Director Francis Ford Coppola released The Godfather fifty years ago. To mark the anniversary, he restored the film’s visuals, enhanced it with 4K, and re-released it in select theaters last weekend. The New York Times interviewed him about the movie and its restoration. The Godfather has become such a cultural touchstone—so commodified and recycled in our postmodern world—that we’ve diluted its import. It came out in the midst of the renaissance of American film, our equivalent of the French New Wave, which lasted from approximately Bonnie and Clyde (1967) until Steven Spielberg ushered in the age of the blockbuster with Jaws (1975). This was the span of years when the studio system cracked and Hollywood let young, untested directors experiment with the medium—artists like Arthur Penn, Martin Scorcese, Robert Altman, and Brian De Palma.
But of all the astonishing pictures from this era, none reached the heights of The Godfather and its sequel. No American film matches it for epic scope and tragic weight, or for its display of ensemble Method acting. As a depiction of the dark side of the American Dream, it’s nonpareil. I think that in many ways, it’s the hinge of American movies—there’s B.G. (Before The Godfather) and A.G. (After The Godfather). Fifty years in its wake, nothing’s equaled it for breadth of vision, ensemble acting, and cultural impact. I published an essay in 2013 about the film. I thought I’d repost it here to celebrate the golden jubilee.
In a 2011 article for The New York Times, novelist Marilynne Robinson states that, “The Bible is the model for and subject of more art and thought than those of us who live within its influence, consciously or unconsciously, will ever know.” This thesis, which she subsequently demonstrates through a brilliant reading of The Sound and the Fury (not to mention in her own sublime fiction), comes from the great literary critic Northrop Frye. He used his titanic studies The Great Code and Words With Power to illustrate how the Bible creates the “mythological universe” of Western literature—the creative playground of every artist’s consciousness and imagination. Any work of letters references, depends upon, and derives power from, the Bible. To write is to trade in the primal myths, language, archetypes, and metaphors that originate in the biblical narrative. Thus, all novels, poems, or plays mediate that narrative’s meaning whether the authors intend it or not–even when they intend the opposite. ‘Biblical meaning’ doesn’t equal ‘Christian doctrine’ though, but rather the instinctive way we thematize life.
The same principle applies, I believe, to film—a cousin of literature, after all. And Francis Ford Coppola’s twin masterpiece The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather, Part II (1974) makes for a paradigmatic example of how a movie can bear a Christian (in this case, Catholic) dimension without its doctrinal agenda (let’s all agree that the third movie was a misbegotten fiasco). Coppola doesn’t tell the story of the Corleone family through a Catholic lens, but the Corleones and their interlocutors are steeped in a tapestry of tradition, ritual, and code that grants them the mystique so evocative of Catholicism’s archaic aura. Coppola pulls the films’ major visual and narrative motifs directly from the meaning-making worldview of its Italian American Catholic characters. And it’s this worldview that imbues the story with such tragic weight.
At the center of the movie’s catholicity stands the titular character himself, Don Vito Corleone—the Godfather (Marlon Brando). The very moniker godfather carries religious import. It comes from the order of baptism, where the parents of an infant Christian choose two other adults to stand in as spiritual caretakers for the child. A godfather is one who has charge of weak, uninitiated souls. With his power, he means to guide the neophyte along the ways of the faith. Don Vito is godfather to several people in this strict sense, but as the head of a vast Mafia organization, he’s Godfather to untold numbers in a near-limitless sense. The title gives and confirms in him a near-supernatural quality that is at once demonic and divine. He offers care, protection, and justice to supplicants—but at a price. As in the story of Faust, once you assent to him, he claims rights over you. With one hand he offers God’s beneficence, with the other his wrath. He contains all these elements in his one person: compassion and ruthlessness, grace and danger, acute intelligence and unsparing force. As embodied by Brando, he’s utterly transfixing—the actor’s sharp, shadowed brow; broad, powerful shoulders; and precise, aristocratic gestures make you feel like the cat he cradles with such delicacy and dominance.
