Two superb masterpieces, comparable to the first sequence of films made by Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 The Godfather & 1974 The Godfather – Part II are real landmarks in the history of American cinema and turning points in the country’s image of itself.
In 1945, on his daughter’s wedding day, Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), who is the boss of a New York criminal clan, hears requests from selected guests. Some want justice; some want a role in an upcoming movie; some just want to pay their respect. As the Don’s third son, Michael (Al Pacino) returns from serving his country in World War II and brings his girlfriend Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) to meet the family, we get acquainted with all the family members. These are: first and second sons, hot-headed Sonny (James Caan) and weak-minded Fredo (John Cazale), daughter Connie (Talia Shire) and adopted son, trusted lawyer and consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). ooooo ooo When a crime lord invites Don Corleone to join him in the emergent drug market and he refuses, an attempted murder fails to kill him. Michael, thus far an openly outsider and the only college-educated of the children, suggests the assassination of the two men responsible for their troubles. After killing the drug baron and the crooked, ‘on his pay roll’ police officer, Michael flees to Sicily, in Italy. When Sonny is killed in retaliation for the previous murders, the Godfather arranges a meeting with the other crime families of New York to establish a cease-fire. As Michael is allowed to return to the USA, he becomes the new Don. Soon after Vito Corleone dies, on the day of his sister Connie’s baby’s baptism, Michael Corleone orders the death of every single of his enemies, the bosses of the other criminal families.
The second film, which is thematically richer and more sophisticated, picks up from where it all ended to tell two distinct but parallel stories. The two tales, which have great significance to each other, depict on the one hand, the rise of the Godfather, from the immigrant boy Vito Andolini (Oreste Baldini) to established and respected businessman and community leader Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro), and on the other, the consolidation of power by Don Michael Corleone as he expands his business interests to gambling and prostitution in the American West and beyond. As we see the humble beginnings of the immigrant Vito, trying hard to work and provide for his family, it becomes obvious that Michael’s arrogance, narcissism and ever-expanding ambitions are somewhat foolish. By the end of the film, after having separated from Kay, ordered his own brother’s death and trusting no-one, Michael sits alone in his mansion by the lake.
There is a scene at the beginning of The Godfather – Part II that reveals a significant perspective on the American dream. At the family’s estate by the Lake Tahoe, inside Michael’s office, Senator Pat Geary (G. D. Spradlin) is showing a great deal of contempt for his host’s way of life. After publicly thanking the Corleone family for a generous charity contribution, he defiantly demands a bribe for the issue of a gambling licence. ‘I don’t like your kind of people. I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country in oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits and try to pass yourselves off as decent Americans. I’ll do business with you, but the fact is that I despise your masquerade, the dishonest way you pose yourself… yourself and your whole fucking family.’ As the Senator talks, Michael and Tom Hagen give furtive looks in his direction. The whole scene exerts a controlled threatening atmosphere as Pacino’s and Duvall’s nuanced performances embody the malign power hidden behind the Corleones’ expensive surroundings.
Michael knows that it is not necessary to respond to the Senator in his own terms. He knows that, perhaps not immediately, but sometime in the near future, he will have the Senator on his side. And there, in this short sequence, lies one of the most important themes of the trilogy: that the United States believed for far too long in the myth of the American dream. The idea that one had only to work hard enough to succeed has been dwelling in the collective consciousness of the American public since the creation of the nation. In the early 70s, when the first two films were released, America was confronted by an identity crisis. The economy was slowing down from the accelerated, prosperous post-war period. The Vietnam War shattered America’s perception of its own supremacy. The sexual and cultural revolutions had failed to create a new kind of society. Emerging from the ashes of the idealistic 60s, a new cynicism was spreading among the disillusioned. Michael sums up succinctly the skepticism of the times: ‘Senator, we’re both part of the same hypocrisy.’
..The Beginning and the End of Life.
Senator Geary’s contempt for the Corleones is akin to the attitude of white, Anglo-Saxon America towards the rest of the world, and indeed, towards its own ethnic population. And although the United States has been a multicultural nation since its birth, built as much by Italians and Jews as by its white elements, for some perverse reason, the country thinks of itself as a Christian, perhaps freer, derivative of the English pilgrims. Senator Geary’s disdain for the Italians’ ‘oily hair’ and ‘masquerades’ (analogous to the way Europeans felt about colonial Africa), plus his choosing to ignore his own dishonest way, betrays his own reasoning. His thinking might denote a feeling of superiority but in fact it just tells us a lot about the Senator’s own lack of self-worth. He has no trouble of conscience in moralising upon acts for which he also is guilt of. And there it is America’s attitude towards the world in a nutshell.
