The Catholic Church: an Analysis of Film the Godfather and the American Dream

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Since the early 1930s, Italian-American characters have been the protagonists of Hollywood crime films since the establishment of the gangster film genre. The association of Italians and the Catholic Church has become a long-lasting motif in American popular culture at large and in Hollywood cinema. In the context of these gangster films featuring Italian-American characters, the Catholic Church has represented numerous symbols including rebirth, cleansing, bloodshed, and more. Especially after the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), the Catholic Church also became a synonym and stereotype for the typical ‘criminal gang’ of ‘mafia’.

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Raised as Catholic and growing up following strict Catholic values, Coppola deals with certain forms of Southern Italian religion, which have left their impact not only on the directors themselves but also on the spiritually corrupt characters of his Italian-American films. 

The Godfather character itself is a religious role, which some critics call a profoundly cynical one, a contradiction that meets in the person of Michael (Al Pacino) and Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), the two main protagonists who are constantly conflicted with good and evil and look to the Church for answers. Before watching the film, religion is thrust upon the viewer as the name chosen is The Godfather, which can be defined “a man who serves as a sponsor for a child at baptism” as well as “any male sponsor or guardian”. From these films, we obtain a greater understanding of why the Catholic Church has become an underlying pattern used in Hollywood cinema, and how the audience is affected by these Italian-American families seen in gangster genre films. Films in the gangster genre appeal to audiences through not only their entertainment value with violence and intricate plots, but also their cultural value as influential movies that portray Italian culture through the Catholic Church and other essential aspects.

The Godfather opens in a conversation between Vito (the godfather) and Bonasera in Vito’s office. Bonasera, a proud Italian-American father who usually stays away from the Corleone family, pleads for Vito’s help in seeking vengeance for the recent assault of his daughter. While Bonasera explains the horrific events that occurred, the camera tracks back to show Vito’s perspective as he watches Bonasera begin to cry. Vito listens patiently, showing his genuine sympathy, then prompts his men to bring Bonasera a glass of scotch. In the Catholic Church and Italian-American dining culture, alcoholic beverages such as wines and spirits are considered to be essential. It is said that a meal without a drink is no meal at all. Similarly, Coppola sees scenes without a drink to be incomplete, throughout the film there are more than sixty scenes that feature a character drinking or holding a drink. There are three dominant alcoholic beverages that can be seen in the film–scotch, red wine, and white wine–as each drink symbolizes a different element in the film. Scotch traditionally is associated as a “man’s drink” one that is consumed in business and serious personal situations. Red wine is usually recognized as a family drink, one that is shown at most family get-togethers and intimate conversations. White wine, similar to champagne, is conventionally a celebratory drink shown only at partys. 

Vito’s men quickly give Bonasera his glass of scotch, the camera staying focused on Bonasera’s dimly lit eyes and his frightened voice, his body trembling in fear that the godfather won’t help him. Bonasera takes his first sip from his drink then settles it on his lap, his eyes leave the focus of the lens, and his voice returns to normal. Bonasera then regains his composure, we can infer that the scotch functions to reclaim his masculinity and give him the courage to speak confidently in front Vito. The scotch in this scene can also be seen as a transfer of power to Vito’s guests; further asserting Vito’s power and position he has gained within the community. Coppola stays consistent with Italian culture in this scene, as we can note that scotch can only be observed during meetings between men, and is not observed in any scene involving a woman. In The Godfather film as a whole, no matter the scene in which it appears, scotch signifies a strong power dynamic between the man who offers it and the man who drinks it.

In the Catholic Church especially, red wine is a necessity. Following the discussion between Vito and Bonasera, Connie’s (Vito’s daughter) wedding begins in the backyard of the Corleone house. Like most traditional Catholic weddings, red wine is the choice of drink because it compliments the joyful energy created from luxurious party. A long shot is used to show pitchers of red wine resting as centerpieces of the tables, and the close family relations the Corleone family have with their guests. As Vito comes down from his office, he watches Michael and Kay drink red wine with their meals as they have a private conversation about the roles of the members of the Corleone family. This scene serves to introduce Michael’s role within the Corleone family as he has just returned from war, but still knows the ins and outs of the family business. As they talk, they observe Johnny, a famous singer perform at Connie’s wedding. Out of curiosity, Kay asks Michael about how Johnny’s singing career is connected to the Corleone family, in which Michael explains that Johnny is his father’s godson. He further explains that he is performing because his father helped him gain his fame by freeing him of his previous contract with his old band. Kay asks how they got the money to buy him out, in which Michael replies, “He made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse”. This is the first time Kay gets a glimpse into the true nature of the family business: Michael clarifies that at the time his father and Luca Brasi, a longtime friend of the Corleone family, made the band choose between accepting a lower buyout or their own lives by pointing a gun at them. Michael then sips from his red wine and says, “That’s my family, not me”, creating a second meaning for red wine in the film: one that involved bloodshed in Michael’s return into the family business. Red wine, then, also has a strong connection not only with the Catholic Church but also the Corleone family.

