The Godfather’s Catholic symbolism is often overlooked during book’s 50th anniversary

The Godfather, before it was an Academy-Award winning film, was a book. The crime novel, written by Mario Puzo, was released on March 10, 1969. The fictional account of Vito Corleone’s life is chronicled during a 10-year span starting in 1945.

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 Puzo’s book and Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece films, the first of which was released in 1972.

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.

Anniversary journalism is a very big part of what reporters write and what Google search thrives on — so it’s important that The Godfather get the proper treatment. This is something another book/movie from that era, The Exorcist, also suffered the same lack of religion coverage.

Since Corleone (played by Marlon Brando and by Roberto De Nero in the sequel during the flashback scenes) is an immigrant from Sicily, the story’s symbolism is largely Roman Catholic. Like The Exorcist, The Godfather has suffered the same journalistic fate when it comes to lack of a religion angle. Even the book’s name, The Godfather, refers to a male godparent in the Christian tradition tied with baptism and original sin.

This is not to say the Catholic angle has been totally ignored. In 2013, The Georgia Bulletin, the newspaper of the Atlanta diocese, ran an opinion piece by Dr. David King, an associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University.

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.

King goes on to say that 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.

The theology of Don Corleone may be warped, but it has biblical parallels lost on secular observers. A 2013 post from Critics at Large, an independent blog that covers arts and culture, summed up the first movie this way:

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 old, antiquated trappings.

The Corleone family is very much an Italian-American clan. But the religious imagery is profound. I agree with King that the three biggest Catholic symbols that work as a thread throughout the three films.

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.  

While the baptism scene is a rather impressive cinematic juxtaposition of good and evil, sin and redemption, there are others. Two I’d like to see journalists tackle are two timely discussions (here’s your news hook!) during the past few months.

The first, the reverence showed to Don Corleone in having his hand kissed by those seeking his favor. The issue came to the fore recently after a video was released showing Pope Francis frantically and uncomfortably removing his hand as faithful Catholics tried to kiss it. It became both social media fodder and material for late-night comedians looking for something to talk about the same week when the findings from the Mueller Report didn’t quite gel with the jokes they’d been making for nearly two years.

The second regards abortion. In the age of Trump, the renewed fight between the right and left on Roe v. Wade has brought this contentious issue into the spotlight and continues to be a lightening-rod given the recent appointment of federal judges and a new law in New York. In The Godfather II, Michael Corleone’s marriage falls apart after Kaye admits to having had an abortion.

This is where the morality of a Mafia boss, in the business of killing “bad” people, seems to be a defender of “innocent” life. Again, listen up reporters, this is a subject ripe for the tackling.

The Godfather is the type of classic film that most people have seen. It is part of the American cinematic cannon. It is shown repeatedly on cable TV late at night and on weekends.

It’s ubiquitous in its presence — yet its religious meaning is neglected. The key for journalists looking to do an anniversary story on the book to look at the deeper religious meaning buried among all the omerta (Italian for code of silence) and dead bodies.     

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