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Paradise Lost, Wise Guy Style : Hasn’t Martin Scorsese done the gangster thing, in ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘GoodFellas’? The way he tells it, ‘Casino’ takes the mob to new levels of corruption--of the wallet and the soul.

<i> Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday</i>

At the end of an upcoming PBS documentary celebrating the first 100 years of American movies, host Martin Scorsese talks about the crisis early in his life when he realized that his calling to become a filmmaker was greater than his calling to become a priest, and then makes a game effort to link his two compulsions.

“I didn’t really see a conflict between the church and the movies,” Scorsese says, referring to them, in something of a poetic contradiction, as “the sacred and the profane.” He goes on to say that despite their differences, the church and the movie house are both places where people come together to share common experiences, and that many of the greatest films--Griffith’s “Intolerance,” Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Kubrick’s “2001" among them--address the spiritual side of man’s nature.

“It’s as if movies answer an ancient quest for the common unconscious,” he concludes, “and fulfill a spiritual need that people have to share a common memory.”

Now, cut to a scene from Scorsese’s latest film, “Casino,” where Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro, a rogue mobster in 1970s Las Vegas, is trying to squeeze information out of a rival thug by compacting his skull in a vise. The man’s face actually seems to expand as the vise tightens, his eyes bulging and bulging until--thwap!--the one on the left pops out and skips across the floor.

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You may not immediately see the spirituality in that last image. Nor, thanks to the MPAA’s ratings panel, will you have to try. After submitting “Casino” four times, each with more offending frames of violence trimmed, the flying eyeball has become something of an implied illusion. Still, the scene is as strong as it needs to be, says Scorsese, to make its point.

“Violence is not that pretty, especially not in this picture,” he says, settling into a couch in his Park Avenue office in mid-town Manhattan, a few days after the ratings board finally OKd his last, three-hour version of “Casino” for an R. “The violence shouldn’t be shown pretty. It’s the life these guys lead and the message is, if you want to be part of the life, this is what happens. Invariably, it happens.”

“Casino,” opening Friday, is what Scorsese fans might call his advanced-degree mob movie. “Mean Streets,” the 1973 film that made stars of him and Robert De Niro, was about the kind of street-corner hoodlums Scorsese says he knew from his old Sicilian neighborhood in Little Italy. “GoodFellas” in 1990 chronicled the lives of made men and other Mafia goons in Brooklyn and Queens. And “Casino,” based on the life of Las Vegas mobster Frank (Lefty) Rosenthal, follows the mob into the sleepless capital of high hopes and lost dreams.

Rosenthal, called Sam (Ace) Rothstein in the movie and played by De Niro, was a charmed Midwest oddsmaker before the Chicago mob sent him to burgeoning ‘60s Vegas and, using money illegally siphoned from the teamsters’ pension fund, set him up to run the Stardust Hotel’s gambling operation. In the 40-minute documentary-style opening of “Casino,” set in the fictional Tangiers Hotel, we get the inside poop on how money was skimmed from the weekly receipts and hand-delivered to the mob bosses 2,000 miles away.

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The film reunites Scorsese with his “GoodFellas” screenplay collaborator, Nicholas Pileggi--whose new nonfiction book, “Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas,” provided the historical detail and inspiration--and with co-stars De Niro and Pesci.

Scorsese, one of the rare filmmakers who steals ideas from others and credits them, said that the look of “Casino” was influenced by Louis Milestone’s “Ocean’s 11,” a 1960 Las Vegas caper film in which then-Vegas-icon Frank Sinatra played the leader of a gang of casino thieves, and Phil Karlson’s “5 Against the House,” a 1955 casino heist set in Reno.

“I looked at them more for nostalgia,” Scorsese says, “for the look of the old casinos at their height, before they became these enormous things they are today.”

