I’m going to be completely honest: when I first watched The Godfather (1972), it didn’t move me. I couldn’t understand the rules and logic of the Godfather universe, nothing seemed reasonable to me. Then I started taking notes, because I had to understand. I wasn’t going to let my pacifist brain get in the way of understanding a mafia film, in fact “the” mafia film by Francis Ford Coppola. Of course, I understood the storyline, but I couldn’t understand the characters’ motivations. Why did they keep killing each other? Why couldn’t they solve their problems with verbal discussion? Why did all the men look alike? I had a serious problem with keeping track of who is dead and why. The only character I could understand was Kay (Diane Keaton), her motivation was always her love for Michael (Al Pacino). How did Michael, the most sentimental member of the Corleone family become the coldest and most ruthless Don? Why did Michael agree to become the head of the family? There were just too many things I couldn’t make sense of. Only during the third film, I could truly understand. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” says Michael, after his meeting with the Dons to tell them he is out of the crime world turns into bloodshed with Joey Zasa’s (Joe Mantegna) conspiracy. In the end of his story, Michael became a tired old man with blood all over him. In the first two films we don’t hear much about Michael’s feelings; he seems cold and restrained. Only in the third film we see Michael confessing his sins in an emotional turmoil. We watch Michael entering the mafia world as a naïve young man and becoming a coldblooded murderer, his character arc relies on his actions and his obligations. As we watch Michael sinking deep into the crime world, we understand the true nature of crime and punishment.
Surviving in the mafia world is all about understanding politics. The mafia system is a return to the ‘state of nature’. When there is no trustworthy government for a group of people such as immigrants and minorities and the state’s laws don’t protect them, it creates a playground for illegal law. As the state’s legitimate violence organs don’t protect people’s lives, their lives become a matter of kill or get killed. In such an environment, the mafia system dominates the parts of the social justice system that the government ignores. The people give consent to the “Don”s, the mafia heads to protect their lives. Vito (Marlon Brando) became a Don by gaining the local people’s trust and sympathy by doing favors for them. When ‘the Godfather’ does a favor, it means the person he did a favor for becomes his ‘friend’. The friend owes the Godfather a favor back. The mutual favor system creates a network of gratitude and indebtedness. Favors aren’t always innocent like Vito’s first favor: making an old woman’s landlord let her stay in the house. Favors take a much darker turn, like in the first film during Connie’s (Talia Shire) wedding we watch Amerigo Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) asking Vito to punish the men that raped his daughter, after the American juridical system failed to serve him justice.
As the American dream and the American law disappoint Italians, they seek remedy from the Godfather. The governments prefer to ignore districts where minorities live, even allow crime there. Thus, in the film’s universe the Italian families found a chance to create their own law: the law of the strongest. The only benchmark for measuring the legitimacy of the ruling family is their ability to survive. Families are in a constant battle. Although their first approach is verbal agreement, whenever agreement can’t be met the next step is violence and death. There is a constant fear of war, which keeps all the families in a constant anxiety to be at their strongest. The most immanent obstacle on their way to being the strongest is each other. Being a Don is more than about having the power to kill, it is about knowing when and who to kill. Understanding who the real enemy is requires political intelligence. The Godfather is a political figure more than anything, he must have trustworthy relations with government officials in critical places; he must always have access to violence, and he must always have a strategy. He has his own army which they call ‘button men’, who are ready at any moment to execute a kill order. The Godfather’s only impediment is the illegitimacy of his power. He has the consent of his people, but not the official consent of the American government. The state itself has never been innocent, so by making offers they can’t refuse to people in the right positions, the hidden consent of the officials can always be guaranteed.
Vito (Robert De Niro) became a ‘Don’ by killing the local ‘Don’ Fanucci (Gastone Moschin) and gaining the trust of the people not by force but by doing ‘favors’. Although his criminal actions started after he killed Fanucci, the blood feud is a family legacy. Vito’s father was killed by the local mafia head in Sicily, Vito as a child had to flee to America not to be killed. When in New York the adult Vito lost his job because of the local mafia, he has no chance other than find out a way to earn money. He had a family to support, he had no prospects; he had no choice other than to engage in crime. Thus starts the family legacy of “having no choice”. It took me to watch the whole trilogy to understand why Michael had to become the head of the family. In fact, the third film is the perfect answer for people like me who couldn’t understand Michael’s motivations. When I had asked my male friends whom I watched the first film with, they had answered my question: “He had to become the man of the family.” I thought it was some man-code I would never understand; that’s why I was very happy to see a much weaker and much more sentimental Michael in the third film; crying his sins out loud.
