Film files: How ‘The Godfather’ baptized American cinema

A moderator and three speakers talk on stage in front of a screen that reads "The Godfather 50 Years".
“The Godfather” was first released in 1972 and will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022. (Photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

The cries of an infant echo through a church bathed in warm light and in the faint chords of an organ. A Catholic priest begins to give the blessing in Latin, setting the scene of a baptism. He turns to Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), asking him:

“Michael, do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of Heaven and earth?”

“I do.” 

“Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord?”

“I do.” 

“Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic Church?”

“I do.” 

The sounds of the organ and the priest’s blessing linger in the background as the scene cuts to a man loading his revolver. When the organ music crescendos, the killings begin.

The heavy irony of this scene is clear. While Michael observes and participates in a Catholic baptism, praising God and renouncing “Satan and all his works,” his hitmen eliminate the other heads of the New York mafia families on his order. 

As his godchild is baptized into the Catholic faith with holy water, Michael is baptized as godfather of the Corleone family with blood. 

This iconic scene unveils the moral hypocrisy that dominates Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” Michael Corleone is a cold-blooded murderer and crime boss, but he is also a man who is deeply devoted to his wife, his family and his faith. The contrast between his gentleness and sentimentality and the viciousness of his crimes has fascinated viewers since the film’s release 50 years ago and still marks its lasting legacy.

Ahead of its 50th anniversary, “The Godfather” is being restored under the supervision of its original director, Francis Ford Coppola, and re-released in limited theaters. 

The film is legendary, winning best picture at the 45th Academy Awards and inspiring a string of other nominations and wins, including Marlon Brando, who enlisted Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American woman, to decline the Best Actor award on his behalf to protest “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” 

“The Godfather” is famous for its brutal violence, first-rate editing and innovative cinematography. It also brought the gangster genre into the mainstream, inspiring other gangster films and shows like “Goodfellas,” “The Sopranos” and “Donnie Brasco.” David Chase (the creator of “The Sopranos”) has often said that his television series about Tony Soprano, a mobster in therapy, wouldn’t exist without Coppola’s film. Even real-life Italian mobsters embraced it.

The film, however, has been bashed for its allegedly criminalized portrayal of Italian-Americans. While “Caesar” (1930) and “Scarface” (1932), both inspired by the life of Al Capone, were the first films to expressly introduce the notion of the Italian as a gangster, critics have slammed “The Godfather” for its role in promoting the ethnic stereotype that all Italians are criminals and linked to the mob. Even before filming began, “The Godfather” faced backlash from the Italian American Civil Rights League, led by alleged mobster Joe Colombo, who protested the project for its alleged targeting of Italian Americans by the feds.

While “The Godfather” was not the first film to depict Italians and Italian culture, it was one of the first films to depict them as more than simply stereotypes or caricatures. It was also one of the first films made about Italians by Italians. 

Coppola does show stereotypes of gangsters in pressed suits and pinky rings committing vicious acts of violence. But he also displays the vulnerable side of men like Michael Corleone: a loyal brother, decorated war veteran and college graduate. 

No amount of gentleness, sentimentality or love of family can justify the actions of men like Michael. That was not Coppola’s intent. If anything, it was to show how these men were capable of violence and betrayal as well as loyalty and tenderness, all in search of the dignity and power ascribed to the American Dream. 

The Corleone family embodies the great ambition of the poorest Italian American immigrants of the early and mid-20th century: to become American. The film’s very first line — “I believe in America” — sets up a tale that tells of the madness, glory and failure of the American Dream. The line is spoken by Amerigo Bonasera, a Sicilian man who tells an immigrant’s tale of working hard, trying to stay out of trouble and build a life for his children. However, the American justice system has failed him, and he must seek help from Vito Corleone, a man whose power usurps all legal authority.

Coppola’s cynical look at the American Dream was introduced at a time when the nation was mired in the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, and it inspired the New Hollywood films of the 1970s that looked more roughly at America’s social ills.

None of this is to say that “The Godfather” is innocent of all the criticism it has faced. One could still argue that it is guilty of glorifying mob violence on some level. However, its impact on Hollywood and American culture in general is undeniable. Fifty years later, in spite of the criticism it has faced, the film still deserves its title as the baptism of American cinema. 

Hannah Eliot SC ’24 is from San Francisco, California. She likes to surf and is trying to learn to play the guitar.

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