Coppola hurls us into this universe right in the first scene as Bonasera, an undertaker, comes to Don Vito asking for vengeance on those who assaulted his daughter. He wants to pay money to the Don, but Vito desires something more—his allegiance, his soul. This Bonasera hesitates to yield, for he knows the strings that come with such a deal will make him a puppet for the Don to dangle. But finally he gives in, kissing the Godfather’s hand like a bishop’s—Vito is pontifus maximus of his alter-church. The same dynamic plays out in a scene (cut from the original release) right after the opening wedding set piece, in which the Don takes his three sons to pay their respects to Genco, his dying consigliere. Genco lies in a hospital bed, the room drenched in darkness, looking up at Vito’s face hovering over him, the only source of light in the darkness. Beholding his savior, he begs the Don to undo the mortal pangs he struggles under. “You have the power,” he rasps, eyes glassy and wide. Vito demurs, but Genco insists, begging the Don to remain with him to face Death. “If he sees you,” he continues, “he’ll be frightened and leave me in peace. You can say a word, pull a few strings.” The Godfather’s power extends, it feels, even unto the afterlife.
Vito, in this way, functions like a patriarch in Genesis, specifically Abraham and Moses. He carries special access to greater forces and powers that he can wield for weal or woe over his people. This simile would make his youngest male heir, Michael (Al Pacino), a combination of both prodigal son and longed-for savior. There’s a messianic air about the way the movie treats him at the beginning. The Don places all hope in him, a scion who will lead the family not just to power (which Vito’s secured) but to legitimacy. He’s handsome, intelligent, poised. But he stands outside his father’s orbit at first—he doesn’t come to the Don for advice, leaving Vito feeling spurned. He’s got his own plans for his future, he declares. Meantime, he’s sleeping with Kay (Diane Keaton), a WASP, and doesn’t want to ask his family’s blessing to marry her. The Don, for his part, can’t understand Michael’s assimilated ways. In the deleted footage, he belittles his son’s Marine medals as “Christmas ribbons;” dismisses his combat heroism as “miracles” worked “for strangers;” and looks quizzically on his “American” (read, not Sicilian) girlfriend. In them, we see two quintessential generations of Catholic Americans: the first, immigrant generation, which maintain the old ways over here, and the second, assimilated generation that wants little to do with those antiquated trappings.
The movie’s arc and tragedy, of course, comes from Michael’s transformation into all Vito wants him to be and fears he’ll become. Michael begins as a “civilian” on the sidelines; for all his war experience, he’s uncomfortable with criminal violence. In the extra footage, we see him protest his brother Sonny’s (James Caan) talk of killing Paulie and others in revenge for the failed hit on the Don. But then he visits his father in the hospital, and everything changes. Genco’s death scene earlier takes on renewed import, as it unveils the meaning of Michael’s visitation. Coppola shoots the scenes the same way, except now it’s the Don who’s in the bed, helpless. And it’s Michael who hovers over him, the image of his father’s face from before. As Vito did for Genco, now Michael pledges his loyalty to the weak person before him. He goes even further than his father, in fact, actually saving the bedridden soul from death—through his craftiness and deceit, he wards off the assassins who come to the hospital to finish the job on Vito.
And then the Rubicon kiss of hand. He seals his fealty (and fate) with an unbreakable sign, a direct evocation of the Catholic notion of sacramental symbolism. His assent to the Godfather morphs him, for he’s gone over to the dark side: now, he’s not only fine with killing Solozzo and McClusky, but insists on doing it himself, personally—something even the raging Sonny backs away from. All the action flows from his paternal obeisance. In the restaurant, we see him nearly combust in moral struggle as subway cars roll overhead. When he pulls the trigger, he explodes the universe both without and within—he can never go back, and we feel we’ve lost the only person in this world we could trust.
