And The Godfather cycle is the greatest Catholic movie of all time

Godfather movies are still a huge industry, it seems. By Godfather movies, I do not mean films about gangsters as such, but more the sort of films that have been spawned by Francis Ford Coppola’s great movie. We’ve just been treated to an example of the genre on Channel 4, entitled The Fear. 

The Fear harked back to The Godfather in several ways. First of all it lifted the plot from The Godfather. Ritchie, our Brighton gangster had two sons, Cal who was rather wild and wanted to go in with the Albanian gangs, and Matty who was altogether more respectable. It was Cal’s indiscretions that opened up a crack in the otherwise solid family façade which the drug-dealing and girl-running Albanians were able to exploit. This is exactly what happens in The Godfather, where Il Turco, the drug-dealer, spots that Sonny Corleone does not agree with his father’s rejection of any deal to do with drug-running. As Don Corleone says to Sunny: “Never tell anyone outside the family what you are thinking.” It is a mistake that costs Sonny his life.

If it pinched the plot device from The Godfather, then The Fear pinched the setting from Brighton Rock. Of course, Brighton is a rather seedy place, and it sure makes a better backdrop that let us say, Basingstoke. Drugs and prostitution are a feature of Brighton life, and Brighton is one of the few places in Britain that owes its existence to the leisure industry. It is the nearest we have to Vegas or Atlantic City.

The Fear was good enough to keep me watching, and the acting and dialogue were both fine, to my mind. (Having catch-up sure helped, as four evening appointments might have been a stretch.) But what is the appeal of this sort of movie? The key to it is of course what Francis Ford Coppola identifies – family and family loyalty. Cal and Matty seemed very fond of their old man, as did their mother, who otherwise didn’t seem very married to him. The crime family with its tightly held code of conduct is perhaps emblematic of the sort of family life that has otherwise disappeared. They were an unholy family in The Fear, but a family nevertheless, and we are all fascinated by families. One of the best things about The Fear was to see how sibling rivalry was contained by the conventions of criminal fraternity. How closely related males get on is interesting. Nowadays a lot of men do not “get on” with their fathers; the fact that we like Godfather movies is some indication, surely, that though we have rejected the traditional family structure (or so we are told) we do not seem to have found anything quite as interesting to replace it.

The Fear lacked one ingredient that Francis Ford Coppola and Graham Greene use in abundance: religion – and not just any old religion, but Catholicism, in particular pre-Vatican Two Catholicism. It is an odd thing to note, but one cannot really think of an Anglican crime family, a Methodist gang, or a bunch of Presbyterian mobsters. Organised crime, in artistic terms at least, is best left to the Catholics, and of course the Jews: Hymen Roth, a relatively minor character in The Godfather saga, makes a huge impact (“He’s been dying of the same heart attack for forty years,” as Michael Corleone remarks.) The same is true of Mo Green, who is supposed to be based on the character of Bugsy Seigel. Roth is supposed to be based on Myer Lansky.  Say what you like about these mobsters, they had a certain panache.

Why the nexus between religion and the mob movie? My feeling is that The Godfather cycle is the greatest Catholic movie of all time. The outward show of the faith makes a superb backdrop for some of the climactic scenes – such as when Don Fanucci is murdered while a religious procession is passing through the streets of Little Italy.  But religion is not just wallpaper for Francis Ford Coppola. It is at the heart of what the movies are about.

First of all there is the question of death, which, in the world of the Corleone family, is never far away. Traditional Catholicism is very much at home with the idea of death. In the novel, by Mario Puzo, Kay Corleone, originally a nice American and Episcopal girl, becomes a convert and a daily Mass goer, along with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law. The Mass is the only rationalisation we have for the world of sin and death. Because prayer and liturgy deal with death in this way, they become associated with it too: hence Fanucci dies on the sidelines of an act of worship, and Freddie Corleone is shot dead while he innocently recites a Hail Mary, hoping that this will help him catch a fish. The words of that prayer “… at the hour of our death” might have provided an alternative title to the film.

But the title we have explains it all. The greatest scene is when Michael stands as godfather to his nephew, and where the Latin phrases are intercut with the various scenes of the Corleone family settling its accounts with its enemies. Michael will of course go on to have his nephew’s father killed too. As godfather, he is, to put it mildly, a deeply ambiguous figure, holding his friends close and his enemies closer. Godfather is a religious role, and a deeply evil one too – a contradiction that meets in the person of Michael and his father Don Vito Corleone, two people in whom good and evil combine. And, this is the hard bit, that makes the film so great, we love them both. The godfathers of Francis Ford Coppola’s world disturb our stupid assumptions that we would ourselves be on the side of the angels. Oh no we would not.

In The Fear, both Matty and Cal told their old man that they loved him, and the words were backed up by manly hugs. But it never quite convinced me. As for the deep love Michael Corleone had for his family, that chilled my blood.