The Godfather is one of the greatest films ever put on the big screen. Few films come close in terms of storytelling, technical filmmaking, acting, ambience and drama to this tale of the most powerful Italian-American mafia family in New York, facing a crisis, being attacked by their rivals on all sides and ultimately taking revenge on them. Fifty years on, it does not look out of place among the greatest portrayals of the life of crime, despite the intervening technological advances in filmmaking.
When The Godfather was made, the gangster film was already a well-worn, popcorn genre in Hollywood. Traditional gangster films were usually simple morality tales. Gangsters were depicted as wild, brash, unhinged and often one-dimensional villains. Because of the conservative moralism that governed Old Hollywood, a film could not be seen as glamourising crime, so the gangster would always have to pay a price for his fast-paced life of vice, often vanquished by the agents of the law, who were always presented as the forces of good and justice.
The genius of Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo (on whose novel the film was based) was to flip this hackneyed script. It was the gangsters who were the sympathetic protagonists: fully realised characters with complex motivations, people audiences could relate to, even identify with. This is made easier by the fact that the universe of The Godfather is the enclosed, secretive world of La Cosa Nostra (“this thing of ours”). There are no civilians in it, you do not see the ordinary victims of organised crime, the only cop that appears is racist and corrupt. This all helps acclimatise us to and encourages us to sympathise with the protagonists’ mentalité, especially since their rivals are crueller and more vicious than they are.
Moreover, we understand Vito Corleone’s plight. At the beginning of the film, we see him as an immigrant who can’t truly realise the American Dream as advertised because of the systemic prejudice he has encountered. “I believe in America. America is where I made my fortune” begins Bonasera’s monologue, affirming his faith in America. But shortly afterwards his monologue exposes the underbelly of this same American Dream, which is tainted by the ruthless indifference of the authorities. America fails to provide justice for his daughter, raped by two American men, whose sentences are suspended on the very day of the trial. So, he pleads with Vito to grant him the “wild justice” of the mafia instead. The American dream, it’s revealed, only applies to pezzonovante (big shots), not to powerless immigrants like Bonasera.
As Vito says later in the film, in an intimate conversation with Michael, he never wanted his son to become a gangster like him. He entered into a life of crime not just to better himself and his family, but to escape turning out like Bonasera. As he says to Michael, “For my whole life, I never apologised for taking care of my family and I refused to be a fool dancing on a string held by all of those big shots.” In a ruthless, cutthroat world, justice isn’t going to be handed out from above; the only justice that exists is the one that you make yourself. This is the philosophy that Vito has lived by his whole life. Furthermore, Vito’s determination to turn the Corleone family enterprise legitimate is sympathetic. The conflict that drives the story is ignited because Vito refuses to partake in the “dirty business” of drug trafficking because it will taint his image and ruin the political connections he has taken so long to acquire. Perhaps it’s his naivete or sombre dignity, alongside his traditional sense of honour, that make Vito so congenial. But there is no chance of the Corleones ever becoming clean; the well they have long drunk from is poisoned.
At its core, The Godfather is about a hero who becomes a villain. When we first meet him, Michael seems like a traditional noble Hollywood protagonist. He is a war hero: idealistic, ambitious, respectful of the law, morally independent and resentful of the family business, if not of his family itself. He is caught between two identities, the old Sicilian ways of his father and the dominant culture of the American society in which he was raised and schooled, between his individual wants and desires and his primordial commitment to his family. Initially, he chooses assimilation into America and wishes to shape his own destiny. However, when faced with circumstances beyond his control after his father is almost killed, Michael is drawn ever further into the mafia and its power structures, which leads to his own moral corruption.
As Vito lies in the hospital, having miraculously survived, we begin to realise that Michael’s destiny will be to abandon his claim to the respectable American dream and take over the family business. Of all the Corleone children, he is the true successor to his father; he alone has the temperament and mettle to be the Don: Sonny is too impulsive and irascible and Fredo too incompetent and weak. But Michael’s identity is shaped by the conflicts between modernity and tradition, family and nation. He is caught between two worlds, two cultures, two ways of life. His identity is contrapuntal.
The tensions between the Old World and the New that plague Michael are exacerbated by his love affairs. First, he has a WASP girlfriend, Kay (played by Diane Keaton), then, when he is briefly exiled to Sicily to escape the mafia war raging in New York, he meets, is instantly bewitched by and weds the gorgeous virginal peasant girl Apollonia.
After Apollonia is murdered by mafia rivals and Michael returns to America—even though he doesn’t have to—he goes back to Kay. These two women represent the two conflicting sides of Michael. Kay is the side of him that wants to assimilate into the American establishment, escape the constraining rules of his father’s life, and become legitimate and respectable. Apollonia represents Michael’s fidelity to his roots. The earthy tones of the burgundy dress she wears at their first meeting complement the browns and reds of the scorched Sicilian landscape. She’s pure, of the earth and rooted in the Sicilian soil. Michael’s marriage to Kay at the end of the film may symbolise his desire to hold onto a remnant of his dream of social acceptance in America. Apollonia was the wife more suited for him as a mafioso; a wife who personified the old values and would stay within the boundaries of her role as a traditional mother and housewife. But, whatever path Michael chose, he could never have had a happy ending, because the other half of him would never have been fulfilled.
This also illustrates the film’s preoccupation with patriarchy. The world of the mafia is a masculine one, one from which women are excluded. Women are not supposed to ask questions, only to focus on their traditional duties as mothers and wives. Vito Corleone is the ultimate symbol of patriarchy. His status as the Godfather attests to the power he has over both his personal family and his criminal family. Michael, when he eventually takes over, by contrast, is calculating, uber-rational and cold. As he lacks his father’s chivalric charm and cannot inspire the paternal love and admiration his father enjoyed, Michael’s rule over the family is enforced through cold respect and fear alone.
Unlike the gangsters of Old Hollywood, who often gleefully jump at the opportunity to kill for cash, Michael does not want to take such extreme actions, but he feels he must in order to protect his family. But in doing so he corrupts himself. All of this culminates in the now iconic climax in which Michael becomes a godfather to his sister’s child and the baptismal service is juxtaposed with brutal vignettes showing the slaying of all the rival bosses. Metaphorically, of course, this is also Michael’s own baptism into the mafia life. He is no longer Michael or Mikey; he becomes Don Corleone. And like religion, this is a lifelong commitment. In the traditional gangster films of the 1930s, the gangster loses, usually at the cost of his life. In The Godfather, although Michael wins, and the Corleones re-establish their dominance of the criminal underworld, he dies a spiritual death. He loses whatever innocence and moral integrity he once had. This is the tragedy that defines The Godfather.
Although the psychedelic aesthetic and drugged out counterculture hippies of Easy Rider, and the then earth-shatteringly explicit portrayal of criminal violence in Bonnie and Clyde have led many to view those films as the iconic representatives of the liberalising New Hollywood wave, The Godfather was perhaps the acme of New Hollywood film in its ability to turn the gangster into a morally nuanced and empathetic character, its dramatic use of realistic violence, its explicit sex and nudity and its forays into controversial and taboo topics that went against the moralism, censorship and conservative frigidity that defined classical Hollywood. The Godfather also paved the way for similarly nuanced and realistic portrayals of gangsters in Goodfellas and The Sopranos.
Overall, the greatest achievement of The Godfather is that it raised the gangster film to Shakespearean heights. It is more than a gangster film: it is a violent, gut-wrenching, bloody epic of a dynasty in crisis and a tragedy of succession: a tale of King Corleone and his princes, coloured by universal themes of family, power, loyalty, loss and vengeance. And that’s what makes it a timeless masterpiece.