The baptism scene at the film’s end marks the completion of his moral corruption, and the summation of Coppola’s Catholic motifs. By inter-cutting Michael’s assassinations of his rivals with his nephew’s exorcism and baptism, the director sets the action within a cosmic canopy. The liturgy provides the meaning of the events happening outside: As his nephew is baptized into the Paschal Mystery, Michael is baptized into the mystery of evil. (This technique nods to Dante, who sets the Easter Triduum on Earth concurrently with his journey through the three levels of the spiritual world). Coppola contrasts the baby’s white garments—a symbol of its innocence—with Michael’s dark suit, sunken eyes, and hallow features. He repeatedly cuts from the image of the priest’s hands using holy objects (oil, salt, stole, etc.) to images of the hit-men’s hands assembling their deadly weapons—the minister of life offset by the ministers of death. Michael makes the baptismal promises for his nephew, also named Michael. Coppola again inter-cuts his answers with shots of the mobsters moving to their targets, his voice echoing over the soundtrack as they gun down their victims.
The effect is powerfully ironic: Michael’s rejection of Satan coincides with the murders, thus revealing his affirmations to be lies. At the end, the priest pours water over the infant’s head—Michael’s baptism is a full immersion into the waters of sin, set in relief by his godson’s immersion into life in Christ. The religious ritual is supposed to effect initiation into a new community, but it’s a demonic parody for Michael, confirming him overlord of the underworld as he takes out the heads of the rival gangland families. As promised from birth, he ascends to a throne, but the dark one—the one his father tried to keep from him. It’s his coronation: He’s anointed Godfather.
The first Godfather film works off an archetypal Christian darkness-light motif: the men plot and execute evil deeds in the shadows while the women and children stay blissfully innocent in the world of sunshine. Coppola contrasts images of fertility, food, children, etc. against those of violence, men, death. It’s the Garden of Eden set off from the fallen world of sin. Eden is a mythic place, of course; it exists only as a symbol of how we think life should be. The original Eden, in these movies, is Sicily—that enigmatic island whose history recedes into the haze of antiquity and myth like the mist that washes over it from the Mediterranean. Michael flees there in the first movie and, for a precious moment, finds freedom from the dark world. His experience of Sicily is pure romance, all light. The sun, the fields, the song, the wine. It all feels like paradise. Even the Sicilian woman he marries forms part of this symbolic tapestry: Apollonia is feminine of Apollo, the Greek god of sunlight, music, and poetry. Coppola treats her as little more than that archetype—he holds her character at a distance, like a classical statue.
But from the beginning of the Sicily sequence, a sense of foreboding hangs over this Eden. Michael has to walk around with bodyguards, and he finds that all the men in his ancestral home of Corleone have died from vendettas. The black terror convulsing America hunts him even here. Then Apollonia is killed in car bomb—there’s no escape from the violence. And that’s because, as Coppola illustrates at the outset of Part II, Sicily is the origin and source of the violence, not a sanctuary from it. This idea also follows the biblical myth—in Genesis, Eden sets the stage for the first sin, one that creates a chain reaction affecting everyone and everything that comes after. No one can be free from the stain of that original wrong, the biblical narrative states. And in the second movie, none of the Corleones escape the consequences of Vito’s past choices–he brings the seeds of his own destruction from Sicily.
By sequencing Vito’s early days contrapuntally with Michael’s experience in the late 1950s, we literally see the intergenerational grip of violence—how time reaps in the present what we sow in the past. After witnessing young Vito’s whole family murdered in Sicily at the film’s outset, we move to Lake Tahoe in 1958. It’s his grandson’s first holy communion and, again, the ritual is parodied: During the after party, we have a shot of Frank Pantangelli coaxing Anthony into sipping from a goblet of wine. Pantangelli functions in Part II as the link to Sicily and the old ways of Don Vito back in New York. So here he is, having Anthony drink of the desecrated blood that flows from the family business. The cycle of violence will pull him in, too, we understand—hence Kay’s desperate attempts to pull him away.
Part II undoes the sentimentalism that many find in the first movie. But the sequence of the Lower East Side in 1917 cannot but brim with nostalgia for American Catholics, especially Italian Americans. The wonder lies in how Coppola conjures the entire life-world of turn-of-the-century Little Italy. It has the feel of truth, as if you’ve been transported back into the world your grandparents or great-grandparents lived through and you’ve heard of only in stories. Every detail is authentic, and, as Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) strides up Mulberry Street, the whole scene feels like old sepia-toned photos suddenly animated and lived through. So many millions of viewers can place themselves, their family story, in this Lower East Side milieu: Irish, Italians, Poles. And so many of them Catholics—the Catholic church in America began as an immigrant church of the urban ghetto, the urban poor.
