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‘The desire to confess is overwhelming’: The theology of Mafia movies

Michael Corleone encounters Cardinal Lamberto in Godfather III

It was definitely not your godfather’s Oscars. The grand finale of Mafia films, Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half hour epic, The Irishman, garnered 10 Oscar nominations, including for best picture and best director. Yet The Irishman won no awards. The Mafia genre – once ground-breaking in the early 1970s – has now concluded.

Oscar didn’t reward The Irishman.

The nominations were a nod of respect for a proud tradition of Mafia films, and its leading lights – Scorsese, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci. The whole gang got together for one last hit.

While The Irishman did not win any awards, there was as astonishing note of respect. Scorsese got a standing ovation, after losing the award for best director this time. He had won best director in 2007 for The Departed, a film about the Irish mob in Boston.

So it is worth noting how the grand 50-year saga of Mafia films ended. It ended the only way it could have ended, with the eponymous lead of The Irishman, Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro, going to Confession.

Like all good Mafia films, The Irishman notes the Catholic faith of its characters, observed formally and sacrilegiously, as in the famous baptism scene in The Godfather. So The Irishman must have its moments in church, when Sheeran’s children are baptised and when, after the hit on Hoffa, all the characters are at a wedding. The sacraments are part of a mob life.

Thus master directors have to prepare their characters for death, which means confession. A wily and aging mafioso might avoid getting whacked to die tending his tomato plants, but no one can avoid the judgment of God.

So in The Godfather III, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) goes to Confession with Cardinal Lamberto (a fictional figure modelled on the future John Paul I). The kindly cardinal invites Corleone to make his Confession. He initially demurs.

“It’s been 30 years. I would take up too much of your time,” Corleone says. “I am beyond redemption.”

“Sometimes the desire to confess is overwhelming, and we must seize the moment,” responds Cardinal Lamberto.

“What is the point of confessing if I don’t repent?” ask Corleone.

“What have you to lose?” the cardinal responds. Corleone confesses, breaking down as he admits that he ordered the hit on Fredo, his brother. “I killed my mother’s son.”

“Yours sins are terrible, and it is just that you suffer,” Lamberto concludes before saying the prayer of absolution. “Your life can be redeemed, but I know that you don’t believe that. You will not change.”

One of the most powerful scenes in The Godfather III, it explores whether contrition can be complete without a firm purpose of amendment, and whether such purpose is possible for the corrupted soul. Is redemption possible for even the hardened mafioso?

Scorsese ends The Irishman in a nursing home, with a decrepit Sheeran being helped to remember the Hail Mary by a young priest, who attempts to elicit some remorse in the old hitman, asking him if he feels anything for all that he done.

“I don’t feel anything,” Sheeran replies. “Water under the dam.”

“We can be sorry even when we don’t feel sorry,” the priest replies. “To make a decision of the will… ‘God, I am sorry. God, forgive me.’ And that… that’s a decision of the will.”

It seems to open a possibility for Sheeran, that even with a calloused heart which doesn’t care it is possible to decide to ask for forgiveness. To will it.

The priest leads Sheeran in a prayer, the latter repeating after the former.

“God, we come before you,” they begin. “Sinful and sorrowful. We know you are all-good and all-merciful. We ask you to help us see ourselves as you see us.”

That’s a good working definition of Confession. We attempt to see ourselves as God sees us, though usually we tend to emphasise the sin and overlook the shame, guilt, repentance and remorse.

Scorsese doesn’t show us Sheeran’s Confession. We only hear the absolution of the priest. And then they say together: “Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His mercy endures forever.”

The genius of the Mafia genre is that, amid brutal criminality, it always pointed toward something more. That something might be simply be honour among thieves, or just a loyalty to one’s own. Sometimes it meant a love of family, even a sort of patriotism. Eventually though, that something more has to get around to God. The great Mafia films do not avoid the question of God. Which means, for a mafioso, the question of confession.

Is the mafioso beyond redemption? From a human point of view, yes. But we try to see as God sees, whose mercy endures forever.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca