By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published September 26, 2013
In his brilliant book “Art and Scholasticism,” the great Catholic philosopher and theologian Jacques Maritain writes, “By Christian art, I do not mean Church art … I mean Christian art in the sense of art which bears within it the character of Christianity. … Everything belongs to it, the sacred as well as the profane. It is at home wherever the ingenuity and the joy of man extend. Symphony or ballet, film or novel, landscape or still-life, puppet-show libretto or opera, it can just as well appear in any of these as in the stained-glass windows and statues of churches.”
In writing my monthly column on great 20th century Catholic art and artists, I often think of Maritain’s words. I thought of them especially last week as I watched yet again Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful “The Godfather” trilogy.
“The Godfather” is a profoundly Catholic work, and it is without question a wonderful series of films; indeed, the first two movies in the trilogy represent one of the greatest accomplishments in world cinema. Yet many people who see the films for the first time focus solely upon their graphic and operatic depiction of organized crime and violence. 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.
Though Coppola himself has struggled with his Catholicism, his imagination is so steeped in Catholic practice and atmosphere that he can never fully abandon the faith, any more than his greatest character Michael Corleone can. Coppola has often said that his favorite word is “hope,” and it is that sense of hope and belief in redemption that best defines “The Godfather” films as Catholic art.
Though the films are full of Catholic themes, including justice and mercy, fate vs. spirituality, the dialectic between family and country and community, the letter and the spirit of the law, and time and timelessness, they are also charged with a deep Catholic mise en scene, or atmosphere. The Church is everywhere in “The Godfather” films: baptisms, funerals, confessions. Catholic iconography is especially prevalent. Images of Jesus, Mary and various saints appear in scene after scene. And, of course, there is sin. Lots of sin. But those who focus only upon the crimes are missing the ideals Coppola insists necessitates the crimes: love and protection of family, belief in idealism for the betterment of the group, and justice. Now the manner in which the Corleone family upholds these values is wrong, but still, their methods are always informed by hope for the better.
There are three key Catholic moments in the trilogy: the baptism in Part I, Fredo’s murder in Part II, and Michael’s confession in Part III. All three moments are deeply atmospheric and uniquely Catholic; all also raise interesting, even profound, theological questions.
The climax of the first Godfather film occurs at the baptism of Michael’s goddaughter (the baby in the scene is actually Coppola’s own infant daughter, Sofia). This scene is perhaps the most brilliant realization of D.W. Griffith’s parallel action, or crosscutting, narrative technique. Michael has agreed to stand as godfather to his niece; in doing so, he must affirm and renew his own baptism. At the same time, Michael has engineered the elaborate murders of the heads of the five New York mafia families; the killings take place at the same time as the baptism. 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.
Coppola masterfully merges the pre-Vatican II baptism with the preparation for and commitment of the killings. The predominantly Latin rite of baptism provides a voice-over for the scene; the swelling church organ underscores the operatic design of the sequence. The actions of the priest, who administers salt, anoints with chrism oil, and pours water, are matched perfectly to the actions of the gangsters preparing their crimes. Most powerful are the juxtaposition of Michael’s profession of faith and rite of exorcism with the crimes. Michael professes belief in God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, and the Holy Catholic Church while the camera cuts to the men Michael commands as they prepare to commit acts completely contrary to the Trinity and the Church. Even more shocking are Michael’s replies to the questions “Do you renounce Satan,” “And all his works,” “And all his pomps.” As Michael replies “I do” to each question, the camera cuts to a murder—all of them graphic—then back to Michael’s face, an expression of resignation and guilt. Finally the priest asks, “Michael, will you be baptized?” “I will,” says Michael, as the camera cuts to final shots of the carnage he has designed. His two-fold baptism is indeed complete.
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.
That scene is so memorable that Coppola actually uses it again at the beginning of “The Godfather Part III.” Michael is being granted papal honors; he is being conferred into the Order of St. Sebastian. As Michael is honored, he remembers his greatest sin, and Coppola shows it to us in full. The effect is powerful. Decades have passed, yet Michael remains burdened by his sin. He knows, even as he is given a papal blessing, that his life is one of complete hypocrisy and depravity.
This is where Coppola’s Catholic concept of hope comes to the fore. 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. But the world is not the Church. In Italy, Michael meets Cardinal Lamberto, a man destined to become the next pope (the implication in the film is that he becomes John Paul I). Lamberto is, in Michael’s words, “a true priest.”
One afternoon, in a church garden, Michael and Cardinal Lamberto are talking together. The cardinal is explaining to Michael how modern Europe, and by extension Michael himself, have not been penetrated by Christ. While they are talking, Michael is overcome by a fit of hypoglycemia; he requests something sweet, which is given to him. As he regains his strength, Michael explains that these attacks frequently come when he is under stress. The Cardinal understands, and says, “the mind suffers and the body cries out.” He then urges Michael to make his confession; he senses, rightly, the burden Michael carries. “It’s been 30 years,” stammers Michael, “I’d take up too much of your time.”
“I always have time to save souls,” says the cardinal. Michael replies, “I’m beyond redemption.”
Yet he makes his confession. Something about the cardinal compels him to confess. 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. He prays, “I swear on the lives of my children, give me a chance to redeem myself and I will sin no more.”
Michael can never fully escape sin or its consequences. As he says, he knows it’s not fully possible “in this world” to escape justice. Even the cardinal has told him, “your sins are terrible and it is just that you suffer.”
Michael’s greatest suffering, his greatest punishment, comes when he witnesses the brutal death of his daughter. The scene is punctuated by an unforgettable scream, Michael’s howl of anguish. It is as though all the sorrow and guilt of the world comes forth from him. And in a sense, they have.
Michael dies old, half-blind and alone. Many see his death as pathetic, but the Catholic viewer, who takes into account the sacramental grace of Michael’s confession and his vow of truly contrite repentance, knows that what Michael has finally found at last is peace.
When asked what he hoped God would say to him if he gets to Heaven, Coppola replied, “Welcome.”
Many people would never accept that a man like Michael Corleone could be welcomed in Heaven, but the Catholic, believing in endless hope, knows otherwise. Because “The Godfather” affirms this hope, the films deserve to be seen again from a Catholic perspective.
David A. King, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, Atlanta. He is also the director of adult education at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.