Along with being some of the finest and most revered movies of all time, The Godfather series is also one of the most “complete” series you’ll ever see. It’s the most studied and analysed movie series in the world, deservedly so. What at first glance looks like a mobster drama, eventually comes out as more of a tale of family dynamics and the personal tragedy of Michael Corleone. But only after multiple viewings do you realise that it’s the story of a whole civilisation, and the economic and political changes the society went through over the period of few decades. The Godfather series ages like fine wine, and after each viewing gives you another extra layer of content to ponder upon.
The series, in the initial few viewings, seems like a tale of Michael’s evolution from a young ambitious war hero into a mafia don and ultimately into a tired old man looking for salvation. The three parts of the series cover these three phases of his life. Although the original novel by Mario Puzo is centred more around Don Vito Corleone, in the movies, Francis Ford Coppola, the director, takes the risk of putting more light on Michael, played phenomenally by the then newcomer Al Pacino. The first part in the series (released in 1972) portrays the loss of innocence and the burden of responsibilities that compel Michael to take up a job he never wanted. In the scene where he proposes to Diane Keaton’s character Kay Adams, we get a subtle hint of how important it is for him to have a family and a successor. And similarly in the last scene of the movie, where Michael lies to Kay about killing Carlo to ensure the stability of his family, the cold-bloodedness of Michael gets established more firmly. By the end of the first part of the series, Michael’s transition from a pragmatic individual, who’s more of an outsider, to a ruthless leader with a deep sense of respect for his lineage and family, is complete.
The second part in the series (released in 1974) tries to capture the similarities between the father and son’s characters, as Michael grows his powers but becomes more distant to his family, while also beautifully depicting how Vito Corleone rose to power from the scum of the society and still took care of his family. At the same time, we see the contrasting nature of decision-making by Vito and Michael, where Vito is more principled and ethical but he has to pay the price by failing to avoid bloodshed, while Michael, who is more ambitious and corrupt than his father, doesn’t shy away from orchestrating mass killings himself. And finally the third part in the series (released in 1990) is where we see a purely dysfunctional family with great wealth and power but very little love within. Michael is now an old man who mostly looks tired and fed up with his life of crime, is looking for salvation and ultimately dies a lonely death away from all the noise. It’s the price he had to pay for the sins he had committed. By the end, the audiences are left wondering if Michael paid the price for the choices he made for himself or if he was just the victim of the tragedy of life. These movies collectively are a 9-hour long saga of the life and death of a man and his family. It’s the story of a lifetime.
But then you realise it’s not just what’s there on the surface. The Godfather is not just about the Corleone family or their internal affairs. This series is a commentary, but not a blatant critique, on the capitalist society as we know it and the roles of men and women in it. It showcases every aspect of how modern society works with utmost perfection. It’s a story of the struggle of the downtrodden and the oppressed to break the shackles and be masters themselves. The famous dialogue by Marlon Brando, where he says, “I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by those big shots”, is an example of the same. It’s a story of capitalism allowing even the weakest section of society to make a spot for themselves. The shots of young Vito standing on the immigrant ship with the Statue of Liberty emerging in the background and those of him staring at the statue through his detention cell’s window are excellent metaphors for the Great American Dream. Moreover, the famous opening line by Bonasera, “I believe in America….” is also a hint of the belief of America being the land of the free and the just. It’s a story of violent men ready to massacre each other in broad daylight to gain power.
The movie also depicts the perceived importance of culture and lifestyle, examined through the lavish ceremonies, locations and costumes used in the films. The racist slur made by GD Spradlin’s character Senator Pat Geary during his meeting with Michael (“I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country with your oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits, passing yourselves off as decent Americans”) also shows that no matter how much effort and progress one makes, the elite society won’t accept outsiders. It’s a story of how greed for power can corrupt a man’s conscience. It’s a story of how undeserved luxuries can spoil and weaken men (e.g., the downfall of Fredo). It’s also a story about religion and spirituality. Michael’s constant encounters with the Church (especially in the third part) and his search for salvation speak volumes about the importance of traditions and beliefs. Then again, the dialogue by Marlon Brando, “Women and children can afford to be careless, but not men”, and the one by Al Pacino, “There are things between men and women going on for years, that will not change”, show that women serve only a specific purpose here, in what is essentially a man’s world. It’s a story about family, love, power, betrayal, greed, anger, sacrifice, morals and culture.
Overall, The Godfather is a story of a society of proud men fighting each other to gain material power while simultaneously struggling with their inner demons, a story of the modern Western civilisation. It makes the audience question the American Dream. Is all the power and wealth worth more than your loved ones? Do you even have a choice?
Although The Godfather is known for its sheer cinematic brilliance and career-defining performances and is loved for the depth in story and characters, in today’s world, it won’t be very unusual for a movie like this to be called sexist or politically inappropriate. It is worth asking, after almost 50 years of The Godfather‘s release, in today’s utterly polarised political environment, where movies like Joker, which deliberately trigger the emotions of an uprising of the poor and prefer graphic obscenity with blatant political inclination, how relevant the Great American Dream is and how relevant The Godfather is.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.