Modern audiences might find this movie boring, since it’s less of an action film and more of a character-driven piece, about “Family” in all its forms, but more specifically, a mob family.
The Italian mafia fascinates me, because they’re such a bundle of contradictions; it’s “not personal, it’s business,” even when it comes to Family matters – and I’m not talking about mafia so much as literal, blood-relation family! The Godfather is art revolving around total moral disconnections, and it asks us (and causes us) to root for completely terrible people.
Unsurprisingly, I like that about it. I like getting up the next morning having watched it, and not being able to stop thinking about it. That, to me, is the mark of an excellent film. But here’s a few of the other things I like pondering in its two plus hours.
A Series of Vignettes: Unlike most films, the main story is about the actions of a mafia family; it’s built up of a series of vignettes that reveal how this “business” works… the scenes with Vito and his guests at the wedding (traditionally, an open invitation for guests to come and ask for “favors” from their Godfather), the incident with the movie director in Hollywood (the film doesn’t touch on it, but in the book he’s a well-known pedophile!), even the drug-trafficking discussion leave you wondering at first what the point is, and then you realize it’s the descent of Michael into evil.
Vito’s Sons: Have you noticed that each of his sons have some aspect of Vito’s (the Godfather’s) personality? He’s a combination of all of them, which makes him a good Don… but without him, none of them are entirely effective except for Michael, who in the second film forfeits his wife because he can’t find the balance between “business and personal” that Vito handled so well. Yet, each of them is also something their father isn’t…
Sonny is passionate and defending of his family (in all its forms); he’s also headstrong and impulsive.
Fredo is caring and loving toward his family; he’s also weak and foolish.
Michael is calculating and intelligent; he also lacks his father’s warm nature.
The Family Disconnect: I find it fascinating that the Family could be so defensive of the men, and their honor, and so much less so when it comes to Connie’s relationship with Carlo, instead sacrificing it in favor of their Sicilian “men are the head of the family” sexism. When Carlo tells Connie to shut up at dinner, her mother reprimands Sonny for coming to her defense (stay out of it!). In the book, Connie complains to her father that Carlo hits her. The seemingly affectionate Vito says, “Stop giving him a reason.” (Gee, thanks, Dad!)
Yet, compassion toward his sister is what kills Sonny… he races off to rescue her after a beating, and winds up massacred on the causeway. This seems to support the ideology throughout that making business personal will wind up killing you; in effect, Sonny is symbolic of the ideology Michael embraces – that nothing can ever be personal, and to survive you must isolate your emotions. Later, Carlo pays for his crimes… but not on Connie’s behalf; Michael punishes him not for beating his wife, but for betraying the Family to another mafia don!
Monsters & Men: The death of Vito in his garden is peaceful and symbolic; peaceful because at last he has renounced his role as the Godfather and left it in the hands of Michael. He’s now just a grandfather, allowed to love his grandchildren and caution his son in his decisions. Yet, he dies chasing his grandson through the tomato plants… pretending to be a monster. Vito has more honor and less brutality than Michael; in a sense, his death as one “monster” raises up a far more terrible and dangerous monster to take his place – his brutal, calculating, and unforgiving son.
Michael: Some may make the mistake of believing Michael changes throughout the film; he doesn’t… he simply steps into the shoes the Family needs him to fill. Everything he does is motivated through logic (and in the case of his Italian wife, boredom and desire); he never loved Kay, he simply dated her as part of his father’s plan to “acclimate” the Family into society outside their Italian ghetto. His father wanted him to be a politician – so he found a suitable potential wife that would suit future voters – an all-American, feminist-leaning white girl from a nice family.
After committing murder to avenge his father, Michael was no longer an outsider in the Family business. His future career in politics was destroyed. He married Apollonia because she “fit” the new life he was embracing; she was a demure, proper, chaste Italian wife to his future mafia don. After her death, he marries Kay because he needs a wife and it’s politically advantageous to choose an outsider he’s familiar with, rather than navigate the different Families in search of one. (This is, arguably, his biggest mistake – he brings a dominant, independent, morally-minded female into a household accustomed to submissive ones, with unfortunate later consequences.)
The Impossible Plight: Though it doesn’t justify any of the behavior exhibited in the film, we intrude on the lives of a family caught in an impossible situation – the mafia. You don’t resign from it. You never show weakness. It’s a constant struggle to remain frightening enough that the other mafia families leave you alone. Once Vito was gone, if Michael had shown weakness instead of strength, all of them would have been killed.
Superficial Religion: In arguably the greatest scene in the film, Michael renounces Satan and becomes Godfather to his sister’s child at the same time he has his enemies gunned down in cold blood. The juxtaposition of the christening and the violence is chilling, but underlines the spiritual tone of the film: for these people, Loyalty to the Family is God, and all else falls secondary. Their faith isn’t real, but a cultural tradition that has no impact on any of their lives.
Lies & Deceit: The ending to this film is powerful due to our discovery of Kay’s understanding and the scene that precedes it, when Connie accuses her brother of murdering her husband. Michael doesn’t deny it to her, but he does to Kay, who is comforted by his lie. Michael knows how to “manage” her, how to keep her content, but he can’t hide the farce from her for long. She sees his hand being kissed by his minions, as one of them shuts the door – effectively, closing her out of that part of his life, and knows the truth she hasn’t wanted to face until now: she married a monster.
Kay has always frustrated me, because she lets her emotions lead her decisions – there’s evidence all around her from the very beginning of the story of what this family is like, and who Michael actually is. His profession at the wedding that “that’s my family, Kay, it’s not me” is proven untrue after the attempted murder of his father; he doesn’t speak to her for two years, yet still she marries him, presumably because she still loves him. Even then, it’s evident who he has become – and later, she’s upset about it, because all her delusional illusions of his goodness are shattered. Because she wants him to be good, she believes he is … until she can no longer deny the truth.
Conclusion: In many ways, Michael is the definitive “evil” INTJ. He’s a loner by nature (even at the wedding, he’s off in a corner with Kay rather than circulating with the guests), quiet (as Sonny plans murder, Michael doesn’t speak until he’s prepared a plan), always thinking where others are talking (it’s Michael who knows how to use his former lack of violence to target their enemies). He’s always been capable of leadership (his lack of a shaking hand when he intervenes at the hospital, to save his father’s life), but doesn’t step forward until it becomes necessary. He makes decisions regardless of the feelings of others, to preserve them or serve a greater purpose (such as deposing Tom Hagen, or lying to Kay). He’s able to separate his emotions from his decision-making, leaving logic as his primary function (which is what makes him so dangerous – he rationalizes his actions in his mind, as being necessary to preserve the “Family”).
Though nothing about his actions are praiseworthy, they are fascinating… and that’s one reason I return to this film time and again, each time noticing something new.
[ review ]