One of my favorite movies ever is classic mafia film, The Godfather… and I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. Why do I love The Godfather? Oh, let me count the ways and paraphrase the sentiments of the many critics who came before me. Perhaps it’s because the film, which covers a range of topics from dysfunctional family relationship to mob warfare, has such a succinct plot, such an incredible cast of characters and has so many layers of meaning, symbolism and characterization.
Most people, especially most movie people, have seen The Godfather, so a summary of Francis Ford Coppola’s would be superfluous. But, I’ll briefly set up the scene, whose setting I’ll delve into. Michael, the youngest son of the mafia Don Corleone, despite his wishes to stay out of the family business, becomes deeply involved in the inner workings of the Corleone family when the Don is shot. Fast-forward a few hours, and the movie begins to conclude. The Don has died- ironically peacefully- and Michael has assumed power. His sister, Connie, gives birth to a son, to whom Michael will stand as godfather. So, the Corleone family gathers in church for the christening and one of the greatest scenes in movie history takes place.
Michael (Al Pacino) literally and symbolically assumes the role of his father, the late Don (Marlon Brando). As he stands as his nephew's godfather (Connie's son), the murders of his family's enemies take place and one of the greatest movies ever made nears its conclusion. Michael choses to kill off all the family’s enemies in one foul swoop, when he appears to be in his most innocent moment- standing in a church- apparently oblivious to the terrible deeds going on outside. But the audience- and Michael- know better.
The most obvious aspect of this scene is the contrast in it. Michael, as he supposedly renounces Satan in the Baptismal vows of the Roman Catholic Church, orders actions that are undeniably mortally sinful. In one scene, he renounces evil; in the next an evil murder, ordered by him, is gruesomely depicted. Coppola deserves all his props for this scene, which I consider one of the finest, if not the greatest, scenes in film history.
But, the scene has nuances as well, nuances stressed by the setting. (Of note, the exterior of the Church is actually different from the interior of the filmed church). Regardless, what the audience views is the Gothic-like interior of Saint Patrick's Old Cathedral in New York City. In a place of worship of an ancient religion of the old world, Michael simultaneously assumes the seemingly ancient authority of a mafia don- a role belonging in the past where one man controls the fate of so many. A church also obviously has divine associations. Inside, Michael considers himself god-like: in charge of the fates of many. In fact, Michael has achieved state of sin so great it defiles the beauty of the hall inside. As the film portrays a mafia don as an almost a character of Biblical Patriarch quality- it seems appropriate that a grand religious setting is used.
It could be argued taht the setting is perhaps the most important aspect of the scene. Without the sacred and therefore sinless connotations that the church implies, the scene loses some of its key contrast. In a less divine location, uttering words of less holiness, Michael appears less wicked. Coppola is stressing the opposite. Michael appears more evil because of his environment and thus the setting, and nuances achieved by it, are essential.
The magnificent interior of the church also adds scope to the story that is epic in proportion. Finished in 1815, the cathedral was designed by noted American architect Joseph Francois Mangin. The cathedral has self-proclaimed "restrained simplicity" with its massive size and ornate and beautiful altar. In 1879, the Cathedral ceased to be the seat of the bishop of New York when the current St. Patrick's cathedral was built. In short, it is a completely appropriate location for a film that portrays a darker side of old New York and the mobs who ruled it.