Despite the dramatic change in settings, some critics still will find “Casino” a knockoff of “GoodFellas.” “Casino’s” main themes of betrayal, twisted morality, greed and ultimate self-destruction are the themes of “GoodFellas,” and the personalities of the usually restrained Rothstein and the violently quick-tempered Santoro can be seen as extensions of De Niro and Pesci’s characters in the 1990 film. Scorsese acknowledges that “Casino” is familiar territory for him, but says it takes the mob to new levels of spiritual and materialistic corruption.

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Stripped to its most basic plot elements, “Casino” is the story of friends who become rivals in both business and love. Nicky’s jealousy of Ace’s elegant lifestyle and success leads him to turn on both his friend and their mutual bosses, and to launch a bitterly exploitative affair with Ace’s vulnerable, drug-addicted wife (Sharon Stone). The feud and emotional fallout undid their own lives and helped end the mob’s control of the resort empire.

“These people had paradise all to themselves and blew it,” Scorsese says. “Maybe it’s the nature of the time itself, coupled with the nature of their pride and ego, that caused them to do it all in. Plus, to do in the city and the entire Midwestern structure of the underworld. It’s like the Old Testament. It was so obvious they couldn’t see it coming.”

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Freeze that thought. This is a perfect place to try to understand the moral conflicts and passions that not only inspire Scorsese to make these kinds of movies, but to do them better than anyone has before. And why, no matter how revered he is by critics and other directors, he can’t seem to get any respect from the larger Hollywood population.

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He’s had three Oscar nominations for directing--for “Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “GoodFellas"--but after 23 years and 14 previous features, the 53-year-old filmmaker has yet to win. And if he is right, he may go 0 for ever, a fate visited upon such past masters as Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.

Scorsese, punctuating his turbocharged patter with a frequently explosive, asthmatic wheeze of a laugh, isn’t wild about discussing the Academy Awards, but it is irresistible. He is a movie freak, through and through, influenced equally by the films of the old studio system and the European New Wavers of his own generation, but an avowed “Hollywood filmmaker.”

“My feeling is that there is something I do in telling certain kinds of stories that gets under [Hollywood’s] skin somehow, irritates them or makes them feel uneasy, in a way that they will not endorse,” he says. “Someone said to me a few years ago, ‘If you’d just do something morally uplifting, something that makes people feel good. . . .’ Well, to me, my films are morally uplifting. A lot of people hated ‘Raging Bull’ because they said Jake [La Motta] is irredeemable. Nobody is irredeemable. That’s the whole point.”

For Scorsese, that has been the whole point ever since he made that choice, in his late teens, to forgo the priesthood for Hollywood. “I went to Catholic school and grew up with that doctrine of Christianity, loving your neighbor, the wisdom of the priests and nuns. They had such a straight sense of reality, of right and wrong, and I took it very seriously. And yet, when I took two steps out the door, the world was completely opposite. I know what they were telling us was the right thing, but how do you do it? I’ve been obsessed with that all my life and have never resolved it.”

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Not for lack of trying. In some ways, the spiritual journey began in 1968, with Scorsese’s first feature, the low-budget, black-and-white “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” The movie introduced Harvey Keitel as a conflicted young Catholic who cannot “forgive” his girlfriend for having lost her virginity to a rapist.

Scorsese says that the irony of making a film about repressed sexuality in the midst of the sexual revolution was not lost on him, but it represented his own confusion about the period.

“There was a double-standard we all had growing up in the ‘50s,” he says, “and we just couldn’t make that leap [in the ‘60s]. It was very hard to understand what was going on.”

Scorsese did a feature for Roger Corman called “Boxcar Bertha,” and did some editing on the documentaries “Woodstock” and “Elvis on Tour.” But it was not until “Mean Streets” that he found his voice, and though less than half his films deal with issues personal to him, they are the ones that define him: “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “GoodFellas,” and now “Casino.”

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All deal with moral conflict, and though--Jesus aside--his characters are generally repellent, they are operating within the only moral structure they know.

“That’s what I mean when I say my films may make certain people uneasy,” he says. “In most pictures, the good guys go after the bad guys and get them. In my films, they start out bad and stay bad. But they go through a learning process, a catharsis, and that’s what I find interesting about them.”

