The Godfather is a trilogy of films by Francis Ford Coppola, written by him and Mario Puzo, based on Puzo’s 1969 novel. As a trio of crime dramas, its depiction of the mafia is understood to symbolize general corruption in American politics, though I will be carrying my analysis far beyond just that. I will be focusing on the first two films, generally considered to be two of the greatest films ever made; while Part III, being good only in parts (and I don’t think mine is a minority opinion), will be touched on more lightly. I’ll also discuss parts of Puzo’s novel.
In general, the social, political, and economic critiques in The Godfather are those of hierarchy and authority. Mafia families represent competing capitalists, and the Corleone family in particular represents the traditional patriarchal family. Mafia Don Vito Andolini, who would change his surname to Corleone (‘Lionheart’), the name of the town in Sicily where he was born, has “all the judges and politicians in his pocket,” as so many US billionaires do in today’s neoliberal world. Here we see the source of corruption in American politics, or the politics of any other country: capitalism’s use of the state to protect its interests.
Here are some famous quotes from all three movies:
“Bonasera, Bonasera. What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? If you’d come to me in friendship, then that scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.” –Don Corleone
“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.” –Don Corleone (ranked #2 in American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations.)
“It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” —Tessio
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” –Clemenza
“It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” –Michael
“Times have changed. It’s not like the old days when we could do anything we want. A refusal is not the act of a friend. Don Corleone had all the judges and the politicians in New York, and he must share them. He must let us draw the water from the well. Certainly, he can present a bill for such services. After all, we are not Communists.” –Don Barzini
“Only, don’t tell me you’re innocent, because it insults my intelligence. It makes me very angry.” –Michael, to Carlo
“There are many things my father taught me here in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” —Michael (the bolded portion is ranked #58 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations )
“If I could only live to see it, to be there with you. What I wouldn’t give for twenty more years! Here we are, protected, free to make our profits without Kefauver, the goddamn Justice Department and the F.B.I. ninety miles away, in partnership with a friendly government. Ninety miles! It’s nothing! Just one small step, looking for a man who wants to be President of the United States, and having the cash to make it possible. Michael, we’re bigger than U.S. Steel.” –Hyman Roth
“I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart!” –Michael
“Fredo, you’re nothing to me now. You’re not a brother. You’re not a friend. I don’t wanna know you or what you do. I don’t wanna see you at the hotels. I don’t want you near my house. When you see our mother, I want to know a day in advance, so I won’t be there. You understand?” –Michael
“Oh, Michael. Michael, you are blind. It wasn’t a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael! Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that’s unholy and evil. I didn’t want your son, Michael! I wouldn’t bring another one of your sons into this world! It was an abortion, Michael! It was a son, Michael! A son! And I had it killed because this must all end! I know now that it’s over. I knew it then. There would be no way, Michael… no way you could ever forgive me, not with this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for 2,000 years!” –Kay
“Tom, you know you surprise me. If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.” –Michael
“No, I don’t hate you, Michael. I dread you.” –Kay
“Finance is a gun. Politics is knowing when to pull the trigger.” –Don Lucchesi
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” –Michael
“Your sins are terrible, and it is just that you suffer. Your life could be redeemed, but I know you do not believe that. You will not change.” –Cardinal Lamberto, to Michael
The first movie begins with Amerigo Bonasera, an undertaker whose daughter has been beaten by two men who attempted to rape her. Though he begins by saying, “I believe in America” (i.e., ‘the land of the free’), he quickly learns how corrupt the judges are when one of them gives her attackers a suspended sentence, allowing them to go free that very day. Now that he knows that might makes right in America as much as it does everywhere else, he comes to the mafia for ‘justice’, to have them killed.
This corruption of justice is similar to how social services offered by the state decline in effectiveness due to corruption or insufficient funding from taxes, then (as Noam Chomsky once pointed out) we go to the private sector for these services, which are given only for a price, as Don Vito will expect a favour in return one day from Bonasera for beating up his daughter’s attackers. After all, Vito is only a moderate mafioso/capitalist, who knows that killing the “scum that ruined [Bonasera’s] daughter” isn’t justice, since she’s still alive.
Bonasera, in his naïveté about how the mafia does things, assumes he can simply pay Vito to have his soldiers murder her two attackers. Having unwittingly insulted Vito, Bonasera learns the importance of getting Vito’s “friendship”, which leads to the beating up of the two men “as a gift on [Vito’s] daughter’s wedding day.” This friendship shows the hypocrisy in the Corleone family, in how they try to pass themselves off as decent people, always keeping up appearances, the way the bourgeoisie does in general.
