It’s the rare movie title that can evoke both the Mafia and religion, but God the Father manages to have it both ways. Simon Fellows’ documentary profiles Michael Franzese, a former New York mobster and captain of the Colombo crime family who while serving a prison sentence became born again. Upon his release he defied the odds and managed to walk away from his gangster life without winding up either dead or in Witness Protection.
Distributed by Rocky Mountain Pictures–the company behind such conservative-themed documentaries as 2016: Obama’s America and Hating Breitbart–the film is an odd hybrid indeed. Featuring narration and extensive interviews with its undeniably charismatic subject, it has a fascinating tale to tell. But its effectiveness is undercut by a bizarre stylistic hodgepodge including cheesy dramatic reenactments, low-grade animation and, as the icing on the cake, dance sequences depicting such rituals as a wedding, a Holy Communion and a baptism. Practically the only thing missing is puppetry.
Beginning with juicy archival footage chronicling the history of “La Cosa Nostra,” it relates the story of Franzese, whose father Sonny was an underboss of the Colombo crime family. Currently in prison, the 91-year-old is described by his son as “the oldest living made man in America.”
Michael’s childhood, needless to say, was unusual. Describing how his Little League umpires were cowed by his father’s reputation, he comments, “He was very good for my batting average.” He was initially determined to not follow in his father’s footsteps, but changed his mind when Sonny received a 50-year prison sentence “for a crime he didn’t commit.”
He claims that in the early 1980s he was making $8-10 million a week through a combination of legit and criminal businesses, including, producing such movies as 1984’s Savage Streets starring Linda Blair. It was on the set of another of his films, Knights of the City, where he met his future wife. On their first date he took her to see the mobster saga Once Upon a Time in America, although she had no clue about his underworld life. It was indeed well hidden; he even received the key to the city from the mayor of Miami Beach.
He rose quickly up the ranks, even being listed as No. 18 on Fortune Magazine’s list of the most important mob bosses. He proudly points out that he was the youngest person on the list and just five places behind John Gotti.
But his criminal activities eventually caught up to him, and in 1985 he was indicted on fourteen counts of extortion, racketeering and gasoline bootlegging. Breaking with mob tradition, he took a plea deal and was sentenced to ten years, of which he served three-and-a-half.
The film become truly ludicrous by the time the subject of Franzese’s religious conversion is addressed, with dramatic sequences depicting Jesus’ persecution and crucifixion that resemble a low-rent The Passion of the Christ. Several religious figures, including pastors and even a rabbi, are seen offering effusive testimony about the former mobster’s sincerity.
It ends with scenes depicting Franzese’s happy domestic life with his wife and daughters, as well as footage showing him practicing his new vocation as, what else, a motivational speaker.
Perhaps the biggest mystery about the film is how it managed to secure the services of the distinguished Oscar-winning Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) as its cinematographer. Perhaps he was given an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Cast: Tom Benedict Knight, Amanda Fernando Stevens, Bashar Rahal, George Georgiou
Director: Simon Fellows
Screenwriters: Moshe Diamant, Michael Franzese, Galit Hakmon McCord
Producers: Moshe Diamant, Sagiv Diamant, Jonas McCord
Director of photography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Production designer: Arta Tozzi
Composer: Dave Holden
Casting: Marianna Stanicheva
Rated R, 101 min.