There is only one scene that involves white wine, which is the scene in Las Vegas where Michael proposes to buy out Moe Greene’s casino. In the casino, the only people drinking white wine are the women that stand with Fredo, Michael’s oldest brother who works for Moe. Although Fredo’s intentions are good, Michael prompts Fredo to rid the celebration of its party elements because he is strictly there to talk business. We might infer that the drink of choice during this scene should have been scotch, but Fredo insults Michael’s masculinity by presuming the fun environment is appropriate for his interaction with his brother. As the discussions begins, it becomes clear that Moe doesn’t have a choice but to sell, paralleling Vito’s negotiation with Johnny’s old band. Moe, furious with Michael’s offer and attitude, then storms out of the room. Fredo further insults Michael by questioning his decisions in front of non-family members, as he then warns Michael he can’t talk to a powerful man like Moe Greene with such disrespect. After the rest of Moe’s men leave the office, Michael makes it clear to Fredo that his loyalty still resides with the Corleone family. He also threatens him saying he should never choose a side opposing his orders, pointing out Fredo’s misunderstanding of Michael’s new position as the new Don Corleone. This is the one first instances we see Michael act as the new Don Corleone as he even has to keep his family in line and eliminate any opportunity of the mafia’s business being uncovered.

Perhaps the best portrayal of the Italian culture in the film is the Catholic Church in the film’s famous climactic scene, “The Baptism”. After Vito is shot and older brother Sonny(James Caan) is murdered, Michael finally decides to take revenge and officially become the new Don Corleone. The scene begins with Michael being baptized along with Connie’s four-month-old baby who, Michael will become the Godfather. In the Catholic religion, newborn babies are born with one original sin. Then at the moment of baptism, they become the purest thing on Earth, a human with no sin. The Godfather will be this baby’s guardian into life, it’s eternal protector and mentor. In essence, Michael is being baptized twice: once as he is “baptized” into an inescapable union of crime, and secondly his own baptismal vows. As this is a very important day for Michael, a long shot captures the entire Corleone family as they take their seats inside the church. The church organs play soft diegetic music symbolizing a relaxing and worry-free day for the family, one where they can take pride in devoting themselves to religion while they are within the Catholic Church. Their faith in this scene creates a contrast between the religious environment of the church and the violence we are about to see in the upcoming cuts. Multiple mid-shots then proceed to show the Catholic priests, Michael, and Kay who is holding Connie’s baby as they wait for the service to start. 

The music from the organs is transferred to non-diegetic as we hear the priest begin the baptism, his voice also crossing over to a non-diegetic narration, providing a voice-over for the entire scene. A series of hard cuts is then used to show the different members of the Corleone family preparing for their tasks. In the first cut we see a man preparing his machine gun in a bedroom. Next, a stationary shot follows Peter Clemenza, a long time friend of the Corleone family, carrying a rectangular package towards his car. The camera then cycles back to Michael as he professes his belief in God, Jesus, the Holy Ghost, and the Holy Catholic Church while the camera cuts back to the other men Michael ordered to commit acts contrary to the Catholic Church’s teachings. A tracking shot then proceeds to show a barber shaving a Moe Greene in a parlor, followed by a man getting dressed as a fake policeman, and another man walking down a hallway. The camera once again cycles back to the Church, noting that only silence can be heard from the rest of the family as they watch the priests prepare Connie’s baby to be cleansed of it’s sin, signifying their respect toward the church and their deep faith. Another set of fast-paced cutting is then used to show the barber messaging Moe’s back, Celemenza reaching an elevator with his package, a man walking out of a building through revolving door, two men bursting into a bedroom, and the fake police officer writing a fake parking ticket. While all of this goes on the camera pans back to a close up Michael from the point of view of the audience in the church. In this close up, Michael’s face is in the center of the frame, clearly to illustrate his stern facial expression symbolizing his early indications of him being a merciless leader. During this scene there are no special camera angles, with the exception of a few close-ups. The meaning of the scene is inferred through its’ editing and content, Coppola uses this montage to give the audience a greater insight into Michael.

