At the centre of MEAN STREETS there is the appearance of a contradiction, just as there is at the centre of Catholicism.
Charlie and his friends are hoods; they steal, they fight, they do drugs, and they kill if it comes to that. They are common low-level crooks in nice suits with good faces. To their friends, families, and neighbours though, they are “nice boys”. They make it to church in Sunday, help their parents, and are working hard. Thus the contradiction.
This is somewhat echoed at the core of Catholicism. The belief is that these less-than-perfect characteristics can exist within you. You could lie, you could steal, you could be hurtful to others. In the face of all that, if you are contrite, you can come to God and be forgiven. There are a few *really* terrible things that you will carry with you, but in a broad sense, if you ask for reconciliation, it’s yours.
What about just not doing these things in the first place? As simple as that sounds, it would seem that Catholicism, Scorsese, and Charlie all know the deal there: that’s too hard.
The better bet is to wear the outward appearance of trying to fly right, and answer for the rest with penance. That’s where this image comes in. Sonny knows that he has to answer for his actions, and saying a few Hail Marys isn’t going to cut it. So more than once, he holds his hand to a flame for as long as he can. Perhaps part of him sees this as true penance, something that will serve as a reminder for his misdeeds for at least a few minutes. Perhaps he believes that when his time on this world is through, that he’s headed somewhere where flames will surround him. Whatever the reason, Charlie seems drawn to the flame…and whenever he is, he carries an expression of deep regret.
Could it be that he sees the walking contradiction that he has become? That he wears one face to his family and neighbours, but another to his friends and associates. Could it be that this is finally weighing on him, and that his Catholic guilt is beginning to spur a greater sacrifice. As he stands in that church, feeling physical pain from something that is supposed to be a symbol of spiritual hope, perhaps he has begun to put it all together. Maybe that’s why he tries to look out for Sonny as much as he does…he believes that’s a way to truly atone.
It’s a way that he can make up for his sins “on the streets” as the film puts it, and that’s the core of the film. It knows how contradictory so many of us are, and that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission. For true forgiveness though, one needs to hold ones hand to the fire for as long as one can…and that’s going to leave a mark.
Here’s three more from MEAN STREETS for the road…
This series of posts is inspired by the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience. Do check out all of the awesome entires in their series so far