Kay (Diane Keaton) functions as the external gaze into the patriarchal crime world of the Corleones. Her reactions of disbelief mirrored my inability to understand the necessity of crime. Kay watched in despair as Michael adapted more and more into the criminal world. In the third film an old and tired Michael tells her: “You couldn’t understand back in those days. I loved my father. I swore I would never be a man like him. But I loved him, and he was in danger. What could I do? And then later, you were in danger. Our children were in danger. What could I do? You were all that I loved, valued most in the world.” Vito also wanted Michael to have a legitimate life. When in the first film Vito learns it was Michael who killed Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) and Solozzo (Al Lettieri) he is devastated. After watching the whole story, we understand that getting out was never an option. Blood asks for blood, and it never stops. “All my life I wanted out. I wanted my family out.” Says Michael. But it is too late. It was too late the moment he committed crime.
Michael’s immersion in his family’s criminal life starts with his bluff outside the hospital as a guard to save his father. He was considered a civilian by the mafia world. Then when he kills Solozzo and captain McCluskey to take revenge, he is fully immersed in crime. From then on there is no turning back. Just as Vito entered this world by murdering Don Fanucci, Michael entered the world by murdering McCluskey and Solozzo. The irony here is the fact that these are not Michael’s first murders. Michael is a war hero, which means he must have killed maybe hundreds of men. Killing men in the war is a heroic behavior whereas killing people in the city is criminal behavior. If the mafia families had legitimacy, all the button men would be heroes. This gives an insight into the hypocritical nature of the official state as opposed to the unofficial crime world. In many aspects, they are one and the same.
All three films have a similar dramatic structure. The film starts with a crowded family celebration, which is used as a cover for people to ask ‘favors’ from the Godfather. The way the Godfather system works is like a perfect portrayal of how ‘personal is political’. The Godfather is the omnipotent ruler, and his responsibility is to take care of his people. If people are pleased, their consent to be ruled by the Godfather is renewed. Michael knows the importance of the people’s feelings, that’s how in Part II he predicts the guerillas will take over the political regime in Cuba. Family is never separate from politics, in the Godfather universe family is politics. Michael always talks about ‘protecting his family’ as his main motivation. However, throughout the story this statement becomes very blurry as we start to question: Is Michael protecting the Corleone family or destroying it? Michael kills Carlo (Gianni Russo), his sister Connie’s husband when he learns he took part in Sonny’s (James Caan) murder, and he kills Fredo (John Cazale) after he learns that he betrayed him. Are these murders done for the family’s sake or to satisfy Michael’s ego?
Towards the end of the second film, we start to feel more and more like Michael is poisoned by his power, as his claim that he does everything for the family feels more like a cover for his selfish thirst for revenge. We keep seeing his family suffer because of his deeds. Just as in the first film his first wife Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli) dies in an assassination attempt aiming at Michael, in the last film his daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) is killed as the bullet misses Michael, and it pierces Mary’s heart. Mary’s death was foreshadowed, the parallel fate between her and Apollonia was emphasized many times and her name Mary references the innocent Virgin Mary; however, nothing prepares us to Michael’s dreary ending. He isn’t killed but he is not alive either, he mourns all alone as he is waiting for his death in an empty courtyard. He couldn’t protect his family. Even Connie, who said she will always be with Michael, isn’t with him as he mourns.
The Godfather trilogy is a masterpiece. There might be different opinions regarding how good each film is, but in my opinion all three films create an unbreakable persistence, and each film is better when analyzed with the help of the other two. The first film won three Academy Awards: Best Film, Best Screenplay and Best Actor in a Leading Role; and the second film won six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Third film was nominated for seven Oscars. Although the third film is not as celebrated the first two, it was my favorite one. It was a good closure to the series, and it was emotionally more satisfying than the other two for my taste. The third film’s criticism of the Vatican Church, and the realistic portrayal of religious power as a kind of political power was very fulfilling. State, religion, family, they are all related and will always be related. Personal is political and politics are always about survival. As I’m humming the Godfather theme song, I think to myself, perhaps the Godfather series is the unforgettable masterpiece it is because of its honest and ruthless depiction of the true nature of human existence.