There is shockingly little written about The Godfather in terms of critical textual analysis. There’s plenty about the film’s production, influence, and overall importance in film history. Nearly everyone loves it and can’t say enough good things about it, but the film is either strikingly simple to understand or strikingly difficult, eluding the comprehension of critics and academics to such an extent that they hardly bother to footnote it. Articles have been written about the role of music in the film – in the trilogy, really. Books have been written about how Paramount got it made, how Coppola finally got attached, how Brando and Pacino were eventually given the lead roles, how it draws from and departs from the gangster genre, and how it was integral to the formation of “New Hollywood” in the early 70s. These things are all interesting, but it leaves the interested viewer lacking proper resources to get down, simply, to what the film is about and how it achieves its meaning(s). Certainly there is no pretense that this medium will be able to pierce very deeply at all into the answers to those questions, but a modest attempt should be made.
It turns out that the gangster genre, so popular especially in the 30s and 40s, was largely about morality plays. Pre-code films like Scarface, Little Caesar, and Public Enemy may have been about morality as much as the later code films (White Heat, The Roaring Twenties), but the earlier ones tended to blur the line between condemning violence and glorifying it. What is interesting about The Godfather is the way that morality initially seems to be of little interest to the film but then becomes so intrinsic to its narrative and ultimate meaning. Why is Don Vito put in a positive light, or at least in a morally ambivalent light, from his first appearance in the film until his death, while Michael’s timeline of moral progress is what condemns him? Vito’s business may not be a legitimate one, but the film associates him with family and business equally. In his business life, he holds the obviously familial title that he embraces so much that he even chastises a man who asks a favor of him without addressing him as “Godfather.” Subtextually, it’s possible that Coppola means to critique Vito for pretending not to be about the business; for pretending to be the loving patriarch in a large family that is headed for certain destruction. Michael, on the other hand, initially distances himself from his family, citing business as the main problem with his family. Once he is drawn into the scuffle, he is shown to be far more ruthless and immoral than his father ever was. Though Vito’s mind dulls as he ages, he cannot be completely blind to Michael’s tendencies, and he allows Michael to lead with a brutal, iron fist even though Michael’s priorities are not the same as Vito’s.
To be sure, we’re confining this discussion of the (im)morality of Vito and Michael to the narrative, not to other, formal elements. Still, once form enters the discussion, the observations above become all the more apparent. The famous early wedding scene pits the Don’s family life against his business life, exposing the contradiction between the two worlds that he attempts to conflate. Outside, life is bright and cheery. People sing, dance, and drink wine while celebrating a wedding. Inside, people ask favors of the Don, who cannot decline a request on the wedding day of his daughter. But inside, it is dark and ominous. While Vito is able to look through the blinds at the happiness outside, no one is able to see into his darker life who is not permitted. Favors are asked, some with more respect than others, and favors are granted. There is no indication of unhappiness or problems from the outside, but on the inside the opposite is the case. Does the film mean to imply that Vito excels at separating two lives that can coexist as long as they do not overlap? Or does the film hint at a moral contradiction, and one that is bound to lead to problems?
Outside, only Michael dares to acknowledge the other reality of his family’s life. He does so with contempt, promising never to be a part of his family’s business. Even his attire sets him apart from the rest of the family, associating himself with another, larger organization: the US military. Ironically, perhaps, the film’s first line, from a business associate asking a favor of Vito, is, “I love America.” This statement is used pragmatically, as a means to persuade Vito that the man’s request does not clash with the nature of his request: the vengeful murder of men who violated his daughter. Incidentally, one of the first things out of Vito’s mouth in the film is a corrective response to this man, who insists that justice be served for his daughter’s sake. Vito tells him, “That is not justice.” This moral rebuke establishes Vito as a man who is not unaware of moral boundaries, but a man who, when catered to, is nevertheless willing to violate those boundaries. In this way, the film seems to be a moral test for the viewer. Knowing at the outset that Vito and Michael both have consciences, able to make ethical distinctions, how will the viewer respond to the fairly static, seemingly “positive” portrayal of Vito and to the more dynamic, negative portrayal of Michael?