The juxtaposition of Bonasera’s failed attempts at protecting his daughter with the wedding day of Vito’s daughter Connie, is an interesting one. In the traditional patriarchal family, a girl’s marrying into another family involves her father giving her away to her husband-to-be, an old protector being replaced by a new one. Throughout most of this scene, Vito is so busy granting requests that he can rarely, if ever, leave his office and participate in the wedding party outside. After all, no Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day, symbolizing the honour and love he has for her.
Here we see the contradictions inherent in the patriarchal family: the overzealousness with which ‘our girls’ must be protected leads to a failure to protect them; Vito’s symbolic honouring of his daughter by granting all wishes on her wedding day leads to his hardly ever being with her until the end of the party, a symbolic failure to protect. Similarly, he does nothing to help Connie when her husband Carlo beats her later, rationalizing (in the novel, Book IV, Chapter 16, page 238) that she should submit to Carlo’s authority, and saying the rest of the family shouldn’t interfere with her and Carlo’s private business (an attitude Vito’s wife, Carmela, agrees with).
Bonasera has been very lax in his protection of his daughter, allowing her to stay out late drinking with the two men who assault her; but the failure to protect Connie, coupled with overzealous protectiveness, is symptomatic of the failure of the Corleone family to protect themselves in general, as we’ll explore later.
The corruption that the mafia represents extends to Hollywood, where movie producer Jack Woltz is intimidated into giving a role to Johnny Fontane, a singer/actor the producer hates for having made him look bad. The corruption Woltz represents is seen in his lecherous taste in underage girls, one of whom we learn has been in his bedroom when consigliere Tom Hagen has visited (this lechery is evident in the novel, Book I, Chapter 1, pages 62-63, and in one deleted scene in the movie).
All of the mafia families represent competing capitalists, but Don Corleone is only a moderate capitalist, wanting nothing to do with the heroin business Virgil Sollozzo wants to bring into New York. The Tattaglia family, as well as that of Barzini, wanting Corleone to share his political and police protection so they can get in on the new heroin business, represents the expansion and accumulation of capital, and its growing evil.
The conflict of interests between the Five Families, with Corleone’s on one side and the other four opposing him, represents the contradictions inherent in capitalism. The war that erupts between the Corleone and Tattaglia families symbolizes those contradictions escalating into an economic crisis, for indeed, as the war continues, Tom warns Sonny, who is acting Don while Vito’s in hospital, that business is suffering. Similarly, Clemenza tells Michael that these wars have to happen every (five or) ten years or so…the same time period that, sans Keynesian state interventions, usually comes between economic crises. The violence and killings can thus be seen to symbolize the suffering caused by capitalism’s instability.
Capitalists typically deny malicious intent, as do these gangsters. Sollozzo tells Hagen,”I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman. Blood is a big expense.” Sonny, Tom, and Michael all repeat the mantra that this mob violence is nothing personal–it’s just business…when Michael’s wish to kill Sollozzo for trying to have his father killed, as well as the corrupt cop McCluskey for breaking his jaw, is clearly personal (see also the novel, Book I, Chapter 11, page 145).
Indeed, bringing Michael into “the family business”, when he was originally intended by Vito to be a senator or governor in the “legitimate”, respectable part of society, shows how capitalism seeps into everything, a corruption we’ll continue to see spreading through the rest of this movie/novel and its sequels.
Michael goes into hiding in Sicily, where he wishes to see the town of Corleone, to get a sense of his family roots. Here we see beautiful countryside as well as simple town life, a pleasant contrast to the harsh modern life of New York City. This idyllic life suggests how the world was before capitalism grew into the monster it is today.
Still, there are dangers in Sicily that Michael must be wary of. Apart from all the deaths from local vendettas, the Italian-American mafia is trying to find and kill him in revenge for Sollozzo and McCluskey. This symbolizes how capitalism, in an earlier stage of development, is creeping into rustic Sicilian life, as it had in the enclosures of the Commons in 18th-century England. On the other hand, a deleted scene in the movie shows a group of communists marching about Sicily, hoping to recruit new members. Fleeting references to communism appear here and there in the first two movies, like a spectre haunting Europe, America, and Cuba. The class war is growing.
