pesci) from his pre-Vegas days has other plans. Nicky sees Vegas as a new territory for being a gangster. Nicky says Ace got so busy running his casino that “he forgot what we were doing out here in the first place. … We’re supposed to be out here robbing.” But Ace tells Nicky “I don’t want to be involved in anything you’re talking about, okay? I just want to run a square joint, that’s it.” Unfortunately Ace cannot stop Nicky, because Nicky is a “made” man in the mafia.

As Nicky engages in brazen gangster behavior around town and Ace gets involved with Ginger (Sharon Stone), an ex-prostitute with a drug problem, the fbi shuts down the casino and arrests the mafia bosses. As we watch the demolition of some of the old-fashioned casinos, Ace laments that “the big corporations took it over” and made Las Vegas look “like Disneyland.” He complains that it has gotten less personal and service has been replaced with being treated as a number. The movie ends with Ace moving to San Diego where he continues to work as a bookie. “I wound up right back where I started,” he says. He is alive and working, but he is alone in his mansion, watching horse races on TV and making phone calls. He seems lonely, even imprisoned, as he stares directly into the camera.

Casino is a tragedy, a lament for the death of the American Dream. For Ace, the West was a “Paradise,” a place people could move to start a new life and start over. In Las Vegas working people could get rich “selling people dreams for cash.” But family ties to the past’s old ways (Nicky’s mafia) and old addictions (Ginger’s drugs and pimp), make it impossible for Ace to succeed. Nicky and Ginger are greedy, incapable of being happy with what they have, always wanting more money and more power. Ace’s paradise thus collapses, replaced by impersonal corporate capitalism, and Ace ends up imprisoned in the old life he had before he moved out west. Though Ace survives an attempted assassination, he is symbolically dead. This is a truly tragic story in the Shakespearean mode. Having made his initial choice to take money from the mafia, he is doomed. Past sins are inescapable.

As a critic of modernity, Scorsese is exploring the plight of immigrant communities. Immigrants from Italy, Ireland, and elsewhere attempt to bring their traditions into the new country with violent results. These communities create alternate moralities in conflict with mainstream society. Those who want to pursue legitimate work in these contexts (most notably Charlie in Mean Streets and Nicky in Casino) end up being destroyed by their mob connections. As a moralist, Scorsese’s films are about the self-destructiveness of violence (always with masculinity and ethnic conflict in view). Yet despite the sense that it is theoretically possible for someone to escape the mafia, it seems significant that none of Scorsese’s protagonists ever actually does escape. The DiCaprio films lean into this latent pessimism. Gangs of New York and The Departed emphasize the element of being haunted and destroyed by one’s relationship to the past.

Gangs of New York is in part about the hereditary cycle of violence which the film suggests lies at the foundation of the American ideal. The film depicts a street war between recent Irish Catholic immigrants to New York City in the mid-1800s and the so-called “Natives” of English Protestant descent who were born in America. One character says the war between the English and the Irish “is 1000 years old or more. We never expected it to follow us here. It didn’t. It was waiting for us when we landed.” The film’s protagonist Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) says “The past is the torch that lights our way. Where our fathers have shown us the path, we shall follow.” He is fighting to avenge his father who was killed by the leader of the Natives, Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). For his part Bill is trying to honor his own father’s death in the War of 1812. He does not respect immigrants because they have not given blood for America.

The Departed follows two young police officers who grew up in the same mob-run neighborhood in South Boston. Colin (Matt Damon) is an orphan who was recruited into the mob at a young age and sent to infiltrate the police as a corrupt cop. Yet he has ambitions to be a politician in City Hall (he talks about leaving the police to go to law school in another city). His friend says “Forget it. Your father was a janitor, and his son’s only a cop.” His parentage militates against such ambition – not to mention the fact that his ties to the mob are pointing him in a different direction. Colin’s character is a foil to Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio), the other young cop from the same neighborhood. Billy’s father was the only non-mobster in his family. Unlike most of his relatives, Billy seemed to escape the temptation of the mob by becoming a cop, but in the police academy he is recruited to go undercover in the mob. One’s family history is not so easy to escape as he thought. So Billy the cop pretends to be a gangster, while Colin the gangster pretends to be a cop. But deep down, Billy really is a violent guy whose cover as a gangster brings out the worst in him, and Colin really wants to escape his gangster background and live a normal life. Colin never consciously joined the mob in the first place. He was an orphan taken in by the mob boss. When finally killed he actually seems relieved; his ambitions had already been ruined. In the end both men’s lives are destroyed by their entanglement in the mob. They both want to do the right thing – Billy more so than Colin who is reluctant to give up the benefits of his gangster lifestyle – but they cannot escape their social context.

Here Scorsese expresses a Greek view of tragedy. The De Niro-era gangster films are Shakespearean, because, while their heroes might inherit a role within an evil system, they are ultimately destroyed by their own sins. The DiCaprio-era heroes are destroyed despite doing the right thing. Yet in both eras, Scorsese seems to emphasize the predicament of original sin at the expense of the possibility of redemption. As with Charlie in Mean Streets, redemption is something a character must earn for himself through non-religious acts of penance. Therefore, while dramatizing the Catholic ideas of original sin, penance, and the self-destructiveness of sin, Scorsese’s approach to tragedy lacks hope for his protagonists’ redemption and thus ultimately falls short of Catholic orthodoxy.

5 Sacramental Cinema

One element of tragedy not yet fully discussed above is its ability to ennoble its subjects. Nussbaum argues that this was a unique feature of Sophoclean tragedy not necessarily included in the work of other classical playwrights: “On the whole Sophoclean tragedy is dedicated to the assertion of unbending virtue in the face of a hostile and uncomprehending world, and dedicated, too, to manifesting that human virtue has not in fact been altogether extinguished by the obstacles that menace it.”43 Nussbaum’s interpretation arises out of her interest in tragedy as a drama of eudaimonia (happiness or flourishing). She shows that the Greek tragedians agreed with Aristotle’s claim that virtue alone cannot guarantee happiness apart from external goods which depend in large part on factors outside our control. But even if we accept Nussbaum’s claim (as I have in this chapter) that tragedies are fundamentally philosophical explorations of human suffering, this does not entail that all tragedians ask precisely the same questions about human suffering, much less that they all give the same answer to those questions. We need not believe a character is positively honorable before we can feel tragic pity for him or her. All we need is a sense that the hero’s suffering is undeserved or excessive. The response of pity and fear caused by contemplating such undeserved suffering might be enough to ennoble a tragic hero. Steiner argues that this is a general feature of tragedy: “in the very excess of his suffering lies man’s claim to dignity. Powerless and broken, a blind beggar hounded out of the city, he assumes a new grandeur. Man is ennobled by the vengeful spite or injustice of the gods. It does not make him innocent, but it hallows him as if he had passed through flame.”44 And Scorsese seems to be aiming at a similar conclusion through his tragic gangster films. Perhaps the best example is Raging Bull.

Raging Bull is not obviously a gangster film, but it does take place in the same world as Scorsese’s gangster films. As much as the film’s protagonist Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) wants to make it as a boxer on his own, he cannot escape entanglement with the mafia. The film ends with a quote from the Bible: “Whether or not he is a sinner I do not know. … All I know is this: once I was blind but now see.”45 For Scorsese the film Raging Bull allows us to see Jake LaMotta without judgment. The camera humanizes him, despite truthfully depicting his flaws. It is not that the film shows Jake to be a good person. On the contrary, the film emphasizes his animality. Not only is his boxing name “the Raging Bull,” but he wears a leopard print robe, and multiple characters accuse him of being “an animal.” Outside the boxing ring he bullies his brother and abuses his wives, ready to fly into a rage at any moment. Toward the end of the film, when he is hitting rock bottom, he ends up in jail, punching and banging his head against the brick wall yelling “I’m not an animal!” Yet for all that, Scorsese manages to reveal something hidden beneath Jake’s brutality – a spiritual reality that transfigures his suffering into penance.

Scorsese overlays Jake’s life with a Catholic frame in much the same way he did with Charlie in Mean Streets. He establishes Jake’s training regimen as a kind of asceticism reminiscent of the Catholic practice of self-flagellation or “mortification of the flesh.” Jake abstains from sex before a fight in order to stay focused, even going as far as to pour ice water on his groin when his young wife Vickie tempts him. As they kiss, Scorsese composes the shot so that the couple is framed on each side by portraits of Jesus and Mary. Likewise Scorsese interprets Jake’s real-life strategy of “playing possum” as a kind of mortification. Jake waits until the final round to attempt a knock out, often suffering extreme punishment in prior rounds. This strategy sometimes backfires early in his career when he doesn’t get the KO before the final round ends. Toward the end of his career, when he fights Sugar Ray Robinson for the championship, he takes a beating without hitting back. Scorsese shoots the scene with liberal amounts of blood. At one point blood even splashes on the boxing match’s spectators, both implicating them (and us, by extension) in the fight and perhaps also recalling the Catholic rite of asperges in which the priest sprinkles the congregation with holy water symbolizing sacrificial blood.46 In another shot, Jake is leaning on the ropes, his bloody arms stretched out in imitation of a crucifixion. He loses the match but boasts to Robinson, “you never got me down.” Like the crucifixion of Christ, his loss is a kind of victory. The sequence ends on a close-up of blood dripping off the ropes.

