“I ask for justice” pleads a man named Bonasera in the first scene of The Godfather, a film which has come to define the ‘gangster movie’ since its release in 1972. Sitting restlessly in a dark room, his nerves are undermined by the playfulness of a nearby pet kitten. He has come to beg Vito Corleone, the Don of a New York crime family, to murder the men who beat his daughter beyond recognition; men who, he claims, smiled at him in Court after they were let off scot-free by the American legal system. The audience feels this father’s pain, and cleverly – immediately – we are on the side of the mafia (helped considerably by the fact that the camera is the eyes of Vito, and we therefore feel ourselves in a position of power). ‘Punish these men’, we think, despite our better judgement. ‘Punish these men for inflicting such serious agony on an innocent woman’.
It is this instantaneous, unapologetic allegiance with the criminal underworld which secures The Godfather’s success. Drawn in to a closed-off, shady realm, unfamiliar to the majority, the audience is made privy to the glamorously covert goings on of the Sicilian mafia. Judgement is withheld, meticulously planned ‘hits’ and ‘acts of vengeance’ replace needless victims, and the ‘Business’, feared but venerable, is never questioned. In response to Bonasera’s opening story, Vito responds calmly, “Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first?” This distrust of the system, of the ‘American way’, is proved right later on when we meet a Police Captain more crooked than the criminals he apprehends.
And so a murky, mahogany furnished stage is set for the dramas of the Corleones, who answer to no one, least of all their wives. In fact, women are mainly background noise throughout what is essentially a study in the morals and mayhems of men. Vito’s wife remains nameless, speaking only two-dimensionally at moments where a matriarch’s comment is necessary; and Connie, the daughter, does little but shriek and cry. This constant bypassing of the feminine is a callous but crucial plot device, which has a narrowing effect on the story as a whole. A concentrated world is made more oppressive through the noticeable lack of any woman’s touch, thus allowing the men of the film to be more easily consumed by their misplaced obsessions and bloated egos. The most important of these men is, unquestionably, Vito’s youngest son, Michael. Introduced to us at the beginning as an innocent bystander disgusted by his family’s criminality, it is his twisted descent towards darkness which acts as the driving force of the narrative.
A ‘war hero’, Michael is not interested in his father’s business at first. “That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me” he assures his American girlfriend right after we first meet them. The film very deliberately positions him outside the action, making his eventual entrance into the crime sphere all the more compelling to watch. There are several key moments which embody his transformation, and their strength is equal parts narrative and cinematic. For example, the scene where he is to ‘hit’ drug dealer Sollozzo and corrupt cop McCluskey at a local restaurant, is played out perfectly through a combination of sound design and cinematography. The screeching train noises, which at first creep, and then crescendo, stress the ever-present feeling of urgency for action which weighs heavily on our protagonist’s mind. Paired with close-up shots of his agitated eyes, bruised face, and gritted teeth, these sounds will Michael to jump, to move forward, to do anything but remain stationary. When he pulls out his gun, he seals a particular life for himself that we are now hesitant to believe he ever truly did not want.
The idea of inheritance, of passing one’s sins down through the generations, is a crucial theme. Vito, who follows a specific code of conduct and who cares more about being invited for coffee than any offer of money, is bizarrely admirable in his decorum. Of course, we like him because we are not made witness to any of the unethical things he must have done to secure his current position, and yet still, despite his lack of screen time, his admonitions and traditions hang over the heads of the other characters, lingering like thick smoke. Michael is lured into the underworld through love for his father, and in his search for relevance, is blinded by the preferential treatment he has received in life. He becomes a capricious and faithless Don, choosing to detach himself from loved ones through continued deceit, as made painfully obvious through the montage of killing which accompanies his nephew’s baptism. His lies are a poison which dismantles the infallibility of his father’s word, but which are entirely a product of his father’s world.
Vito and Michael are at once mirror images and polar opposites of each other. “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man” Vito straightforwardly imparts early on in the film, and he repeatedly stresses the value of family throughout. It seems as though Michael inherits this trait, at one point warning his brother Fredo to never take sides with anybody against ‘The Family’. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that by ‘The Family’, Michael really means himself. Slight differences in meanings and motives make for entirely different philosophies, and by the end of the film we are left, like Kay, in astonishment at the changeover. The old Don is gone, and times are changing. But hey, it’s not personal, it’s just business.
FINAL VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★