“Freddie, you’re my older brother.
I love you. But don’t ever take
sides with anybody against the
Summary: A crime drama based in the 1940s New York City, tells the story of an Italian American father transferring power and influence of his mafia business to his son.
The Italian Mafia Reimagined: Theme of Succession in The Godfather
In the 2019 Fresh Air interview by NPR’s Terry Gross, the writer and director Francis Ford Coppola travels back in time and talks about the small but crucial decisions he had to make when shooting The Godfather. While answering questions for what is classified as a crime film, Coppola says all aspects of the production had to support the theme of succession. “I would always know that as long as I was telling the story of the succession of – there was a king, and he had three sons.” says Coppola during the conversation. Indeed, The Godfather is a reflection of the collective Italian culture and their togetherness under one patriarchal roof—that is Don Corleone (as portrayed by Marlon Brando). Despite the clashing personalities of his sons, there are barely any arguments about the (then unstable) future of the family between those who enter and exit Don Corleone’s office, which appears in the film several times. Thus, the peace of the family is secured under whoever becomes the leader of the family business and has a duty for the wellbeing of all.
The film opens with a big Italian wedding scene. The wedding is for Don Corleone’s daughter; however, he is mostly at his sacred office where he pulls favors for his so called friends during the event. It creates a contradicting image when Don Corleone drops one of the greatest quotes later in the film, “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.” It is established in these scenes that the family business (or mafia business) is intertwined with Corleones’ identity.
There is plenty of shotguns and blood in The Godfather, but just enough to support the family business. I would argue the details of the film run far away from the immigrant gang stories that Hollywood has long been used to producing— drugs, prostitution, and stealing are out of the question (or at least, out of the screen) for the Corleone family. In the opening scene, Bonasera comes to Don Corleone and asks for help for his beaten daughter. He says he wants an eye for an eye but asks for death. Don Corleone replies, “That is not justice, your daughter is still alive.” The Godfather does not deal with a common criminal, but a friend who is ready to do favors.
The Sweet Escape: Michael Finds Peace in Sicily
Don Corleone’s youngest son Michael kills Solozzo and Tattaglia after they attempt to assassinate his father. After the bloody event, he is sent to Sicily until things cool down in New York City. This is a foundational stone of a cinematic technique that can be found everywhere in the mainstream movies or tv shows these days; I call it “in season two, we travel technique”. However, there is no vagueness to this change of scene. In fact, the Sicily scenes are my personal favorite because they bring a new breath to the three-hour-long movie that could have risked a distracted audience unless done otherwise. In Sicily, Michael marries an angelic Italian woman and he seems to have a good life. It is almost like he is being rewarded for killing Solozzo and Tattaglia, and it is too good to be true. When the audience becomes comfortable in the green suburbs of Italy, Michael’s wife is brutally murdered and he finds his way back to reality, otherwise known as New York City.
Becoming the Man of the Family: Don Corleone 2.0
“I never wanted this for you.
I work my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those big shots. That’s my life, I don’t apologize for that.
But I always thought that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something.”
At one point in the story, the Michael we know becomes the Michael we knew. I’d argue losing his peaceful life in Sicily has a heavy impact on this change. As revealed during the wedding scenes, Michael is a war veteran who is the one family member that is different; his father hopes that he will be a leader above ground one day. However, the death of the other blood related male family members puts Michael on the spot—slowly but surely, he has to take charge of the underground business despite other plans his father once had for him. The events of the movie set up for Michael’s transformation. He perhaps proves his worthiness to the new position as Don (2.0) when he murders his sister’s husband. While the opening scene of the film features (Don Corleone as Marlon Brando), the cameras shift away from Don Corleone (as Al Pacino) in his home office in the end. A very well knitted ending to a timeless film.
Why is The Godfather still a timeless movie?
The idea of family is one to sell for the American producers. There is a longing for togetherness that most audience members may lack due to their memberships to individualistic cultures and economically developed countries. Through years and generations, the idea of an extended family that sticks by each other does not really change. So, whatever setting the family is served in film, even involving blood and murder, it will be a concept of solidarity that evokes familiar feelings in an audience.
As mentioned earlier, The Godfather has a different take on a crime drama. In other words, it does not expose its subjects based on cruel stereotypes. It provides closure (and perhaps some history in the second film) behind individual actions. It does not rely on human trafficking, drugs, etc. to sell but rather highlights complex characters and walks the audience through their transformations.
There are a couple of aspects in the film that I thought was worth discussing together. So, I’ll leave a few questions here for you to think for yourself and share below if you feel comfortable.
- On the surface, it seems the film is based on Michael’s transformation. Do you think Don Corleone (as Marlon Brando) went through a transformation as well? How so?
- Tom Hagen, known as the consigliere, meets with Solozzo and Tattaglia prior to Sonny’s death. Hagen advises Sonny about the matters; however, Sonny his too aggressive to listen. Do you think Hagen’s is right to feel guilty about Sonny’s death? (That is a question I personally do not have a clear answer for).
I am planning to watch The Godfather II (1974) this week, feel free to watch it yourself and we can talk about it in the next review.
Gif credits. Other photos belong to the rightful owners.