The violence begins when the priest asks Michael, “Do you renounce Satan,” “And all his works,” “And all his pomps.” Michael replies, “I do” to each question, creating a juxtaposition of his words with the effects of the commands he gave to his men, making his hypocrisy even more evil. Simultaneously, the first enforcer enters Moe’s massage room and shoots him through his iconic glasses, creating the first paradox between death and rebirth. At this moment in the film, the church organs start to uproar as we cut to Clemenza, who whips off the package to uncover a double-barrel shotgun in which he uses to shoot the men exiting the elevator twice. The next enforcer is then shown putting out his cigarette in the hallway and climbing down a flight of stairs, following a rival leader out of the building through revolving doors. As the leader passes into the revolving doors, the enforcer locks the doors and shoots him four times through the glass, splattering his red blood against the glass. Immediately after, the two men with machine guns burst into a house to find one of the leaders laying in bed with a presumed mistress, who is then shot numerous times. The last murder is Barzini, assumed by the Corleone family, is the man behind the assassination of Michael’s brother Sonny, on his way down the stairs to his car from the Foley Square Courthouse. The fake policeman leaving the ticket first shoots Barzini’s bodyguard, then as Barzini tries to escape he is shot twice in the back. At last, the church organs finally come to a halt indicating that the order has been carried out and the baptism is complete. The scene concludes when the priest asks Michael his final question, as the music lowers, he asks, “Michael, will you be baptized?” Michael then replies, “I will”. To the audience, this shows that he relieves himself of his sins, making him feel as if his faith in the Catholic Church has saved himself and his family from death. Coppola dramatically ends the scene with a series of dead bodies, creating a final contrast of faith in religion within the baptism ceremony, and the violent murders that have just occured.

Arguably the most eminent scene to highlight the mix of pleasure and business is in the final scene of the film. After the baptism concludes, a setting is changed back to Vito’s office in the Corleone house. In Michael’s new office, Connie learns from Kay that Michael is responsible for the assassinations and the murder of her husband Carlo. As Connie starts weep, Kay asks Michael if he is really behind all of the killings, he says no–a lie. Kay proceeds to hug Michael, in relief, and he calls for her to get him a drink. Rack-focusing is then used to show Michael’s figure in the background as Kay, standing foreground pours alcohol into two glasses. As the audience, we are blocked from seeing which alcoholic beverage she is about to pour as if she is trying to keep Michael in the dark, just as he has done to her. Suspense is created as whether Kay should choose red wine as the appropriate drink to represent her love for Michael, or scotch, representing Michael’s new position – a power that Kay may have come to accept. The camera switches to Kay’s perspective, where we see some of Michael’s men approaching him to shake his hand, celebrating him as the new Don Corleone, the new godfather. The office door closes as the men enter but Kay once again is shut out, a close-up captures her unhappy face as she has just finished pouring the two drinks. The film then concludes and the drink is unknown, we the viewers are left to interpretation of their future.

Even though The Godfather is plentiful with Catholic themes, including good vs evil, and justice and mercy, it also has a deep Catholic mise en scene and atmosphere. Coppola’s long-lasting motifs involving Italian cultural aspects such as their dining culture and the Catholic Church support that gangster films appeal to different audiences because of their cultural value, not just their entertainment value. The Catholic Church is everywhere in The Godfather: weddings, funerals, and baptisms appear in scene after scene. And, most importantly, sin. The Italian culture is also portrayed by the three main drinks shown throughout the film: white wine, a celebratory drink; red wine, a family drink; and scotch, stereotyped as a “man’s drink”. Those who only focus on the crimes of this gangster film are missing Coppola’s ideas that incite the crimes: the protection of the family, the belief in the betterment of the Italian community, and most of all justice. Although the way the Corleone family upholds their values are illegal and non-traditional, their methods always lie with their Italian culture and the hope for the better. 

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The Catholic Church: An Analysis of Film The Godfather and the American Dream. (2022, Apr 29). Retrieved from