Yesterday, I spent my afternoon off watching The Godfather, which is almost universally celebrated as one of the greatest movies of all time. Widely regarded as Francis Ford Coppola’s most influential work, The Godfather comes from an era when movie directors were accorded a kind of demigod status. During the 1970s, directors were so intent on articulating their vision for a film that they controlled every aspect of the filmmaking experience, from the color of a costume to the inflection in a line of dialogue. Coppola was no exception and used his considerable influence very successfully. One of the most striking elements of The Godfather is that in spite of its length, there are no extraneous scenes; every element of the film appears to have been carefully crafted to be a crucial part of the story the director is trying to tell.
Nevertheless, there are a few indispensable moments in The Godfather that are completely serendipitous. My favorite example comes from the wedding sequence at the beginning of the movie. As revelers celebrate the wedding of Don Corleone’s daughter, the godfather (memorably and ably portrayed by Marlon Brando) is in his office, listening as people request favors. The parade of supplicants makes it clear to the audience that futures hang in the balance based on the whims of this one powerful man, that one should not trifle with Don Corleone. As the party continues outside, Don Corleone’s son Michael (Al Pacino) arrives with his girlfriend, who spots a powerfully-built man practicing a speech as he waits outside the Don’s office. Michael’s girlfriend (Diane Keaton) asks who the “scary guy” is: Michael identifies him as Luca Brasi and tells a harrowing story that makes it very clear that one should not trifle with Luca. But when Luca finally arrives in Don Corleone’s office, he stumbles nervously over the speech he had been practicing. The message is clear: even this strong, “scary guy” who is feared by many is terrified of the powerful Don Corleone.
The scene between the godfather and Luca Brasi perfectly encapsulates what Coppola was trying to convey in the opening sequence: Don Corleone has power to make even powerful men fear him. The best part about this scene, however, is that it was totally accidental. Evidently, the actor who played Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) was so nervous about doing a scene with Marlon Brando that he stumbled over his line in the first take. Instead of reshooting, Coppola recognized the brilliance of the mistakenly reworked scene and added shots of Montana practicing Luca’s speech. By being open to Montana’s serendipitous mistake, Coppola created a scene that articulated his vision and propelled Luca Brasi from “generic goombah” to one of the more memorable small roles in film history.
Lent is a time when Christians act a bit like film directors from the 1970s. We imagine that we can control every element of our spiritual lives, that by making sure that we accomplish everything on our Lenten checklist we can have an authentic experience of God. We say to ourselves: “I will fast from chocolate, attend church every Sunday, read a Lenten devotional, and say morning prayer every day, and then I will become closer to God.” Unfortunately, spirituality does not work that way; it is not prescriptive. I’m not suggesting that we should not engage in Lenten disciplines or go to church every Sunday; after all, the only reason Coppola was able to take advantage of Montana’s mistake is because he was so devoted to articulating his vision. Rather, I am suggesting that we should not imagine that we can control our experience of God. I think this might be part of what Jesus was getting at when he insisted that God is the God of the living and not of the dead. We cannot presume that our experience of God will be the same every time we engage in some kind of devotional activity. We serve and worship a dynamic God whom we experience differently depending on where we are in our lives. It’s Richard Rohr who writes that the greatest obstacle to our next experience of God is our most recent experience of God. And so we must be open to the unexpected movement of the Holy Spirit. We must be willing to take advantage of what might seem like a mistake and transform it into a serendipitous opportunity to connect to the living God.