There is a trivia question I’ve never heard asked, but that I imagine is common enough:
Question: What is the first line of The Godfather?
Answer: I believe in America.
The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, has climbed the ranks of American lore, and is now firmly entrenched as a modern-classic work of American literature. It is equally influential to our national aesthetic as Washington Irving, or John Steinbeck, or Flannery O’Connor, seamlessly pervading our collective storytelling sensibilities. If you were to poll Americans walking down city streets about which film they consider the best American cinematic achievement of all time, my guess is at least 50 percent of random people would say The Godfather, regardless if they can recount the key plot points with an acceptable amount of accuracy.
The mafia is an American archetype that spawned from the disillusionment of the most immovable of American myths, which is: in this country there is a path to success, and whether or not you find it is always the result of your own successes and mistakes. We are groomed to believe that our American fates are entirely the logical conclusions of our own decision making, our own resolve or laziness, rewarded or punished accordingly. It is only fitting then, that in a film such as The Godfather, the first words we hear “I believe in America” are followed by an example of how the American system failed.
As Bonasera recounts the story of his daughter’s rape and the ensuing police ineptitude to Vito Corleone in the darkened annals of his study, Corleone’s own daughter is dappled with sunshine, dancing with her new husband (another sheep in wolf’s clothing) outside his window. This day of joy is a backdrop that highlights the facade of Corleone’s successes. He has power, money, and influence that he is willing to distribute. His children are beautiful and successful in their own right. Sonny Corleone is the next in line to succeed the Don, naturally as the oldest son, while John Hagen, adopted by Vito and promoted to Consigliere, is loyal to the family beyond all conceivable measure. Michael Corleone has returned home as a war hero, without much exposition. Michael was historically distant from the broad actions of his family, and when incriminating conversations were sparked in earnest by the initiated family members, he was politely asked to excuse himself.
However, this apparent familial stability rests upon a house of cards. When Michael saves his father from an assassination attempt by moving him to a new hospital room, he absorbs the physical and emotional ramifications of a rival family who had bought out the police force and ordered the hit. That action leads Michael to whisper into his father’s ear, “I’m with you now” and the audience witnesses the first leak in the dam preventing Michael from joining the mob life.
I imagine there is an inverse correlation between sympathetic movie gangsters and American nationalism. The more our patriotism wanes, the more we find ourselves willing to root for the people who carve out opportunities to outwit their oppressors — both defying and compounding the myth of abundant opportunities available for those clever enough to seize them. The Godfather is a film set in a time of extreme nationalistic moral superiority (WWII) yet created in a period where those sentiments were being exploited by the new guard to justify militaristic action many deemed amoral (Vietnam). Like Michael, the nation was undergoing profound disillusionment with the establishment and the ideologies he and others had put their lives on the line defending.
Michael embodies this tension of sentiments, in addition to the other traditional aspects of familial succession within family owned businesses and personal decision making tinged by Catholic guilt. There has been much commentary on who truly represents the patriarch of the film, Vito Corleone, brilliantly played by Marlon Bando and Al Pacino’s equally impressive, Michael Corleone. These two performances illicit the best of their respective players, and while the moniker of “The Godfather” is usually used to reference the elder Corleone, over the course of the film parent and child begin to intertwine with each other. The father, the son, and the holy spirit, demanding faith and respect from their followers in exchange for protection and good favor. This faith in leadership is commonplace, similar to the expectations of Catholic and American institutions that promise great rewards in exchange for unwavering conviction in their relative supremacy.
Marlon Brando, as Vito Corleone, is a master class in demonstrating power through restraint. From the opening scene, Vito is given a feline aura, explicitly when he paws at the kitten in his lap and symbolically as he rasps through execution edicts at a near whisper. Vito demonstrates the “speak softly and carry a big stick” type politician character with ease — we never see him conducting atrocious acts, always protected by distance, but also by his own physical innocuity. His power is only ever vouched for by the deference of his foot soldiers. We are more likely to see him doting over his children and grandchildren, eagerly enabling the careers of his loyal supporters, or overcoming his geriatric barriers by surviving an assassination attempt, than threatening or injuring a foe. This power leads him only to collapse among his towering tomato plants while playing a monster, chasing his grandson who will never understand his true monstrosity.
The Don has nothing left to prove in terms of his capacity for violence. By the time we meet Vito Corleone, his most powerful weapon is his generosity. This sentiment is established from the opening scene as he grants favors to his admirers on the day of his daughter’s wedding, the darkness of his sinister lair is overlaid with the exuberance of Connie’s wedding. The kitten exposes its belly on his lap, and in much the same way, Vito asserts his dominance by not shirking in fear of his own vulnerability — which endows him with an unexpected femininity as he continually expresses unabashed love and responsibility for the well being of his closest ilk.
Michael Corleone mirrors these traits of his father so overtly that it only makes sense that Sonny doesn’t make it past the second act. Unlike Roosevelt and his big stick, Sonny is brash and aggressive, liable to react with passion or emotion, in place of tact and strategy. This is why Sonny is easily manipulated, partially because he, like all of the other male characters except for Vito, Michael, and den mother Clemenza, is brainwashed by the expectations of his masculinity. Sonny must avenge, even if vengeance means taking the bait his enemies laid out for him.
After rewatching this film I read both Roger Ebert’s and Pauline Kael’s essays on the piece. Ebert chalks up the absence of influential women in the plot as a directorial oversight, a flattening of half the species by their cinematic creator, a norm in Hollywood that is only recently being reexamined by the masses. Ebert is correct that The Godfather misses an opportunity to utilize women in this film, other than Connie, to show how deep the richness of this complex culture extends. Kael’s interpretation is that the women, always shown in light and sunshine, are a symbol of the fluffy exterior that the men seek to create through their atrocities. In some ways this is fitting, as the women turn a willing blind eye to the actions of their spouses, the film follows suit by blurring their importance in cultivating the complex familial tracks the men in the film use to navigate their political broils and violent impulses. As we gain more temporal distance from The Godfather, and other filmmakers build upon the foundation it laid, we’ve seen more explicit examples of the role women play in sustaining the lives of their mobster husbands; so much so that their stories are sometimes more noteworthy than that of the men they support.
That said, The Godfather would not be great without the women adding the backdrop, illustrating how the extraordinary lives of the men in the family operate in the shadow of what is most often a shelter of normalcy. Over the course of the film we see two weddings, an ailing parent in a hospital bed, a funeral, domestic abuse, and a richly symbolic christening, all perfectly normal and possibly mundane life events. The women endow the men’s actions with relevance by creating and maintaining the lifestyles the men desperately seek to facilitate for them. The illusion only works if everyone buys in and agrees to accept the facade of happiness and surface level intimacy. The ripest conflicts in the film occur when these two worlds butt up against each other, including in the final scene when Michael reassures Kay that “it’s not true” only to, seconds later, allow a henchman to kiss his ring and close a door in her face. That is the moment that she realizes she will always be on the outside looking in at his life, and even then, the door might close at any moment.
Michael understands there is power in the subtlety of covert strikes, in cultivating fear under a sheen of innocence, a tactic women have long been groomed to utilize. The collective scrappiness of his family — including his blood, his wives, and his “family” — illustrates their shared understanding that the Corleones’ found success in America by excavating opportunities, accepting partial understanding, and demonstrating strength only when absolutely necessary.