Meanwhile, back in America, Sonny learns that Carlo, sore that he’s being excluded from the family business, has beaten up Connie. Though Sonny has previously been warned not to interfere by his mother, echoing Vito’s insensitivity to Carlo’s increasing abusiveness, the hothead beats up Carlo, warning he’ll kill him if he ever hurts Connie again. The intensity of the beating that Sonny gives Carlo shows the dangers of zealous over-protection, since violence only begets more violence. Indeed, Carlo plots with Barzini to have Sonny gunned down, and beats up Connie to lure Sonny to his death.
Vito, still the moderate gangster, wants no revenge, but instead arranges a meeting of the Five Families to end the war. Barzini and Tattaglia complain about Vito’s refusal to cooperate in the new heroin business, which would have resulted in giving the other families police protection. But we learn that “times have changed”, and police and politicians now can be bought to ensure safety from prison in the new drug business. At one point, Barzini reminds us that the mafia “are not communists.” Of course not: mafia are capitalists…and capitalists are mafia; that’s what The Godfather is all about.
One significant part of the class conflict caused by such systems as capitalism is racism. Earlier, Sonny mentioned how “Niggers are having a good time with [Corleone] policy banks in Harlem”. During the meeting of the Five Families, Don Stracchi says his men leave the drug trafficking among “the dark people, the coloureds. They’re animals, anyway, so let them lose their souls.” The others at the meeting seem to agree to this arrangement, and ‘peace’ is achieved between Corleone and Tattaglia.
Michael returns to America, and is now the new Don of the Corleone family, Vito having retired. Michael meets Kay, his old American girlfriend, and asks her to marry him. While he gives an empty promise that the Corleone family will be “completely legitimate” one day, he also tells her the cynical reality that senators do have men killed, just as the mafia does. Of course they do: politicians do much of the dirty work of capitalists, because the state works for capitalism…even though right-libertarians promise that a laissez-faire form of capitalism will purify the market of state corruption. But instead, when Michael has the other heads of the Five Families all killed, and he becomes the sole mafia head in New York, we see symbolically how laissez-faire, in wiping out competition (thanks to the tax cuts and deregulation that give large corporations an unfair advantage over small businesses), leads to the very crony capitalism, or monopoly capitalism, it claims it will eradicate. (For a thorough discussion on how that happens, look here.)
The killing of all those men happens in a particularly chilling way: Michael is standing as godfather to Carlo’s and Connie’s baby, telling the priest in the cathedral that he does “renounce Satan”, and that he believes in God the Father, Jesus, His Son, and the Holy Spirit! ‘Godfather’ is a perfect name for this movie, as well as for Vito and Michael, for it exemplifies the authoritarian nature of the mafia, of capitalism, of religion, and of the traditional patriarchal family, all in one fell swoop. This scene, in which Michael ruthlessly pretends to be a good Christian while knowing full well that a bunch of people are about to be brutally murdered (Stracchi, shot in an elevator by Clemenza; Moe Greene with a bullet in his eye; Cuneo, shot by Cicci in a revolving door; Barzini, shot by Al Neri-who’s dressed as a cop [in the novel, he’s a former cop who used to beat people with a large flashlight–Book VIII, Chapter 30, pages 413-414]; and Tattaglia, shot in bed with one of his prostitutes, by Rocco Lompone), starkly shows the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie in its pretence of virtue.
To top everything off, when Michael tells Carlo these men were all killed by his orders, he tells Carlo that he has “settled all family business.” Just like a capitalist. And having promised he won’t make Connie a widow, Michael has Carlo garrotted by Clemenza.
With the Corleone move to Las Vegas, hence the killing of Moe Greene, we see how capitalism expands and accumulates, wiping out the competition. First, there was the Genco Olive Oil business in New York; now, there’s the gambling business in Nevada.
Though one would imagine Connie to be grateful to her brother for ridding her of her abusive, adulterous husband, she’s in tears and furious with Michael. When she tells Kay about the murders of the other heads of the Five Families, saying, “That’s your husband! That’s your husband!”, frowning Kay asks him if it’s true. He lies and denies it, of course, and the first movie ends with her frowning, suspecting the lie. An outtake shows Kay in church lighting candles, and the novel ends with her praying for Michael.
Part II begins with Vito Andolini as a nine-year-old boy in Corleone, Sicily. His whole family gets killed by the local mafia, whose chieftain is Don Ciccio, and he must leave before they find and kill him. He emigrates to New York.
