I’m sure many, many people far more qualified and observant than I have commented on the brilliant biblical and theological themes in the 1972 Hollywood classic The Godfather. However for my own benefit (I think better on paper) and for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t seen the movie or considered it in this light, a few pregnant thoughts after just watching it this week.
The movie opens with a wedding and about two-thirds of the way through the movie there is another wedding. A significant amount of screen time is spent on the wedding celebrations. No time is given to the actual vows/church scene which is implied throughout, but the emphasis is on the celebration. Dancing, drinking, eating, pictures, hugs and kisses. These weddings are gigantic family events, and that’s what first strikes you: the Godfather, Don Corleone, is a family man. The movie opens interweaving the wedding of the Godfather’s daughter with a man who has approached the Godfather with a request for justice. The Godfather’s office is where his closest associates gather, the council chambers of a king, and where some other few are chosen and permitted an audience. The man who is granted an audience has a daughter who has been dishonored and beat up by some hoodlums, and the justice system has failed to do justice. The Godfather scorns money to do the job, scorns any kind of impersonal system that would manipulate him into helping. What he wants is for the man to kiss him and call him “Godfather”. He wants to be approached as the head of a family, not a mob-boss, not a politician. He’s wants family loyalty. This is of course an extraordinary picture of the covenant and salvation. Christ came to the world to be the head of a new family in the midst of a corrupt world full of hypocrisy and miscarrying justice. He promises justice, but the just ones, the righteous ones are those that trust in Him and submit themselves to His family in faith, in loyalty.
There are a number of father-son themes throughout the movie as well. The central question being, who will be the next Godfather? At the beginning of the story Michael appears to be and says quite plainly that he is not like his father and not like his family. He’s different, he tells his girl friend. This is in contrast to his father’s refusal to have a family picture taken without Michael: he’s considered to be part of the family. “Sonny”, the brash son, is probably looked to as the most obvious successor to the “throne”. But he’s not a family man. He understands justice and loyalty only superficially. He’s an adulterer, and therefore he’s a hypocrite and reveals a fundamental disloyalty. Tom, the adopted son and lawyer, is loyal and level headed, but he is most needed as a trusted lawyer, and therefore to keep that position he cannot be successor to his father. The oldest son is weak. He cannot defend his father from assassins and cannot stand up to the enemies of the family.
It is the attempted murder of the Godfather that drives Michael back to the family. The weakness and vulnerability of his father convinces him of his need. The climactic turning point of course is when Michael carries out the justice for his father’s shooting, taking out both the drug lord and the chief of police who are in it together. Michael immediately goes into exile, “dying” so that his father might have justice. While he is gone, the Godfather recovers, but then Sonny is murdered. The death of the Godfather’s son drives him to convene a meeting with the other “heads of the families” to put an end to the bloodshed. Peace is made in the death of the beloved son. And peace is promised by Don Corleone. During Michael’s exile/death, he marries an Italian woman. This is proof that Michael is not only a man of justice but also a family man. His wife is killed by a bomb meant for both of them, but the marriage has occurred. Michael is a member of the family. In the death of the son of the Godfather peace is secured. In the death of the son of the Godfather, he takes a bride and creates a new family. In the death of the son of the Godfather, the bride also dies, taking up her cross and following the son.
The final scenes are the return of Michael from exile/death and the explicit succession of Michael to the head of the family. This succession reminded me very strongly of the transition from David to Solomon at the beginning of 1 Kings. Just as David had told Solomon that it would be necessary for him to do some “house cleaning” in order to secure the throne, so too, the Godfather gives Michael instructions for how/who to take out when he is gone. The second to last scene is an extended shot of Michael becoming the Godfather of his nephew. But the scene is also intended to be Michael’s official coronation to the office of family head. While the baptism is occurring in the cathedral, and Michael is taking his vows, a string of executions is occurring all through the city. The family heads and traitors who would compromise the new Godfather’s position are being taken down one by one. The last of these is Michael’s own brother-in-law whose wedding we saw at the beginning of the movie. It is the son of this brother-in-law whom Michael is now taking as godson. Michael becomes the son’s godfather and immediately following the service, after confronting his brother-in-law for being involved in Sonny’s death and other disloyalties, has him strangled like the Judas he has become. Michael is now the loyal father and head, and the traitors have all been put down. So too, when David dies and Solomon accedes to the throne, a number of executions are carried out to secure his rule and to bring justice to the land.
From another angle, the baptism and Michael’s vows to become Godfather ARE the enacting of justice. This is precisely one of the meanings of justification in Scripture. It is not only the declaration of a right standing (it is most certainly that), but it is also the enacting of justice on behalf of the righteous one, a public PROOVING of the right standing. Michael has been the loyal son. He “died” and has returned, and as the Just One, as the true Godfather, all of his enemies are being scattered and put down. The executions and destruction of the enemies of the family are proofs that Michael is the Godfather, proof that he and his father are one. And the final scene is blatantly this. He takes responsibility for the pain of his sister who he has made a widow and lies to his own wife, protecting her from the weight of that knowledge. The movie closes with his wife looking into his office, watching as his men gather around him. One calls him Godfather and kisses his hand and another walks to the door and slowly swings it closed. The transfer is complete. Michael is the Godfather. Michael is Don Corleone.
Certainly this is not an exhaustive analysis, but nevertheless a few observations that seemed to present so many of the central themes of the gospel: the centrality of the family of God, the death and resurrection of the Son, the identification of the Son with the Father, the justification and vindication of the Son and therefore the justification of His family. Other more minor allusions included the communion of the family at weddings and meals and the kiss of peace. There were several ironic statements about “business” versus “personal” revenge. The irony was of course that it was ALL personal. Dealing with the Godfather meant dealing with a family. It reminded me of some of the recent conversations surrounding the covenant of works. Of course Adam was required to be completely obedient to the covenant that God established in the garden, but sometimes this covenant gets spun as though it were a stale, arid contract between businessmen rather than a personal covenantal relationship between a father and a son. Of course there were very explicit stipulations of loyalty, but there was also love and grace throughout. In other words, Adam’s sin was not merely a “business” offense. It was high treason and betrayal of the family code. This does not diminish the work of Jesus in any way, and if anything, it actually heightens His accomplishment. Not only did Jesus come and live in perfect obedience as a creature, a man before the Creator God, fulfilling the covenant established with Adam to the letter, he also came to live that family code perfectly as a Son and to live with all loyalty, satisfying all the dishonor, all the wrath due our treason in Adam. And He most certainly has.