Spoilers ahead! My favorite Hollywood movie scenes, in no particular order
Letting Go – The Mission (1986): One of the most powerful scenes in film history – nearly 10 min. Robert De Niro an 18th century South American mercenary slave-trader turned Jesuit priest wrestles a bundle about his size and weight, up a steep waterfall-covered cliff, across rocky beaches - his armor and sword from a brutal past. He blames himself for killing his brother in a fit of rage and ties himself to that burden as penance. When the natives spot De Niro from afar they recognize their tormentor and take a knife to him. Jeremy Irons, as senior priest reassures his fellow Jesuits that they mean no harm, as the natives merely cut De Niro free of a burden, no longer his – a freedom that sets the stage for his priesthood.
Are you no longer a Jesuit? – The Mission (1986): De Niro sees through a European slave-trader’s ruse to appease the Church while holding on to South American native-slaves. Even as the Church remains beholden to the wealthy slave-traders. Forced by the visiting Cardinal to publicly apologize for his outburst against one of the noblemen (a slave-trader) De Niro kneels before a hastily convened audience. He then apologizes with such dramatic profusion that the Cardinal is compelled to dismiss him, just as his apology is recognized as farce and only just before it is acknowledged as, another, barely disguised outburst.
There’s a first time for everything -- Sleepers (1996): Priest De Niro is called out of the confession box and into the witness box, in this courtroom climax. It’s his word, his alibi against the evidence mounted against ‘his’ boys (now men). Lawyer Dustin Hoffman accepts De Niro’s testimony that he was at a ballgame with the men when they were said to have murdered their one-time child-molesters. Rival lawyer Brad Pitt tries to shield his accused friends while still credibly challenging everything the priest says in their defense. The jury is lulled into believing that they merely have to take the good and truthful priest’s word at face value, overlooking possible perjury for the sake of his wards. Watch, to see how he stuns the court.
The Church needs men who’ll do what they’re told – True Confessions (1981): De Niro is the rising-star priest under the watchful eyes of the resident Cardinal who has "great things" in mind for him. De Niro’s cop brother Robert Duvall is investigating a sleaze-crime that also implicates the church in a corrupt property deal. In this scene the Cardinal compels De Niro to ‘retire’ an otherwise ‘good’ old priest who is holding the Cardinal and his commercialization of the church to account. In defiance – if not outright disobedience – De Niro tries to defend the old priest. Watch DeNiro's little shuffle, as he makes to move out of the chambers even though he knows the Cardinal isn’t finished speaking to him.
But I am a priest! – The Mission (1986): A South American native boy wordlessly hands the 18th century Jesuit priest (a former violent slave-trader) De Niro a sword. The priest stares at boy and sword in turn before accepting it as a sign that he must return to violence – this time to defend the natives from marauding European slave-traders. He pleads with his mentor priest (Jeremy Irons) to be relieved of his vows of obedience as he prepares for battle, only to be rebuked: ‘You should never have become a priest’. De Niro protests: ‘But I am a priest and they need me’. Irons roars back: ''Then help them as a priest!''.
Father, forgive me for I have sinned – True Confessions (1981): De Niro in the church confessional deals in quick succession with two men who accuse him of priestly hypocrisy. First the local crooked businessman to whom the church is beholden. Then his cop-brother, out to nail that very businessman for his crookedness. Sitting in that confessional, De Niro goes through the motions of confession while struggling to quell his inner rage, his bitterness. You’ve got to watch the movie to see how much he ‘loses’ as a worldly man to stay true to his priestly calling. But even with barely any screen-time in this scene De Niro captures how hard it can be for man to forgive, even when he knows he's forgiving merely on God’s behalf.
Lost innocence – Sleepers (1996): One of De Niro’s most quietly compelling performances. He spent years mentoring street kids when they were boys; the tough boxer-priest who protected them from bullies. Now as they (through the one man) recount horror stories of sexual abuse from a children’s penitentiary, the usually garrulous, animated De Niro, stays utterly silent. The camera zooms in on his face as hears their ordeal. They’re talking to him all right, but even we the audience barely hear them. You’ve got to watch the full movie for this scene to truly haunt. And haunt it does.
See you in church – Sleepers (1996): Jesuit priest Robert De Niro comes off from hospital visiting a street kid he looks out for. Boy has ‘a punctured lung, a gift from one of his mother’s overzealous boyfriends’. Next De Niro’s walking shoulder to shoulder with Mr boyfriend nearly a foot taller (& wider) than him. Shouldn’t he be picking on someone his size, not a little boy (weighing about 85 pounds to the boyfriend’s 220)? Boyfriend protests, boy was being a punk, had to be put in a line, no big deal: ‘It was a slap. It was nothing’. De Niro with priestly collar on: ‘Next time you’ll be meeting me. I may not be in your division but I do weigh more than 85 pounds. You won’t need a doctor when I’m done, you’ll need a priest.’
It’s hard being a priest – We’re No Angels (1989): One of the sillier roles De Niro took on that sees him really letting go of his usually tightly controlled screen presence. Thing is, when you’re watching slapstick, it’s really unfair to expect more. With De Niro’s scene at the ‘Weeping Madonna’ you don’t expect less either; the convict who’ll do anything – even play priest – to escape recapture and prison. Even when he’s – sort of - found out by the resident priest, he bungles through, torn between himself and, well, himself. In a scene with hardly of his own dialogue De Niro pulls off the silliness needed, at just the right time.
He taught me the meaning of being a priest – True Confessions (1981): Brothers Robert De Niro (‘unsuccessful’ priest) and Robert Duvall ('successful' cop) walk together – and confess to each other - in the finale as they’ve walked through many scenes in that movie. They’re a decade or two older than they’ve been in the movie right through but have somehow stayed close in spite of their priest-police differences over ‘right, wrong, good, bad’. De Niro admits he never had a great gift for loving God but that his long-dead priest mentor had taught him that it wasn’t a drawback as long as he could make himself useful - ‘He taught me the meaning of being a priest; I guess there’s a kind of peace in that’. Duvall regrets that his choices as a policeman forced De Niro’s choices as a priest, leading him to obscurity instead of a promising journey up in the church hierarchy. Yet the two old men are at peace with each other as they walk to a cemetery plot that’s been saved ‘for when the time comes’.