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Themes and Schemes

The Departed
(Warner Bros.)

Black Gold
(California Newsreel)

Of course Martin Scorsese has varied interests—remember The Age of Innocence and The Last Temptation of Christ—but it seems fair to say that his chief subject is crime. He was reared in Manhattan’s Little Italy, where, he has said, “There were two kinds of people who commanded respect, apart from parents. There were the mini-godfathers, who controlled the neighborhood, and the priests.” His films have dealt less with the priests. Conditioned by what he saw and heard back then, Scorsese has long been looking at crime from the inside out. Now he enlarges perspective. In his new film, The Departed, he looks at criminal doings from the viewpoints of both criminals and police.

The chance to do this came from a Hong Kong film called Infernal Affairs, the plot of which was built on a double deceit. A crime boss puts a youngster in the police academy so that the new policeman can eventually be of use to him, and a police-academy graduate is assigned to undercover work in a criminal gang. The Departed, derived from the Hong Kong film, is set in Boston and focuses on a detective squad in the Massachusetts State Police, possibly because Scorsese wanted to rummage among Irish-American Catholics for a change.

The symmetrical plot device may make the story sound overly neat. If only it were. William Monahan’s screenplay is so full of cryptic pronouncements and swift portentous scenes that neatness is blown away. Scorsese was apparently concerned with the idea of identity, one of the ancient themes of drama, and how it affects one’s actions, emotions, self-knowledge, even dreams. But his film is so frantic with plot jabs and counter jabs that the gravity of the theme is blurred in cop-and-criminal sorties. Even Scorsese’s usually gleaming direction is dulled to the Law & Order level, except for a few of his famous traveling shots.

Some subplots wind through. Both young men get involved with a police department shrink. She is an attractive young woman, presumably because that was the only way Scorsese and the producers could get a woman into the cast. Further mechanics: there is a scene in which the crime boss and his gang sell stolen military stuff to Chinese agents, a scene that must be No. 2,150 in the roster of heavily armed shady business deals. (The ace was the weapons deal in The Wild Bunch.)

As the criminals’ stooge and the undercover cop, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio labor along like honest workmen doing their jobs—no flaws, no flourishes. Mark Wahlberg barks continuously as the staff sergeant of the detective squad. Martin Sheen is thoughtful as the squad captain, the only character in the picture whose language is not soaked in raunch. (Perhaps Sheen and others thought that such diction would be out of place for a former president of the United States, even a fictional one.) Vera Farmiga, as the shrink, is pleasant.

The overarching menace of the piece is Jack Nicholson, who virtually repeats his Joker in Batman. What a masterly performance that was: an outsize balletic rendition of a mythic figure, far past the imaginative reach of any other current American film actor. And how wrong that style is in this realistic picture. The crime boss whom Nicholson plays simply cannot stop acting. He cannot leave any gesture, any phrase, unadorned. It is hard to see how this slightly ridiculous performer could have held power for so long. Surely some aspirant would have seen his foolishness as a possible danger and scuttled him.

At the finish, the film’s title looks a bit comic. Hardly anyone we have met in the picture has not departed. Killing is so common that we can only wonder how any of these characters survived long enough to finish their story.

Is Scorsese desperate? This screenplay has the scent of it, as if he is scraping for material to feed his basic filmic interests. But the risk in this case—not evaded—was that his need led him close to painful strain. I can’t remember another Scorsese moment as shockingly banal as the finishing touch here. We look out the window of the stooge’s luxe apartment, past his terrace. Then a rat comes out and plays on the terrace railing. Well, heaven knows Scorsese’s past work and passion for film, so he will probably be forgiven for that rat.

INJUSTICE IS A RECURRENT topic for documentaries. When the injustice is political or legal, we become impatient: we want action of some kind that could improve the matter. But when the injustice is economic, as it very often is, the news is merely depressing. What can be done? What international oil company is going to reduce its profits to give the people at the bottom a fair share?

Now there is coffee. Black Gold, an engrossing documentary by Marc Francis and Nick Francis, deals with its growing and marketing. The facts may make us feel a twinge with our first morning sip. The film starts in and returns to Ethiopia, where coffee was first grown centuries ago and which is the fourth- largest producer of coffee in the world. Our guide in this expedition is Tadesse Meskela, an Ethiopian fluent in English (and other languages). He has been engaged as an ambassador for a group of seventy-four coffee farmers’ co- ops in Ethiopia who have organized to get a livable income from their share of the two billion cups of coffee that are drunk daily around the world.

At a meeting of farmers in southern Ethiopia, Meskela tells them that coffee sells in the United States for $2.50 a cup, while each of them is getting small change every day for fourteen hours of labor. We see the houses—huts—where the farmers live with their families, and hear their wish that they had the money to build a school and hire a teacher so that their children might have better lives. Then we see the New York commodities traders, the international coffee exchanges, a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Mexico, all of whose operations seem designed to make the dealings at the top glide more smoothly. Meskela is at all these places, working agreeably and hard, pushing his products, which are in themselves admired. But the greatest share of Ethiopian coffee is purchased by such giants as Starbucks and Nestle through deals and sources of their own, not through the co-ops.

And there the situation is, presumably to remain. Like so many disturbing documentaries, Black Gold will be seen, clucked over, then stored in the back of the mind. A few centuries ago, in The Rape of the Lock, Pope wrote of “Coffee, which makes the politician wise/And see through all things with his half-shut eyes.” Well, if we like, we can hope that this film about coffee will make the politician even wiser, with open eyes.

This article originally ran in the October 30, 2006 issue of the magazine.