But, back to national affinity. The man requesting Vito’s intervention for his daughter’s sake associates himself with America and, by the nature of the appeal, identifies Vito with the country as well. The act of requesting a favor, using affection for the nation as a bargaining tool, associates one with the other. It is as if the man is saying, this is way things are done here, as we both know. The fact that Michael, too, appeals to patriotism in his attempt to set himself apart from the rest of his family exposes the contradiction not only in the Corleone family but also in the nation of America. One uses patriotism for one end, one uses it for another. However, the film’s narrative eventually takes the viewer to the place where the contradiction is uncovered and shown to be based on a single idea. When Michael makes the shift to the other side, we see how flimsy is the patriotic deference.
As the film progresses, national identity shifts to ecclesiastical identity. By the end, rather than the film using its tools to associate country with the family business (dialogue, wardrobe), it uses cross-cutting to expose the contradiction between church loyalty and the family business. And just as Vito, in the film’s early scene, transgressed a moral boundary of which he was fully aware, the editing at the film’s end shows that Michael’s religious vows to live a righteous life and renounce the devil is done in full rebellion to the ultimate symbol of morality in his universe: the church. The murders that are committed, one after the other, clash with each individual promise Michael makes to be godfather to his nephew. Willing to gain the title of his father at all costs, Michael begins his tenure as Don with as little moral integrity as is possible. The film’s form, through this cross-editing, more than anything else betrays Michael’s deeper vices in contrast with his father’s. The film does not offer the viewer the image of Vito fulfilling his promise. In Michael’s case, however, the editing betrays not only Michael’s inability to separate family from business as Vito at least attempted to do, but also Michael’s much more severe vices. The multiple murders, all cross-cut with his vows, being broken at the moment they are being made, emphasize that the family is getting worse and not, as Michael promised Kay, more “legitimate.”
Incidentally, it should be pointed out, if someone hasn’t already done so, that Michael’s wife’s name is interesting. “Kay” is a homonym of the letter “K”, and it is a letter that is not contained in the Italian alphabet. As if there were any doubt that this blonde-ish woman was not an Italian, even her name sets her apart from the culture and, by relation, sets Michael apart from his father’s traditions.
Another concluding aside: Jon Lewis’ chapter on the film in Film Analysis: A Norton Reader is generally only an “analysis” in the terms described above that are so common for The Godfather. It mostly restricts itself to the production background of the film, relation to the gangster genre, and cinematic influence. Lewis does note that Marlon Brando’s acting style inadvertently injured the intent of Bertolucci’s film Last Tango in Paris, Brando’s follow-up performance to The Godfather that earned him another Oscar nomination. Brando’s somewhat infamous brand of method acting, Lewis suggests, ultimately created a character that was sympathetic to the audience – by virtue of his poetic improvisation and extremely detailed performance – when Bertolucci’s intent in the film had been to illustrate the vacuity of such a life and such a philosophy of life. Considering again all of the aforementioned contradictions in the character of Vito in The Godfather and the apparently different light in which Vito and Michael are portrayed, is it possible that Brando’s acting in the film subverts the film’s intended meaning? This could possibly account for the seemingly more positive character of the patriarch, or at least part of it. There can be no doubt that the film presents Michael as transgressing more boundaries than his father’s legacy would deem permissible. A possible answer to this question lies in the sequel. By going back in time and depicting a younger Vito, portrayed by Robert DeNiro rather than Brando, the next film presents two major moral possibilities. First, it may suggest that Vito is more evil than Brando’s performance led us to believe by giving us a different version of Vito. Second, and contrarily, it may show the underlying account of how Vito rose to such heights as the head of the biggest family in the Five Families and in so doing imply that Vito had good motivations for his life of crime or that the truth is grayer than simple black-and-white morality. A subsequent review of The Godfather, Part II is apparently in order.