Martin Scorsese has said that the two great influences in his life have been cinema and religion and that they continue to be his two main interests. Growing up in Little Italy in New York’s Lower East Side, Scorsese was an asthmatic child who, unable to play the games his contemporaries played, sought refuge in the movie theater and the Church. For a short time a seminarian and for a longer period interested in becoming a priest, Scorsese discovered what he has taken as his true vocation while studying film at NYU. His latest film, the two-hour-and-fifty-minute Casino, illustrates vividly the best and the worst of Scorsese’s output.
Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction book, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, the film chronicles the rise and fall of Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert DeNiro), an incredibly skilled gambler put in charge of a gambling casino by the mob. In the 1970s—the glory days of the Vegas casinos—Rothstein seems to be in a gambler’s paradise until he marries hustler Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) and is joined in Vegas by a boyhood friend, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci). Santoro, a mobster who wants some of the seemingly limitless money floating around Vegas, doesn’t care whom he has to rough up, or kill, to get it. Rothstein’s doomed relationships with Ginger and Nicky eventually lead to his expulsion from his desert paradise.
The acting is good, though the parts played by DeNiro and Pesci almost seem to be from Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). The pleasant surprise is the exceptional performance by Stone as Ginger, who disintegrates into a drug-addicted casualty of the money-mad Vegas milieu. What is best about Casino is its cinematic pyrotechnics. As evidenced in earlier films such as Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The Color of Money (1986), Cape Fear (1991), Goodfellas, and The Age of Innocence (1993), Scorsese has an unparalleled mastery of film language. From jump cuts to fadeouts, from panning to zooming, Scorsese films are visually arresting. Casino is no exception. Its opening half-hour brilliantly depicts casinos as secular churches. While the camera focuses on the glitz and greed that consumed Vegas in its heyday, Bach’s glorious St. Matthew’s Passion thunders in accompaniment.
Casino would have been a far more powerful film if it were forty or fifty minutes shorter. But the flaw, and it has marred almost all of Scorsese’s films, is not merely the film’s running time. In discussing beauty, St. Thomas Aquinas noted that two of its characteristics are integrity and proportion. In encountering a work of art we want it to have integrity in the sense of wholeness and unity; we want the parts of the work to fit together and to cohere into an appealing unity. Integrity and proportion are exactly what are missing in Scorsese’s films. The brilliant parts in each film rarely generate a satisfying whole. This very talented director has yet to make a truly great film. While he has learned well the uses of the camera, he may be so in love with his footage that he can’t cut or shape it into a gratifying whole. He invariably seems to think that more is better. As Scorsese multiplies murders in the last third of Casino, the film loses, rather than gains, momentum.
Scorsese’s best film may be his forty-five minute documentary Italianamerican where he turns his camera tenderly upon his own parents, allowing them to talk to and about one another, their family, their neighborhood, and his mother’s meatball sauce. Made more than twenty years ago, the film is hilarious, warm, and touching. Perhaps mimicking Hitchcock’s practice of appearing in his own films, Scorsese has cast his mother in small roles in each his films. But he has yet to shape and structure his material as well as he did in filming Mrs. Scorsese in her own kitchen.
Scorsese does have a profound vision of evil and has been able to realize that vision on film. He has said, “I went to Catholic school and grew up with that doctrine of Christianity, loving your neighbor, the wisdom of the priests and the nuns. They had such a straight sense of reality, of right and wrong, and I took it very seriously. And yet, when I took two steps out of the door, the world was completely opposite. I knew what they were telling us was the right thing, but how do you do it? I’ve been obsessed with that all my life and have never resolved it.” Scorsese’s statement suggests a need for moral asceticism. His art reveals a need for aesthetic asceticism.