The smaller mafia of Corleone, like the family Vito establishes in New York, can be seen to represent the early stages of capitalism. The scenes that follow his rise (also in Puzo’s novel, Book III, Chapter 14) alternate with scenes of the continued story of Michael as Don of his father’s family. These contrasting scenes symbolize capitalism’s seemingly benevolent beginnings and ugly maturation.
In late 1950s Nevada, we see Michael’s growing business empire. We also see more of the pretence of respectability in the party celebrating his son’s First Communion at Lake Tahoe. Michael meets with Senator Pat Geary about getting a gaming licence. In a combination of prejudice against Italians and a disgust with mafia corruption (though he’s no better), the senator wants an exorbitant bribe for the licence; he also bluntly insults Michael’s family to his face. Michael, always one to defend his family and their honour, insists that the hypocrisy of his business and Geary’s government doesn’t apply to his wife and children. Their innocence is always protected: that’s why the family business is never discussed around them…even though they know full well that Michael’s business is anything but innocent.
Geary’s wish “to squeeze” Michael could be seen to represent the agenda of left-leaning or social democratic governments, which tax capitalists as much as possible. Indeed, the post-war world seen in The Godfather, Parts I and II, and continuing up till the 1970s, saw the rich being taxed much more than they are today. Geary’s later hypocritical praise of Italian-Americans during Michael’s trial can be seen to indicate the phoney, would-be egalitarianism promoted by the politically correct aspects of the left, always expressing sympathy for the darker-complexioned, but typically leaving the Third World in the lurch.
When Geary is caught in a Fredo-run whorehouse with a bloodily murdered prostitute (apparently killed by Al Neri to blackmail Geary into helping the Corleone family), he is assured by Tom Hagen that he is safe. From then on, Geary is fully on Michael’s side. Here we see a symbolic indication of how the capitalist class can get even ‘left-leaning’ politicians to represent right-wing interests, as would happen increasingly with the Clintons and the Democratic Party in America, and with Tony Blair in the Labour Party in the UK.
Meanwhile, we have the usual capitalist contradictions symbolized in the competing families of Michael, Pentangeli, and Hyman Roth, as well as the Rosato Brothers. Racism and capitalism tend to go hand in hand, hence Pentangeli’s antisemitic attitude towards Roth and his use of racial slurs against blacks and Hispanics.
When an attempt is made on Michael’s life, in his and Kay’s bedroom, he quickly crawls over to her, covering her body with his. Here we see one of the main purposes of sex roles: the male obligation to protect women, the nucleus of matriarchy within every cell of the traditional patriarchal family (the dialectic of the sexes), which is seen elsewhere in Michael’s preoccupation with whether or not the unborn child in Kay’s womb is a boy.
We see the spread of capitalism represented in the presence of mafia families in Nevada (Corleone), New York (young Vito and Pentangeli), Florida (Roth), Sicily (Ciccio), and Cuba, where Michael and Roth meet with Fulgencio Batista, who felt no discomfort allowing foreign capitalists, including the American mafia, to exploit his impoverished people. Interestingly, this visit to Cuba happens when Fidel Castro’s communists take over.
On the night when the Cuban Revolution prevails, around midnight on New Year’s Eve/Day in 1959, all the capitalists, including Michael and his older brother Fredo, must get off the island. Music (<<at 2:30) reminiscent of an early section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (a ballet about a human sacrifice) is heard, suggesting the brutality of the material conditions necessary to bring about revolution: the brutality of the extreme contradictions of capitalism that cause the whole system to come tumbling down.
And indeed, brutal contradictions reach even to the extent of the Corleone’s family’s integrity, for Michael has learned who the traitor in his family is, the one who made a secret deal with Roth and Johnny Ola–Fredo. This indicates one of the main themes of Part II: betrayal.
Pentangeli feels betrayed by Michael, since Michael’s business dealings with “that Jew” Roth undermine Pentangeli’s ability to deal with the Rosato Brothers; Roth feels betrayed by Michael, his business partner, when he’s learned that Michael gave the order to kill Moe Greene, a fellow Jewish gangster. Michael feels betrayed not only by Fredo, but by Kay when she tells him the unborn male child in her womb didn’t die of a miscarriage, but was aborted (the look of rage on Al Pacino’s face here is, in my opinion, some of his very best acting). Michael ultimately betrays his whole family by having Fredo killed by Al Neri, who mercifully allows him first to do a ‘Hail, Mary’ prayer.