Scorsese is a fascinating character himself. His life story--let’s call it “The Sacred and the Profane"--begins as that of a second-generation Sicilian American, born in 1942, who grew up in Little Italy, a frail asthmatic whose father took him to the movies just so he could breath some fresh air on the way. Charles Scorsese, whose battle with cancer three years ago caused Scorsese to delay the production of “The Age of Innocence” for nearly a year, looms large in the formation of his son’s life in film.

In fact, the seeds of the man and filmmaker Martin Scorsese were planted during the decade before he was born, when his parents, like millions of others in the Depression, became habitual moviegoers. The habit stuck.

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“I remember when I was a kid hearing my father and uncles talking about movies they’d seen. Movies about betrayal and trust. They loved the stories but, invariably, they’d say it wouldn’t really happen that way. The characters wouldn’t do that kind of thing. I grew up wanting to make the movies they said would never be shown.”

Ask Scorsese about the world of “Mean Streets,” which was drawn directly from the life he saw on Little Italy’s Elizabeth Street, and you get a detailed lecture on the 5,000-year history of Sicily, the impetus for the self-governing Mafia family structure, its relevance to early Sicilian immigrants in the United States and, finally, on its impact on subsequent generations raised with the mixed morality of the old and new cultures.

Combine that social confusion with religious conflict and a boyhood of obsessive movie watching, and you have the emergence of a character like Charley, Scorsese’s alter ego in “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?,” a guy who can’t quite comprehend his world, and who is most comfortable talking in movie references. The opening scene in that movie, the first conversation in a Scorsese film, has Charley striking up a conversation with a girl (Zina Bethune) by discussing the nuances of John Ford’s “The Searchers.”

In “Mean Streets,” the first thing the young thieves do after conning someone out of $20 is head for the movies. And the only thing that De Niro’s twisted Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” can think to do when Cybill Shepherd’s young political campaigner agrees to go out with him is take her to a porno house.

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Scorsese, all these years later, still talks in movie language. Personal references become movie references. Answers to questions about his feelings and philosophy turn into descriptive narrations on films, one reference inspiring another, and growing less personally relevant with each digression.

“Do you remember the scene in . . .” is the most common phrase out of his mouth, and if you do not remember it, he’ll paint a word picture as vivid as that on the screen.

Scorsese sees his entire life as a parallel of sorts to the life of the Greek immigrant in Elia Kazan’s “America, America,” a dislocated character adjusting to an unimaginably rich life.

“Coming from this little Sicilian village on Elizabeth Street, you might as well have said to me, ‘You’ll be living on the moon,’ as saying, ‘You’ll make movies.’ I was going to NYU when I saw ‘America, America,’ and I felt that it was my own journey. It struck me in a very personal and profound way.”

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Like other fish out of water, Scorsese has done a lot of flopping around. Between his personal movies are films as unrelated as “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” which he acknowledges having done to enhance his reputation as a Hollywood director; “New York, New York,” an expensive, almost experimental movie that he says attempted to combine too many elements; “The Color of Money,” a star-driven sequel to “The Hustler” that he did for purely commercial reasons (“I would have been much better suited to direct the first film”); “Cape Fear,” a horror-thriller that many critics denounced as exploitation unbecoming a legend, and “The Age of Innocence,” his beautifully crafted but emotionally precious adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel.

He’s flopped around in other ways too. He’s been married and divorced four times: Isabella Rossellini was ex No. 3, and “Casino” producer and continuing associate Barbara DeFina No. 4. Earlier, with his head enlarged with the success of “Mean Streets,” he had migrated to Hollywood, where he quickly got caught in the riptide of ego and excess and nearly killed himself with drugs. He says he had badly deteriorated physically by the late ‘70s, and, after a terrible bout with pneumonia, he was barely able to show up to direct “The King of Comedy.”

