This scene is complex because it shows the equal strength of two opposing codes. On the one hand, the family is committed to Catholicism, and this is shown in the grand pageantry of the baptism of Connie and Carlo’s son. On the other hand, simultaneously (and shown through alternating editing) the family is showing its strength by murdering five powerful rival mafia figures. While there are contrasts between the Catholic faith and mafia life, Coppola seems to be showing similarities, too.
At the end of the previous scene, Michael tells Tom that he is going to “be godfather to Connie’s baby. And then I’ll meet with Don Barzini and Tattaglia… all the heads of the five families.” It seems possible that Michael is using euphemism here, as he proceeds to execute the other Dons.
The baptism begins with a wide establishing shot, showing the vastness of the cathedral in which the baby is being baptised. The scene is full of Catholic symbols and insignia, notably a tall statue of the Virgin Mary (symbolising family love, but also suffering). The diegetic sound blurs with the non-diegetic as we hear a pipe-organ being played as the priest conducts the ceremony. The child cries sporadically through the scene, suggesting a schism in the morality of the scene – the violence of the mafia should not coexist with the Catholic faith.
The priest conducts the ceremony in Latin, reflecting the Roman/Italian origins of the faith, which are also the origins of the family. In this setting, Michael appears to be a worthy, almost holy, character. He is presenting his public persona. While the priests recites the ritual, the scene cuts first to an assassin assembling a gun by an open window (which would echo in the American consciousness only nine years after the assassination of JFK, a symbol of hope cut down by dark forces), then to a second assassin preparing to drive to his target, carrying a suspiciously large cardboard box.
When the editors cut back, the child is being blessed as Michael watches on. His face shows no emotion, and it is hard to tell if he is in reverence of the Catholic ceremony he is taking part in, or if his mind is on the murders he has ordered.
The scene then cuts to one of the other hit men being prepared for a shave in a barber’s shop. This reveals the ambivalent, uncaring attitude the men have towards the act of killing – to them it is simply a job. We next see another assassin unpacking a coat. Cutting back to the baptism, the child is now blessed with holy water. It seems to the audience that this is discordance – the sacred mixing with the profane.
The next cut is to a close-up on a paper bag being emptied onto a bed. From it falls a pistol, bullets and a police badge. This small mise-en-scene reveals clearly how one of the murders will be carried out – by a man posing as a policeman. This is a clear example of foreshadowing. The next cut takes the audience to the second assassin with the cardboard box, ascending a spiral staircase.
The baptism continues in full regalia, and Michael shows no sign of emotion. He is asked directly, “Michael, do you believe in God almighty, the creator of heaven and earth?” The music pauses briefly as he answers “I do.” This is grotesque hypocrisy. I claims to have faith in God, but is breaking the most serious of the Ten Commandments. This reveals the capacity of those in the Family to balance two complete codes of behaviour and keep them separate. Conflict arises in the Family only when codes of behaviour clash with one another. The code of the family most often clashes with the accepted codes of behaviour in American law. In this setting, Michael is able to say he believes in God because it does not at that moment clash with his other code.
He is next asked, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord?” Again, he replies, “I do.” As he answers, we see Barzini arriving for the pre-arranged meeting. This is an interesting juxtaposition of image and audio. Michael proclaims his Christianity while we see his murder victim walking to his death.
Michael is then asked, “Do you believe in the Holy Ghost and the Holy Catholic Church?” As he gain answers “I do”, the editors cut to the fake police officer moving on an awkward driver who would otherwise witness the murder. The cut next goes to the assassin with the cardboard box, still climbing stairs, indicating that the assassination will be carried out from a great height. This is reinforced by the assassin’s shortness of breath as he climbs.
The editing takes us next to the sniper’s nest where two assassins pick up their guns, then to the barber shop as the target leaves. Throughout this, in voice-over, we hear the priest continue his sacred rite. The clash of the two codes is patently obvious to the audience.
Next, we see Barzini in a mid-shot walking down the steps of a large building to get into his car, the same car which had previously been asked to move on by the fake policeman. He taps his associate’s chest and his face shows that he knows something is wrong. He points to the car, where the policeman is now issuing a parking ticket to his driver. There is a sense of amusement at this, because Barzini is accustomed to avoiding such petty aspects of the law. The final target we see is Moe Green, who is receiving a massage.
At this point, we cut to a shot of Michael’s face as he is asked the direct question, “Do you renounce Satan?”
This is the trigger for the assassinations to be carried out. The first target is shot in a lift. We cut to Michael: “I do renounce him.” Cut to Moe Green, who is shot in the eye while he lies on the massage table. “And all his works?” Cut to the next victim being jammed into a revolving door before being repeatedly shot, and killed. Cut to Michael: “I do renounce them.” Two assassins burst in on their target and his lover and machine gun them both to death. Priest: “And all his…” Michael: “I do renounce them.” Cut to the parking ticket being issued, where the policeman shoots Barzini as he attempts to escape. His dead body rolls down the steps. (This echoes famous stairway sequences in “Battleship Potemkin” and, later, “The Untouchables”.)
When the film cuts back to the cathedral, the priest asks, “Michael Rizzi, will you be baptised?” He replies, “I will.” Michael is now taken into the body of the church; he has been accepted. This mirrors the way he has been accepted to the head of the family. As the priest concludes the ceremony, and Michael has now assumed the role of Godfather both literally and figuratively, we are shown the new-born child, a new innocent life, and it is contrasted with cuts to the various bodies of the people Michael has executed.
The priest finishes, “Michael Rizzi… Go in peace and may the lord be with you.” This is a clear irony as the assassinations will inevitably lead to reprisals and more violence. The baptism indicates the birth of a new head of the family, and also of a new era of violence between the families.