The Godfather trilogy, the fictional account of Mafia boss Vito Corleone, is riddled with religious, specifically Catholic, imagery. And yet, on this 50th anniversary of the novel on which the films are based, at least one media critic finds a significant dearth of discussion about its spiritual meaning.
“The book’s 50th anniversary has been a great opportunity for newspapers, magazines and websites—especially the ones that cover the entertainment industry—to unleash nostalgia pieces looking back at the book and the three movies that later grew out of [Mario] Puzo’s book and Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece films, the first of which was released in 1972,” writes Clemente Lisi at Get Religion, a blog that chronicles how the mainstream media covers religious subjects. “Amid all the immorality, crime, violence and ultimately Michael Corleone’s final despair (for anyone who could sit through The Godfather III), this isn’t just a series of mob movies. The Godfather book and movie trilogy is loaded with religious symbolism.”
Lisi maintains that Puzo’s novel, released on March 10, 1969, and Coppola’s Academy Award-winning film suffer from the same lack of coverage from a religious angle as another book-turned-movie from that era, The Exorcist.
True, on the surface, one might regard Corleone and his cronies as the antithesis of religion. “They were no altar boys,” as the saying goes. But The Godfather is rife with religious imagery, and one would have to don a pair of blinders (like the horse’s head in the bed?) not to see it.
Lisi does the reader a great service by providing a link to a 2013 column by David A. King, an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University. King calls The Godfather a profoundly Catholic work.
“Repeated viewings of the films reveal more meaningful insights into the universal human condition and the Holy Spirit that—to use Gerard Manley Hopkins’ word—’broods’ over it,” King writes. He points to three climactic moments in the trilogy that raise profound theological questions: the baptism in Part I, Fredo’s murder in Part II, and Michael’s confession in Part III.
The most obvious religious reference in The Godfather is the very title of the novel and movies. A godfather is a man who answers for the child being baptized during the administration of the sacrament of Baptism. One of the most frightening scenes in the film, shot inside Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, pits a baptism against the hit jobs that are being carried out simultaneously in other parts of the city at the direction of Michael Corleone. Just as Corleone answers the priest’s ritual questions, “Do you reject Satan?” “And all his works?” the scene cuts to the brutal gunning down of rival mob bosses.
“In essence, Michael is being baptized twice: once as he renews his own baptismal vows, and secondly as he is ‘baptized’ into an almost inescapable union with crime,” King writes.
Michael’s full initiation into organized crime reaches its most terrible apex when he orders the murder of his older brother Fredo, who has betrayed the family, and therefore according to the mafia rule of omerta must be killed. Fredo’s murder takes place on Lake Tahoe while he fishes with the assassin Al Neri. As a child, Fredo had once gone fishing with his brothers, and he attributes his success on that trip to the fact that he said a Hail Mary before each cast. In the boat with Neri, in a medium long shot, we see Fredo fishing, and hear him say the words of the Hail Mary. At the line, “pray for us sinners,” the camera cuts to Michael who is observing the scene from a boathouse. We hear a gunshot, then the camera cuts back to the boat, with only Neri visible under a stark and gloomy sky.
The Godfather Part III shows Michael recalling this event as he receives a papal honor, and the juxtaposition leads him to remorse for the life of hypocrisy and depravity he has lived.
“This is where Coppola’s Catholic concept of hope comes to the fore,” King writes. “Michael has betrayed and blasphemed the Church in a mockery of baptism. He has committed the murder of his own brother. To the world, he is beyond redemption.”
In Italy, Michael meets and is impressed by a prominent cardinal, and during a discussion, the cardinal opines that modern Europe, “and by extension Michael himself, have not been penetrated by Christ,” King writes. At the prelate’s urging, Michael makes his first confession in 30 years. King continues:
In one of Al Pacino’s greatest performances, Michael reveals all. Even the cardinal is shocked as Michael, weeping, confesses “I killed my mother’s son. I killed my father’s son.” Before he grants absolution—a beautiful moment for the Catholic viewer, for even this most terrible sin is forgiven—the cardinal says, “Your life could be redeemed. But I know you do not believe that.”
“I think Michael does believe it. In spite of all that follows his confession—scandal at the Vatican, multiple murders carried out by his successor, the murder of his own daughter—Michael desperately wants to change,” King said. “He prays, ‘I swear on the lives of my children, give me a chance to redeem myself and I will sin no more.’”