Some years ago two priests sat in my house.  One saw there a collection of movies that included all three of ‘The Godfather’ movies.  He laughed and said, ‘I’ve never known an Anglican priest who didn’t own the whole “Godfather” series.’ 

The first of the series opens with the following words, spoken over a blank, black screen:  ‘I believe in America.’  The speaker is a relatively minor character named Amerigo Bonasera – ‘America Good-Night’.  That confessor of the American creed is also an undertaker, who deals with death.  The undertaker’s honest job is a corporal work of mercy, the decent burial of the dead.  But the undertaker also works to disguise the reality of death:  later in the movie Bonasera is explicitly called upon to cover up the disfiguring effects of the assassination of Santino (‘Sonny’) Corleone.  Santino’s father does not want his wife to see the reality of her son’s brutal murder, a bitter fruit of the family business.  Later the godfather describes Santino as a ‘bad don’ – a bad lord.  It seems Sonny’s badness in his father’s eyes was not his violence but his often-noted tendency to let passion and anger cloud calculation and prudence.  Sonny’s passionate anger prevents him from understanding what the movie repeatedly has its mafiosi say:  ‘It’s all just business.’  Even the betrayals and murders – perhaps especially the betrayals and murders – are just business.  The business of America is business, including that business. 

In the opening scene of the series Bonasera comes to the godfather, Vito Corleone, to seek justice.  Bonasera’s family has suffered a miscarriage of American justice, because a court has released with a slap on the wrist a young man who attacked and maimed Bonasera’s only child and daughter.  America has failed Amerigo in a vital matter, and he seeks redress outside the law from a  ‘godfather’.  The viewer assumes that redress is successfully given, because of Bonasera’s two later appearances in the film:  first when he is called upon to disguise Santino’s wounds and secondly when he appears standing silently at Vito’s own grave and funeral.

All three of the Godfather movies open with a sacrament or ecclesial event.  Godfather I opens at the 1945 wedding celebration of Connie, Vito’s only daughter.  Godfather II opens with the first holy communion of Anthony, the grandson of Vito, the first godfather, and the son of Michael Corleone, Vito’s successor as godfather.  Godfather III opens with Michael receiving a papal honor in a ceremonious rite.  The series is about America, as the opening words of Godfather I assert. But the series also is about family – the Corleone family – and faith.  The actual beliefs of the main characters are hidden from the viewer, except insofar as they are revealed in action, until well into the third movie.  Yet the three films unfold within a framework of weddings, funerals, baptisms, and other sacred events.  Faith, family, and America:  the greatest of mob movies seem centered on the great themes of what was once called wholesome family entertainment.  Yet the movies are awash in very unwholesome murders, lies, betrayals, corruptions, fratricide, and unrepentant deaths. 

Signor Bonasera, the suppliant undertaker, is the initial and presiding character.  His faith in America, is a nighttime creed:  beginning with his plea for murderous justice of a sort, progressing to acquiescence in disguising the effects of mob life, and concluding with silence as he presides over the burial of his new, adopted godfather and lord.  Godfather I opens with America Good-Night asking silently that a murder be done by Vito.[i]  Godfather I closes with Michael lying to his wife about his own murder of his own brother-in-law.  Death and a lie frame the movie that in another way is framed by a wedding and a baptism.  The initial wedding of the movie is undone by the final murder of the first movie.  The effects of the baptism remain an open question at its end.

At various key points in the movies the viewer is shown other sacred events.  The chronologically first event in the history that the movies present is a funeral, in Sicily, of the father of Vito Corleone ( Andolini), who was murdered by a mob boss for failing to show due respect and submission.  The quintessential story of the American creed begins with a foreign murder and funeral.  In fact, again in chronological terms, the whole series is framed by two deaths by assassination in Sicily: that of Vito’s father and that by mistake of Vito’s granddaughter.

In the middle of Godfather I is another wedding, as Michael, now on the run from two murders he committed in New York, hides out in Sicily.  In the town of Corleone, Michael weds the lovely Apollonia, who is soon blown to smithereens by people seeking to encompass Michael’s death.  Similarly, on the night of young Anthony’s first holy communion in Godfather II there is an assassination attempt in Nevada against Michael and his family.   The sacraments of life in these movies – baptisms and weddings and first communion – seem bound together with murders and deaths.  

