Michael Franzese’s story, growing up in the Columbo crime family and becoming a ‘made man,’ a kingpin for the Costra Nostra in New York City, takes a turn because of the influence of Christianity. Now, his story is told through his own narrative, real-life footage, reenactment, interpretive dance, Passion play, and some imaginative animated scenes, in theaters today. As the tagline goes, it’s a movement from “the Godfather” to “God the father.”
The film is fascinating- and I’m no documentary fan. But the way that Franzese tells his own story, frankly and openly, mixed with the scenes of what might happen (animated) and what did happen (reenactments), works well. It’s not too surprising given that Franzese was once a film producer himself, or that he’s practiced telling and retelling his story as a traveling motivational speaker. What is fundamentally important is to note that it’s his relationship with Camille Garcia, a dancer and the daughter of an evangelical Christian mother, who spurred the ‘Road to Emmaus’-like conversion for this mafia don. It’s like the love St. Augustine references in his mother, the daily, constant prayer and casual influence, rather than the sudden moment.
Watching the film, I could appreciate the early scene from Halloween night in the 1970s when Franzese becomes a member of the Costra Nostra officially, where he’s told that he is being ‘born again,’ and that nothing in his life matters more than his commitment to ‘the Life.’ The decision is bound in blood, and, to the mafia, forever bonding. Now, fast forward to his actual conversion, and we recognize the same language in the commitment that believers make to Jesus and the church. Born again? Check. Commitment above all others? Check. Bound by (Jesus’) blood? Check. Maybe it’s because he understood the conditions because he’d lived them before, or maybe because of the fear he felt when considering how the Mob would affect his family, but the switch to Christianity seems like a no-brainer as set up by the film.
It’s also interesting, in reflecting on the depictions of Franzese and others in Costra Nostra, how the Mob has Christianity tied into its “flow” like the Masons or other groups, but is not necessarily Christian. It’s a testimony to the way that the church can be adopted/twisted/used, from Scripture to the way the faith group works itself, to fulfill human desires and needs, rather than what God wants from it. This in itself is a warning to all of us, regardless of what we’re wrestling with, that we not twist Scripture, prayer, church (or more widely, even religion) into what we want, and instead keep the main thing the main thing.
I’m a fan of the way that the film blended all of the aspects and styles (the animated, Grand Theft Auto takes might be my favorite, next to hearing from Franzese himself), because it’s different and engaging. It’s not necessarily what you’re expecting, just like Franzese never thought he’d be a guy who could be forgiven or would help others to be forgiven themselves. But in the end, it’s a great story, and a film that proves to be both intellectually intriguing and emotionally movie. [The MPAA has ruled that the passion scenes, the torture and crucifixion of Christ, were too violent for children under 17. Ironic much? Absolutely.]
It’s testimony to the power of God moving in our world, to grace that can forgive the darkest sins and draw us closer into the truest family, the family of God.