None of this Catholic imagery makes Jake the equivalent of Christ or even a Christ-figure per se. But it opens a new way of thinking about boxers and perhaps media stars in general: they suffer for us. As with tragic heroes, they suffer for our pleasure. Scorsese establishes this as a theme of Raging Bull from the opening scenes. The film starts with Jake, now retired from boxing, preparing for a standup comedy performance. The punchline of his speech is, “That’s entertainment.” Scorsese immediately cuts to Jake 20 years earlier in the boxing ring getting punched in the face: violence as entertainment. Scorsese then implicates the viewer in this bargain as a riot erupts and the violence spills over into the audience watching the boxing match. We can blame Jake LaMotta or Robert De Niro or Martin Scorsese for their dramatization of violence, but we keep watching, and our culture keeps reenacting the same violence in real life that these entertainers depict on screen. We are just as violent as we claim they are, and we are entertained by their acts of violence.

Yet violence is not a unique preoccupation of Scorsese’s. Violence has been part of dramatic entertainment all the way back to the beginning. The first true dramas were the Greek tragedies, and before that we had narrative poems like the Iliad and the Gilgamesh epic – stories of death, murder, and war. Hollywood works in this same tradition, and we have seen that Scorsese’s gangster films can be read as tragedies. Like those films Raging Bull, too, portrays a man trapped in a violent system (both the mafia and the system of American masculinity more broadly), though it hints at a kind of redemption not clearly as visible in films like Goodfellas or The Gangs of New York. It is clear that Mean Streets and Raging Bull (not to mention Scorsese’s more directly religious films The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence) use explicit Catholic imagery to frame the way we interpret their violence. They aim to open our eyes to the emptiness of violence. But, as quasi-Catholic tragedies, all of Scorsese’s gangster films, even the less explicitly religious ones, are open to this redemptive reading. Insofar as Scorsese’s gangster tragedies open our eyes to their protagonists’ hereditary entanglement in a self-destructive system of violence reinforced by Hollywood’s glamorization of the macho gangster lifestyle, these films humanize their heroes and generate tragic fear and pity instead of simple condemnation. Even if none of his heroes escapes their predicament, Scorsese’s tragic cinema transfigures their misery into a heroic sacrifice which reveals to viewers the emptiness of violence and the restlessness of the human heart apart from God.

Works Cited

  • Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Richard Janko (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987).

  • Augustine. Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

  • Augustine. On Free Choice of the Will. Trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993).

  • Augustine. The City of God against the Pagans. Trans. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

  • Bradley A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy (London: MacMillan, 1912).

  • Hall Edith. Greek Tragedy: Suffering under theSun (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

  • Nussbaum Martha C.Tragedy and Self-sufficiency: Plato and Aristotle on Fear and Pity” in Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics, ed. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

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  • Plato. Apology. Trans. G.M.A. Grube in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).

  • Steiner George. The Death of Tragedy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961).

  • Warshow Robert. “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” in The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture, Enlarged Edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

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Scorsese’s forthcoming film The Irishman (2019) is an interesting hybrid, since it marks Scorsese’s return to working with De Niro, except this time De Niro will play an Irish mobster.


Another example from Goodfellas is the sequence in which Jimmy kills Morrie (Chuck Low), a wig shop owner. Here Scorsese makes use of unreliable voiceover narration to fool the audience into a relaxing before hitting us with a burst of unexpected violence, followed by a bit of comic banter.


Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Richard Janko (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987), 7.


Compare Classicist Edith Hall’s argument that Roman gladiatorial games would not have been considered tragic, even though they sometimes involved a theatrical element. See Hall, Greek Tragedy: Suffering under the Sun (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5.


Ibid., 6.




Ibid., 11.


Martha C. Nussbaum, “Tragedy and Self-sufficiency: Plato and Aristotle on Fear and Pity,” in Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics, ed. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 263.


Plato, Apology, trans. G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), 36.


Nussbaum, 281.


Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, trans. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), Book xiv, Chapter 25, pages 627–628.


Ibid., Book xix, Chapter 20, pages 949–950.


Ibid., Book xix, Chapter 10, page 932.


Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), Book iv, Chapter 6, page 59.


Ibid., 58.


Ibid., Book i, Chapter 1, page 3.


Ibid., Book iv, Chapter 10, page 61.


Ibid., Book iv, Chapter 23, page 63.


Ibid., Book ii, Chapter 5, page 30.


Ibid., Book iii, Chapter 8, page 47.


Ibid., Book i, Chapter 12, page 15.


See Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), Book 1, Chapter 11, page 17.


City of God, Book xiii, Chapter 2, pages 541–542.


Ibid., Book xiii, Chapter 3, pages 543–544.




On Free Choice of the Williii.18






On Free Choice of the Williii.19


A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London: MacMillan, 1912).


Ibid., 11, 12, 13.


Ibid., 20–21.


Ibid., 29.


Ibid., 32.


Ibid., 37.


Ibid., 39.


George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), 4.


Robert Warshow, “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” in The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture, Enlarged Ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 100.


Ibid., 101.


Ibid., 102.


Ibid., 103.




Nussbaum, 285.


Steiner, 9–10.


See John 9:25.


See Psalm 51:7, cf. Leviticus 14:51.

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