The final phase of Godfather I begins with another funeral, that of Vito.  But that death and funeral begin a process that is only completed in the context of the baptism, of Connie’s son, Michael, for whom Michael Corleone, the child’s uncle, has agreed to stand as godfather.  The figurative godfather, Vito, has a funeral and is replaced by the literal, and also now figurative, godfather, Michael.  The baptism, at which Michael becomes the literal godfather to the baby Michael, is the context in which all the Corleone’s family’s scores are settled.  As the baptism unfolds and the innocent’s not-so-innocent godfather renounces Satan, his works, and pomps, the renunciations are punctuated by scenes of assassination.  We are not shown the resulting funerals, but we may assume that the process begun by Vito’s funeral and extended into young Michael’s baptism concludes elsewhere with other American Good-Nights. 

In one of the flashbacks of Godfather II a key assassination, which begins the young Vito’s rise to mob power, occurs in the context of a parochial patronal festa in Little Italy, with processions of the saint and of the Blessed Sacrament.  As the people of faith genuflect before the Sacrament and publicly rejoice, Vito stealthily murders the reigning local boss. 

Godfather III, in addition to the initial rite of bestowal of Michael’s papal honor, includes a significant but imperfect sacrament:  Michael, faced with a diabetic attack and a holy cardinal offering to hear his confession, begins to confess but is unable to proceed to a good and honest confession with intention to amend.[ii] 

Also in Godfather III, in one of the final events of the series, there is a fictional sacred event, the Resurrection scene from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana.  But that musical, dramatic scene of hope, in which Michael’s son, Anthony, sings, gives way to another assassination:  one in which Michael, the intended victim, escapes death.  The man who has committed every crime escapes assassination for the moment, but his daughter dies, as it were, as his substitute.  We have just seen the Easter story, which concerns another substitutionary sacrifice.  Then we see the godfather, who has grasped the world – despite his baptismal renunciations – lose his daughter for his sins.  That scene outside the Palermo opera house has been much derided as ‘the worst death scene in cinema history’.[iii]  Nonetheless, the death completes the arc of the series.  In Godfather II, Michael tells his wife that he will ‘never’ let her take his children from him:  which she seeks to do to enable them to escape the toils of the ancient Sicilian vendetta culture.  Michael’s partial refusal to permit that escape ends with his daughter a victim in Sicily to that culture.  The undertaker will have more work to do.

Bonasera has three scenes, all in Godfather I.  In the first of these three scenes Bonasera has a significant speaking part.  In the second he utters only a few words.  In the third he is silent at (and as) a grave.  But the undertaker is the presiding genius over the whole series. 

Faith, family, business, America.  The Godfather series is the great American fiction, based – as are many of the best movies – on a second-rate novel.  The series leaves a few open questions.  There are indeed still a few open questions for Americans.  The chief of these open questions, I think, is this:  what will become of Anthony?  Anthony rejected his father’s wishes for himself and sings forth the Easter story.  If Sicily is the land of Corleone, where Vito and his tribe learned their deadly business, it also is the land of Gothic cathedrals and Catholic faith.  Will Anthony, as one may hope, avoid America’s Good-Night?  Will Anthony, Michael’s theoretical heir, do a better job than his father in living out his baptismal renunciations? 


[i] ‘Vito’, ‘Life’, is a giver of death.  His oldest son’s nickname is, appropriately, ‘Sonny’, for he is the son of his death-dealing father.  Sonny’s baptismal name is ‘Santino’, ‘the Little Saint’.  America, in the form of an Ellis Island official, has taken from these men their original surname, Andolini, and given them a new one, Corleone (‘Lion-heart’).  Vito and Santino do have the cardinal virtue of courage.  They are bold and daring.  Baptism bestows a name, but in these cases the effects of the baptisms of Vito and Santino seem effaced by their subsequent sins.  The Christian names of these men become, as it were, inoperative.  Their new surname, however, given by America, remains theirs until they come under the ministrations of Signor Bonasera.

[ii] There is another imperfect, or rather perverted, rite in the movies.  In Godfather II Fredo takes a group to see a kind of sex show in Havana.  While the show seems sanitized in some ways for the tourists, it also is a kind of descent into hell and an enactment of some of the pagan rites of Santeria.  Michael, who learns then of Fredo’s treason, also seems detached from the show.  In fact, Michael regularly manifests several natural virtues.  Michael stands aloof from the Havana sex show, if not viewing it with positive distaste.  Michael also abstains from alcohol, is not shown as sexually incontinent, was a hero in World War II, is often very patient, and usually avoids emotional outbursts.  But natural virtues without charity are detached from their proper and ultimate end and so lose the form of virtue.

[iii] Another truly absurd scene in Godfather III has a corrupt American bishop wandering about Vatican staircases in cope and miter at night.  No. 

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