Sicilian Godfathers in Fact and Film

Popes and Godfathers

by Gwydion M. Williams

The Godfather Part III has been disliked by the critics, perhaps because it stresses a theme that was a fairly minor one in the two previous films – the lack of any clear line between gangsterism and the ‘respectable’ world of business, politics and the church hierarchy. Indeed, ‘Godfather’ Michael Corleone runs into trouble when he tries to move completely into ‘respectable’ business and finds that the people he is dealing with are worse crooks than he is.

The fictional situation intentionally copies the ‘Vatican Bank’ scandal, which has not yet been fully cleared up, and may very well never be resolved while the Vatican Archives remain closed.

The Vatican, in its history, has generally been much more a continuation of the Roman Empire than a continuation of the original gatherings of Greek-speaking and Aramaic-speaking members of the powerless underclass in the Roman world. The original Christians had no notion of politics, because they had no power and because they were in any case expecting the world to end quite soon. When the Latin-speaking half of the Roman Empire vanished, the Church was left behind as the most substantial remnant of that world, which continued a modified form of its politics. This continued up to, and beyond, the organisation of the rest of Europe into either nation-states or strong centralised Empires. And the poor Italians had their national development spoiled by the presence and interference of the Papacy. When an Italian state was finally created, there was a long cold war between it and the Papacy. This conflict was finally resolved by Mussolini, who established Church-State relationships in Italy on a basis that continues down to the present day.

Sicily was a particular victim of Papal policies. There was a time when it was the most advanced and cultured part of Italy. It was blighted by a parasitic aristocracy which the Papacy backed. The original Mafia existed as a sort of rudimentary middle class between the aristocracy and the exploited peasantry. Mussolini tried to get rid of them as obstacles to progress. The United States helped them recover and rise to unprecedented power, by making use of them, as a matter of short-term convenience, during the invasion of Sicily and Southern Italy in World War Two. The United States also helped perpetuate the unbroken run of Christian Democratic power in Italy since then, using all of its power to keep the Communist Party of Italy out of any share in government,

The Mafia were a minor part of this power-structure, dependent on political friends. Some parts of the Mafia seem to have got too greedy and ambitious, as well as getting very deeply involved in the destructive trade of drug-trafficking. Possibly they supposed themselves to be the sort of autonomous force that most gangster films portray them as – the Godfather films being an exception by insisting on the ties between the underworld and the rich and powerful. Ironically, this group were called the Corleonasi, very similar to the fictional Corleones of the Godfather films. Their behaviour was very different – the Corleonasi took on the Italian state, and have naturally been hammered. But it is very probable that Italian politicians still have many links with parts of the Mafia whose ambitions are modest and acceptable.

[The Corleonasi were to lose some of their leaders to prison, but remain strong.

[Italy’s Christian Democrats suffered damage from 1992 and dissolved in 1994.  But Italian politics actually got worse with them removed.]


This article is from Newsnotes for May 1991.  It appeared in Issue 23 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at