It was the making of that movie, which he says had no personal meaning for him at all, and its quick dismissal at the box office, that ended his 13-year stay in Los Angeles. Scorsese returned to New York in 1983, finally convinced that the studio system he wanted to be a part of and which he was hoping to invigorate in some ways, no longer existed.

“I fantasize about [working in old Hollywood] all the time,” he says. “To have been there with DeMille and Wyler and the others inventing an entirely new language, that’s exciting. But as much as I’ve wanted to be a Hollywood director, I’m not. A real director can direct anything, and I can’t.”

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Sure, he can. But life is short, getting shorter, and the moral questions he began to ask himself 30 years ago are still unanswered. “I can’t help being a religious man,” he told another interviewer, “I’m looking for the connection between God and man, like everybody else.”

The next stop on Scorsese’s spiritual journey is northern India where, in February, he begins production on “Kundun,” the story of the Dalai Lama. The script, by Melissa Mathison (“E.T.”), chronicles the Tibetan spiritual leader’s life through the 1950 Chinese invasion through the unsuccessful rebellion and his exile in 1959.

“It’s a learning thing,” Scorsese says. “Telling a story about a man who becomes the head of his country, politically and spiritually, in a culture of nonviolence, which is the kind of thing we all need in order to survive. . . . Instead of bombing people for oil, it’s better to figure out how not to use so much oil. We should try to figure out how to live and be occupied by staying in a room where there is nothing--no pictures on the wall, no television, nothing.”

Scorsese pauses, as if realizing how this Buddhist theory may be going down in a conversation that began with his efforts to preserve the eyeball scene in “Casino,” and how the image of him sitting in an empty room squares with his earlier admission that he has the TV in his office tuned to American Movie Classics all day.

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“Of course, I can’t do that,” he says, brushing off the contradiction and getting his speech back up to speed. “But over the years, I’m getting a little better. Our hearts are in the right place making the movie, and maybe it will be something that has hope for society. . . . The reality is we’re spinning ourselves into madness and we’re going to have to individually find a peace with ourselves to survive as a species.”

That thought brings us back to Scorsese’s Jungian speech at the end of his PBS documentary, his sense that we are inherently searching for some common experience and that we take it where we find it, church and movie theaters being just two of available options. Age and experience are wearing well on Scorsese, and though he says he has abandoned all hope of ever resolving the moral conflicts that have driven his work, he has found a certain peace.

“Yeah, it’s better now,” he says. “If I’m home alone and reading, I’m reading. I don’t have to run around making calls, getting people to come over. If you’re by yourself, you’re by yourself. I’m OK with it now. . . . I have a few good friends, a few. And for the last five years, I’ve been able to make picture after picture and take some risks. It’s not bad.”

The death of his father in August, 1993, of course, had a profound impact on him too. (His mother, Catherine, who has appeared in many of his films, has a small role in “Casino.”) Scorsese says he and his father always were close, but there was some strain that he only realized in watching “East of Eden.” The John Steinbeck novel, adapted by Elia Kazan, tells the Cain and Abel story of two dissimilar brothers and their competition for their father’s love.

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“My brother [Frank, a printer] and I were very different,” Scorsese says, “but he was the one who had a lot of contention with my father at times. I was the quiet one, which sometimes got my brother angry because I got all the attention, and I was younger. My dad used to give me back rubs when I was sick and take me to the movies all the time.

“There was a lot of tension that way. [“East of Eden”] brought that all out to me, that at the age of 12 or 13, I wanted to know which one of us he loved most. I realized that the feelings I had watching the movie were really with him. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m making pictures, to fulfill that need to reach out to him.”

As close as he felt to his father, Scorsese says they never spoke that much about personal things until he started studying film at NYU; then they were able to express themselves only through movies. But his father seemed to know there were unanswered questions.

“When he went in for his heart operation in 1992, I went at 6 in the morning to see him in New York Hospital,” Scorsese recalls. “He told me, ‘I just want you to know I loved both of you the same way.’ That’s what really hit, I think. For my brother too. That was very powerful."*

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