This is the romantic image we descendants carry of our ancestors. But Coppola doesn’t shirk from showing us the underside of our ancestral story: Vito solidifies his and his family’s standing by shooting Don Fanucci during a traditional Italian eucharistic procession and festa. He cooly returns to his family afterward, and Coppola lingers on a tableaux of the Corleones seated on the tenement steps, lovingly poor, tiny American flags hovering in the background. This is the American experience, he seems to say, yes even the American Catholic experience: Professing fervent Christian devotion in public, while in the darkness doing whatever necessary in order to become top dog. Our ancestors don’t look as rosy anymore.
But that’s an image most of us would rather not entertain, for it’s part of the immigrant Catholic experience—of most immigrant experiences—to idolize family progenitors. Coppola’s aware of such white washing, and is so ambitious that he weaves even this national tendency into his narrative. He cuts from the Fannuci sequence back to the late ’50s, where the U.S. Senate is holding anti-Mafia hearings in attempts to bring down the Corleone empire. America was built on the teeming, violent, black market ruthlessness of its inner cities—on the Mafia, Coppola suggests. For the mob just practiced capitalism in the most laissez faire manner possible. But America’s official national self-image refuses to allow black marks on the record, and so it turns on itself in denial. The movie’s Senate hearings are based on the real ones the Kennedy brothers helped lead during that time.
And there we have it: not only a country trying to dissociate from its unseemly roots, but a family doing so at the same time. The Kennedys, those heroes to Irish Catholics, going after the rackets and button men while their own family stood, at least in part, on the leaking barrels of their father’s bootlegged liquor—barrels rolled down the streets of Boston about the same time Vito Corleone walks Manhattan. (Indeed, the Corleone family are alter egos of the Kennedy clan, complete with assassinations.) America got its prosperity this way. American Catholics got their prosperity this way. And hence the Catholic Church in America’s prosperity. Michael luxuriates in his compound on Lake Tahoe, and we see how far immigrant Catholics have come: within a generation or two, those huddled masses have assimilated by the millions into America’s baby-booming suburban middle class.
And so Michael doesn’t go down, in the end. He can’t go down, for he’d bring the entire country with him. America can’t give up its prosperity without giving up its power. No one can. This, maybe most of all, is the lesson of The Godfather saga. Don Vito desired that his family enjoy its prestige while divesting itself of criminal ties. He wanted Michael to hold the monarch’s scepter with snow white gloves. But that’s an impossibility, in the world of these films. Long before, Machiavelli, another Italian, argued that to be a prince of this world requires mercilessness. In the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches that to be a prince after his model means the opposite: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” But he also says it requires becoming lowly, which neither Vito, Michael, nor most of us will do.
Michael’s sister, Connie, (Talia Shire) comes to him at their mother’s wake near the end of Part II on bended knee. “Can’t you forgive Fredo?” she pleads for their brother (John Cazale), after the latter’s dimwitted betrayal of Michael. He feigns forgiveness, for her sake, but withholds it in his heart. It’s at this moment, more than any other, that we recoil from him in revulsion. He commits the most heinous of all his sins—fratricide. Fredo is shot as he intones a “Hail Mary,” just at the moment when he asks the Blessed Mother to pray for us sinners “now and at the our of our death.” Michael refuses him mercy, and so in the end finds none for himself. Coppola gives us one final image of the man, stone-faced and gray, staring into shadow, alone. The wages of sin is death, St. Paul writes, and Michael pays for his family’s long list with a death-in-life.
This was a great essay! Thanks.
The novel occupies an unusual space too. It’s pure pulp, lacking all the gravitas and thematic coherence of the film, but somehow manages to be fantastic in its own right.
It’s part of a long list of pulp fiction that somehow coheres at exactly the right time in the right way and elevates itself beyond its genre. The Godfather was not the first novel about organized crime, not even close - that was a (maybe the most) common form of dimestore novels. But there’s something about The Godather, like Silence of the Lambs or Fifty Shades of Grey, that takes the genre to a more exciting place and a wider audience.