There is a difference between practicing Catholicism and being Catholic. If you grew up steeped in the faith—as director Martin Scorsese did, even entering the seminary for a time—but you stop practicing, as he did, you’re still likely to be Catholic. It’s in your thoughts, words, and deeds. It’s simply in your blood. You think about good and evil a lot.
Scorsese’s 2006 Oscar winner
THE DEPARTED, set in gritty Irish Catholic Boston, is full of Catholic tropes. There the “good” Catholics, like Martin Sheen’s Detective Captain Oliver Queenan, send their kids to Notre Dame, stay married to their wives and swear a lot less than everyone else.
But the Irish ghetto also produces fallen angels: Jack Nicholson’s wily and ambitious Frank Costello conveys a satanic guile and bloodthirsty aplomb that haven’t exactly mellowed with age. I’ve never been a big Nicholson fan, but he’s got a knack for gleefully finding the dark side.
What I enjoyed most about the film is how Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan, the police mole infiltrating Costello’s crime enterprise, melds the yin and the yang of serving two father figures (his police boss and the top mobster). Costigan’s “lace curtain” mother raised him to be intellectual and upright; his working class father, who earned both respect and contempt for his independence from the Irish Mafia, claimed the boy’s deeper loyalty but couldn’t protect him from the neighborhood’s criminal element.
Matt Damon turns in a credible performance as Costigan’s doppelganger Colin Sullivan A former altar boy, he rejects his frayed ties to church and the police life to become a double agent of sorts. He is on Costello’s payroll as a Boston detective who subversively sidetracks efforts to squash Costello’s ring.
Never mind that the rival Italian “Guineas” out of Providence are Catholic too; their bad blood is a fact of life. In a memorable scene, DiCaprio, still trying to win Costello’s trust, beats a pair of goons who’ve been sent into Irish territory to extract payment from a corner store owner. They’re later shot point-blank, and the murder is pinned on an innocent man.
Speaking of blood, the Sacred Heart of Jesus—that iconic image of a beatific Christ whose visible heart sheds drops of the Precious Blood—is displayed everywhere: on Queenan’s wall along with family photos and brandished by Billy Costigan, who smashes a framed, glassed version of it over the head of a guy who taunts him.
As with Scorcese’s earlier GOODFELLAS (and especially
GANGS OF NEW YORK), THE
DEPARTED could easily be just another macho ensemble mob movie where violence reigns, warmth is a rare commodity, and women are relegated to limited, stifled roles. Those tiresome themes are transcended by the performances of DiCaprio (who manages to make Costigan a true tragic hero), Mark Wahlberg (as the relentless Staff Sergeant Dignam), and others.
Costigan, craving a respite from the high-anxiety cat-and-mouse game he’s been playing as mole in Costello’s crime burrow, tries to convince the latter that every king should step down before he gets dethroned. Costigan suggests that even faithful henchman French (Ray Winstone) could be so disgruntled as to consider mutiny. Costello rages at the suggestion. “It’s almost a fuckin’ feudal enterprise,” slams Costigan.
He could be describing the Catholic Church as its critics see it today. Indeed, Costello rejects the church because it “wants you in your place: kneel, stand, kneel, stand. You have to take it.” He’d rather consolidate his own power empire, build an organization on loyal allies who will subsume their own personalities to his will, and use women as handmaids or whores. His crime organization has even got the church in thrall. “In this archdiocese God don’t run bingo,” he snarls at a table of priests and a nun whom he’s just embarrassed and emasculated. Wait, was that The Joker, Jack Torrance, or Frank Costello?
The conflicting loyalties exacted by Irish Catholicism, cop culture, and gang life construct a haunted house of mirrors and shadows—and it’s hard to know which way is out. And mirrors shatter.
“Could I do murder?” Costigan asks as he negotiates Costello’s unraveling trust.
“Give ’em up to the Almighty,” responds Costello, with little irony
I loved the performances of Winstone as French, David O’Hara as Fitzy, and Mark Rolston as Delahunt: dead-on, head-bashing acolytes to Costello’s high priest of extortion and murder. Sheen’s Queenan is a sentimental favorite; the actor is a practicing Catholic who attends Mass regularly, carries a rosary, and, motivated by his religious values, attends frequent anti-militarization protests As Queenan he provides a rare moment of respite when he offers the increasingly troubled Costigan some fatherly tenderness and the leftover dinner his wife has placed in the refrigerator. I needed that glimpse of goodness to mitigate the bleak, descending darkness visited on the ensemble.
Scorsese’s film underscores the thin barrier between our souls and the violence in our hearts and in our culture, as even the relatively placid Queenan is martyred in the line of duty, triggering a bloodbath worthy of a Shakespearean history play
How I like the movie depends on how I contextualize it: As an action film, I find the name-brand violence unsettling and even indulgent, in a world where headlines shout blinding casualties of scarcity, genocide, and war.
But ultimately the film works as a slice-of-life portrayal of the tough, morally conflicted breed who fill the ranks of cops and criminals. They are struggling to know what’s right and wrong in the world they inhabit--not just the one they’re taught to idolize by their church. They share a sense of oppression, shaped by both street realism and Catholic idealism--each of which, in its own way, fosters the understanding that sacrifice and sticking with your people is the way to transcend life’s pain. Then one day, you die, hoping that, as the holy card attached to a gravesite floral arrangement sent by Costello to Costigan’s mother reads: “Heaven holds the Faithful Departed.”
Kris Berggren is a columnist and contributor to
NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER and MINNESOTA PARENT and writes for other online and print publications. Her entirely subjective list of favorite feel-good films includes but is not limited to
MARY POPPINS, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN, IT’S A WONDERFUL
LIFE, STRANGER THAN FICTION and the A&E version of
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. She lives in Minneapolis.
Editor’s note: A fascinating corollary to THE
DEPARTED is the outstanding Hong Kong film from which it was adapted: INFERNAL AFFAIRS. The level of violence, the treatment of women and the number and identities of characters left standing at the end of each picture is dramatically different. (The Hong Kong pic continues the story via two interesting sequels also directed by the brilliant Andrew Lau:
INFERNAL AFFAIRS II and INFERNAL AFFAIRS III.)