Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Departed

The Departed, dir. Martin Scorsese (2006)

IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0407887/

When Boston-Irish mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) claims the Joycean anti-establishment motto non serviam —“I will not serve” — as his own, he is doing more than testing the young Colin Sullivan’s grasp of literary trivia. As a literary trope, the non serviam has a long and distinguished history stretching back to the prophet Jeremiah. Two-hundred and fifty years before Joyce, John Milton’s Satan had put a rosy spin on his arrival at the burning lake of Hell by saying cheerfully to his fellow demons: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

In Scorsese’s film, Hell is South Boston. Moving from the scene of liturgical service (the church) to the scene of auto service (the garage) to the scene of public service (police academy graduation – next frame) this sequence very efficiently puts its finger on the film’s potent ideological critique of post-liberal America: that “serving the commonwealth” and serving the self just might be mutually exclusive.

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