Once again we see, in the Corleones’ overzealous wish to protect the family, they end up killing their own.
Kay aborts the son out of a wish to end the mob violence; Michael has Fredo killed out of a wish to punish and therefore deter treason. This self-destructive cycle of violence and revenge can represent the contradictions of capitalism: the excessive lust for profits (a wish to protect oneself financially) creates huge wealth inequality and imperialist wars (symbolized by all the mafia violence), resulting in the poor not being able to buy much of anything, stopping the circulation of money and commodity exchange, and leading to financial crises.
Going back to the story of young Vito, he must deal with Don Fanucci, The Black Hand, who can be seen to represent either a competing capitalist or the feudalism that preceded capitalism. There was never any feudalism in American history (apart from British hegemony over the early American settlers, provoking the American Revolution), of course, but we’re discussing the language of symbol here. Vito’s killing of Fanucci (who, like feudal lords’ taxing of their vassals and peasants, wants a cut of Vito’s money in exchange for his ‘protection’) can thus be compared to bourgeois uprisings like the French Revolution in 1789, or the one that brought about the Republic of China in 1911.
As Vito’s mafia family rises in power, including the creation of his Genco Olive Oil Company in the 1920s, we see his benevolence towards an old lady whose landlord wants to evict her. This kindness and growth in power are comparable to the generosity that the bourgeoisie claims to have; they justify their class privileges by pointing out the raised standard of living they create (while neglecting to mention how they alone enjoy the vast majority of the benefits of that economic growth); they also talk about donating to charity, instead of trying to change society’s material conditions, such that charity becomes no longer necessary.
Estes Kefauver’s investigations into the mafia in the 1950s are reflected in Michael’s trial. The state’s attempt to put him in jail can be compared to the postwar period in American history when greater state regulation, including higher taxes for the rich, reduced income inequality and produced a large middle class. But Michael manages to beat Questadt, who is working for Roth, by implying a threat to the life of Pentangeli’s brother (who has just flown in from Sicily) if Pentangeli testifies against Michael. Symbolically, this shows that, even when capitalism is regulated by the state (or because it is regulated, because of competing interests–i.e., Roth), it is still corrupt to the core. Nothing can reform it.
In spite of this ever-present capitalist corruption, some communists have acknowledged the necessity of a capitalist stage superseding feudalism, before the world is ready for socialism. The temporary period of young Vito’s benevolent bourgeois rule can be seen in this light; but by the time Michael takes over, the oppressiveness of capitalism can no longer be ignored.
In Part III, we see Michael about twenty years after the end of Part II, racked with guilt and trying to redeem himself by going completely legitimate at last, after years of failing to keep this promise to Kay, whom he’s divorced. His wish to control International Immobiliare, a real estate holding company known as “the world’s biggest landlord”, must have no mafia connections at all. To his dismay, he learns that those involved in Immobiliare, such as Lucchesi, are either mafiosi or are connected with them…including the Vatican. A cigarette-smoking archbishop named Gilday, who attempts to swindle Michael out of his money, symbolizes Church corruption.
Elsewhere, Michael meets a good man of God, Cardinal Lamberto, who receives Michael’s tearful confession; though, like Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, Michael cannot repent, since to do so necessitates giving up his money and power, as well as being incarcerated for his crimes. Lamberto is Pope for a brief time, then a plot by Archbishop Gilday, Lucchesi, and Keinszig results in him being served poisoned tea.
Michael’s gifts to charities, as generous as they are, also cannot redeem him. Kay watches his show of goodwill, and is disgusted at the hypocrisy she sees. She actually prefers him as a common hood; his pretence as an ‘honest’ businessman makes him even more dangerous now. As we can see, all attempts to reform and legitimize capitalism fail, for it is inherently criminal. It always has been, and it always will be.
And again, try as Michael might, he cannot protect his family from danger; he tries to get out of the mafia, and they pull him back in. He wants Vincent Mancini to stay away from his daughter Mary, Vincent’s cousin, for her safety, but she is shot and killed. Finally, Michael dies alone in the garden of a Sicilian villa as an old man. The self-destruction of capitalism and authoritarianism is complete.
Mario Puzo, The Godfather, Signet Fiction, New York, 1969 (30th anniversary edition)