Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Carlito's Way -- honor, loyalty and change

Director: Brian De Palma, 1993.
"And I want to thank a lot of people for that. I look over there and I see that man there, Mr. Norwalk. I want to thank you, sir. . . . And I want to thank AImighty God. . . . I can't believe this. I must have forgot. How could I forget my dear, close friend and lawyer David Kleinfeld, who never gave up on me through everything, thick and thin."
This is Al Pacino giving his awards speech for his one and only Oscar, won for the 1992 Scent of a Woman, right? No, actually this is Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) in a courtroom at the start of this film addressing the judge who sentenced him to a 30 year prison stretch as it is over-turned after five years on a technicality.

Al Pacino has played his share of gangsters. He starred as Tony Montana in De Palma's 1983 Scarface. But his most memorable gangster role was as Michael Corleone (The Godfather Trilogy). As Sicilian Corleone, he was the college graduate who wanted nothing to do with the family business but found himself inevitably drawn in. As a result he was changed, corrupted by the inisidious evil that was the heart of the mafia. Here as Puerto Rican Brigante, he is a heroin-dealing gangster, a former big fish in New York who emerges from prison with a change of perspective.

In his courtroom theatrics, Carlito declares, "But my time in the sterling correctional facilities of Greenhaven and Sing Sing has not been in vain. I've been cured; born again. . . . I've changed." This is no religious conversion, but it is a sincere change of heart. This ex-con wants to go straight.

Carlito's reference to being born again takes us back to the first century conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus told this Jewish leader, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (Jn. 3:3). He was referring to the fundamental life change that occurs when a person decides to follow Jesus. An act of faith, it is an act of conversion. It requires an act of God to turn a cold and callous heart of stone into a living, throbbing heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). Being born again brings with it new life (Rom. 6:4), new perspective, a desire to follow the straight and narrow path (Matt. 7:14). We may not be convicts who have spent years behind bars, but we all have gone astray and committed sin (Isa. 53:6). We all need to experience this healing, this rebirth that frees us from our own prisons, much like Carlito.

Carlito has seen the corpses in the dark alleys of his former way of life. Indeed, he has put many of them there himself. But he wants no more of this. He has a plan to earn enough money to buy into a legitimate business venture in the Bahamas and be a regular citizen. But can he do this? Or will his old instincts kick in? Will his misplaced loyalties and his former friends lead him astray, straight back into his former way of life? Those are the questions De Palma asks in this violent but unusual gangster film.

When he agrees to help a relative with a quick drug deal, Carlito does so reluctantly. But this reintroduces him to the violence he left behind. Guns and drugs equate to easy, if dangerous, money. With this money he buys into a nightclub and becomes a manager. Running the club more on reputation, Carlito still carries enough weight to scare the young turks who see themselves as the new Carlito.

But it is Carlito's lawyer, David Kleinfeld (Sean Penn in a wild afro) who proves more of a threat. Kleinfeld has gotten Carlito out of prison, so Carlito owes him. And he treats him like a dear friend, even a brother. But this lawyer is a sleazy and corrupt cokehead, and has more problems than the ex-con. When he calls on Carlito for a favor, old loyalties prove too strong. Even his old love Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) cannot dissuade him from doing something foolish.

Carlito's way is to honor old debts. He owes Kleinfeld and will pay him back. There is a sense of transactional fairness and equality. He wants to change his way but this debt is an albatross that flies slowly overhead preventing Carlito from a new way. How unlike Jesus' offer of change. We have a debt, a debt of sin. That debt requires payment of a life. It should be our life, but Jesus walked in our shoes and paid our debt with his own life. No longer do we need to pay our debts for sin. Grace has made Jesus' way possible for us.

Carlito's loyalty to his friend proves his undoing. He knows this, yet still proceeds: "There is a line you cross, you don't never come back from. Point of no return. Dave crossed it. I'm here with him." Just like in Gone Baby Gone, there is a decision that can never be unmade once made. Later, he tells Dave, "Never give up your friends, Dave, no matter what." There is honor and loyalty among some thieves, though not all. Carlito may not give up his friends, but he may let them get what they deserve. In contrast, Jesus wll not give up his friends and will not let them get what they deserve. Justice is trumped by mercy. God is both just and the justifier (Rom. 3:26), and he has provided a way for us to be free in Christ. Once we come to him by faith, he will never give up on us (Rom. 8:38-39). He will not give us up to the devil.

Honor and loyalty are the code of ethics that drove Carlito and caused his downfall. They were his core values. He cried out in desperation to Gail, "It's who I am Gail, it's what I am. Right or wrong, I can't change that." He found his identity in these values and concluded that though he wants to, he cannot change. These values define him and define his future. He is like the hero in a Greek tragedy.

Values are important and play a role in crafting identity. But they can be changed. We can change. We may say, like Carlito, "I can't change," but Jesus breaks our paradigm. He breezes like a breath of fresh air into a stagnant room, replacing stale odors with a sweet scent. If we allow him to come into our lives he causes us to become new creations (2 Cor. 5:17). With new life comes the potential for new identity, identity in Christ. It also brings new values. We come to embrace the values of love and humility, mercy and joy, from Jesus. Change is indeed possible.

De Palma brings an exciting climax in the Grand Central Station with a gunfight that brings flashbacks to his earlier classic, The Untouchables. As much as we want Carlito's way to bring him the success he desires, his way is impossible. Jesus' way is far better than Carlito's way.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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