Is Goodfellas just a straight-ahead gangster epic, or is it in fact a religious allegory about the perils of living in sin?
I bet that wasn’t a question that you were expecting to read today!
To give you a bit of context, I have recently been re-watching The Sopranos on the back of The Many Saints Of Newark prequel movie that was released recently. There is a scene in episode 9 of the final season called, “The Ride,” where Paulie Walnuts is alone in the Bada-Bing strip club in the dead of night. He walks into the place, feels the presence of something over his shoulder and turns to see the Virgin Mary hovering on the other side of the club.
We are then left to wonder whether this apparition is simply a manifestation of Paulie’s Catholic guilt or possibly a result of a lack of sleep, or if indeed the Virgin Mary is a very real entity within The Sopranos universe and she did indeed appear to an aging gangster in a New Jersey strip club.
Quite honestly, that haunting image of her floating in that dark nightclub has been living rent free in my head for a few days now and that along with a few other supernatural sequences that take place in The Sopranos has has really got me thinking. What if there are more to these stories than just mindless violence and debauchery.
Last night, I was lucky enough to go and see one of my favourite films ever made on the big screen; Goodfellas. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of seeing the movie in an actual cinema, but it has been a few years since I have last seen it. Seeing the movie after re-watching Sopranos and having watched a few of Martin Scorsese’s more recent efforts, I actually saw the film’s plot in a different light.
This is why Goodfellas is in fact a religious allegory about the consequences of living in sin.
First off, I likely know what you are thinking; “But Scorsese has already made religious movies with The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence. Goodfellas is about gangsters and murder and the only brief mention of religion in the movie is the fact that Karen is Jewish and Henry wears a cross.” Whilst none of that is strictly untrue, there are several points in Goodfellas that I just can’t help but feel imply a religious undertone.
The first of which is in the opening scene of the movie. Henry, Tommy and Jimmy open the boot of the car to finish off Billy Batts. The bright red tail light shines harshly on Henry’s face as he watches a man die and delivers his iconic voiceover; “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” Here we are being introduced to a man who is capable of literally staring death in the face and metaphorically staring into the jaws of hell without even flinching.
From this point on, Henry is our guide into this forbidden underworld. He treats us the viewers as total newcomers to this chaotic landscape as he attempts to sell to us how great it is to live this way. If the universe of Goodfellas is hell, then Henry is our Virgil, guiding Dante, (the viewer,) through the nine circles of hell à la the Divine Comedy.
This idea of Henry being a guide into hell is most explicit in the scene of his and Karen’s first real date at the Copacabana nightclub. In this scene we are treated to a glorious tracking shot that follows the couple all the way from their car to their seat directly in front of the stage.
The first major direction we are taken is downwards. We descend down a staircase into a hallway painted red. In fact, if you pay attention to the background in this entire sequence, there is almost always at least one red object onscreen. All the way to the table, Henry is greeted by various sinners and miscreants as the ‘Then He Kissed Me,’ plays in the background; a song of seduction and lust.
Another example of this is the famous scene where Henry introduces us to various gangsters such as Jimmy Two Times through voiceover. Once again, the environment is littered with red light and dark shadowed areas as we are being introduced to a batch of sinners, thieves and murderers.
After Tommy’s death, the period of seduction in the movie is over. From this point on, we are seeing the intense fall of Henry’s world. It is just as chaotic as the first half of the movie, but now Henry and his friends are no longer in charge of the chaos and slowly they are beginning to lose control of everything that was once theirs.
All of a sudden the momentum that has carried the movie and Henry’s life up until this point is brought to a halt. This most obviously broadcasted in the scene of Henry driving far too fast despite being unaware of what awaits him ahead. He then has to slam on his brakes and come to a screeching stop mere inches away from the car in front to stop himself from crashing.
In which direction is he looking just prior to this? He is looking up for the chopper that he suspects has been following him. However he is also looking in the direction of Heaven, looking for a threat of something bigger than him that threatens to put a stop to his sinful lifestyle.
In the movie’s epilogue, once Henry gives up Jimmy and Paulie to the FBI, we see him in an entirely different environment. He’s dressed differently, the weather is different and he describes how he is now just a ‘nobody, like everyone else,’ as if that to him is a fate worse that death. It is almost as if he is in a state of Limbo. No longer is he amongst the sinners in a world of gratification and sin, but instead he is in a ‘safe,’ environment. He is stuck in a place where he can’t do anything even remotely illegal or morally questionable because he is being monitored by cops just waiting for him to slip up.
Then the very last shot we see is Tommy shooting at the audience. This is works as a very neat bookend as both the opening scene and final scene of the movie see Tommy committing a violent act. Also though, it signifies that elements of Henry’s old life still follow him around and he will spend the rest of his days looking over his shoulder for demons from his old life, – like Tommy, – waiting to snuff him out.
Maybe I’m reaching slightly when I say that Goodfellas is 100% a religious allegory, but I feel like at least a few of these choices were intentionally put in by Scorsese. Especially the opening scene showing the murder of Billy Batts and the tracking shot as we are taken into the Copacabana. After re-watching Silence and The Irishman fairly recently, it is clear that faith and mortality are both things that heavily weigh on Scorsese’s mind. Therefore, I don’t think that it is too much of a stretch to say that it was probably something that was at least in the back of his mind in 1990.
What do you think? Do you believe that there could be something to this wild theory of Goodfellas being a religious allegory, or do you think I am just a madman spouting nonsense? Please let me know in the comments down below.
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