This deluded and narcissistic way of seeing oneself is further dealt with by two important scenes from the first film: the exchange between Don Vito Corleone and Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) at the outset of the movie; and the conversation between Michael and his future wife Kay after his exile in Italy. The three scenes form a thread (one of the several recurring motifs presented inside the trilogy) that deal with the faith in the American ethos. These represent different perceptions on how the United States operate; on how the paradigm is understood. And even though all three sequences are pervaded by a widespread faith in the American dream, they each cast different shades over the American landscape of understanding its most significant interpretation of itself. ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo If one were to arrange the three scenes in an order for which they show trust in the system, from the most unquestioning position to its most cynical one, then we would have: first, the Michael and Kay scene; then, Don Corleone and Bonasera; and lastly, Michael and Senator Geary. They represent a gradual decline in the belief of the American system. Starting at a point of total and blind faith in the system, then evolving into a qualified acceptance with a hint of suspicion, thus finally disintegrating into hopeless cynicism. When Michael announces to Kay that now he works for his father, she is disappointed:
- Kay: ‘But you’re not like him, Michael. I thought you were not becoming a man like your father. That’s what you told me.’
- Michael: ‘My father is no different from any powerful man. Any man who is responsible for other people. Like a senator or president.’
- Kay: ‘You know how naïve you sound?’
- Michael: ‘Why?’
- Kay: ‘Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.’
- Michael: ‘Oh! Who’s being naïve now, Kay?’
The difference in worldview is actually remarkable for two young people, who probably have a great deal in common in terms of education and socio-economic class. And yet, because of their background, they see their own country’s political framework in totally opposing ways. In the midst of a group still to be completely assimilated by the mainstream, the story drops the Wasp girlfriend, who unquestionably asserts her faith in the status quo. The fact that she is a schoolteacher, a profession loaded with meaningful connotations about the middle class, lends another layer to her inability to perceive her society’s structure objectively. In the 50s – the period covered by the film – with prosperity on the rise, and with a growing percentage of the population benefiting from the boom of the post-war years, it was extremely difficult for mainstream society to see the paradoxes of the American dream. Thus Kay is a proxy for the general public in the United States. From within everything seems to be working perfectly well.
But Bonasera’s iconic monologue at the beginning of The Godfather, hints at something rotten within the dream. ‘I believe in America,’ he says. ‘America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in the American fashion…’ What for Kay is conviction gained from years of indoctrination, for Bonasera, it becomes willing belief. It’s implicitly understood that for the American dream to have any meaning, the system must work consistently most of the time. If it does not, then the whole idea is a con. And through Bonasera’s account of the beating of his daughter by two men, who received suspended sentences and were free to go, we sense a prejudiced system of justice. It does not really matter that the film does not show the exact facts of the trial, because the scene’s connotation is clear: the accepted way of dealing with injustice does not always satisfy us.
In the past, always afraid to be closely involved with the Godfather, he kept a respectful distance. Convinced that the legitimate authorities would be enough to protect his interests, he never needed or wanted protection from the illicit sources of the Corleones. Then, blinded by a revengeful fury, he compromises his integrity, asking the Don for justice. Now he owns the Corleone clan a favor and becomes indirectly complicit in their criminal activities. And Don Vito Corleone makes sure that he understands his new position: ‘Some day, and that day may never come, I’ll ask a service of you. But until that day accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.’
Bonasera accepts the deal, but will refuse to be too close to his new friend. Although his belief in the American dream is a bit shattered, it does not break; he still believes in America, but now, with a pinch of salt. For Kay, a gift of that nature would be inconceivable. As a true insider (fully indoctrinated) she is convinced that justice can be reached without compromises. On the other hand, for Senator Geary, a gift is not part of the deal. Although mistaken, he believes that the balance of power tilts in his favor. He is the one who can dictate the terms of the relationship. The Senator might be deluded that criminal activities in America, this ‘clean country’, the home of ‘decent Americans’ is only the realm of foreign elements, but he is cynical enough to profit from the system, to abuse his position of power. ooooo ooooo ooooo ooooo All three scenes, although elaborating different perceptions of the system, show how pervasive is the belief that in an ideal world the American way is the superior system, or perhaps the least imperfect one. Therefore, even for Bonasera or the Senator the American dream is still much alive. For the Italian, the dream resides in a sheltered past, before his daughter was big enough to mix with American boys; for the Nevada politician, it exists in a land without the foreign influence. However, for Michael, ancestral instinct would suggest that the dream is an illusion. The United States has always been built with the blood of millions, exploiting first the indigenous population, and then the masses of poor immigrants from Europe.
In the New York of the 30s (stunningly realised), De Niro’s young Vito Corleone is trying hard to be a decent, assimilated American. Even if the film does not try to idealise the character into the traditional good guy – from the beginning it shows him whole, with as much opportunism as with decency – it is obvious that hard work alone won’t suffice. His story clearly exposes the inherent paradox within the idea of the American dream. Whatever benefit is taken for granted in the mainstream, like the rule of law or an independent justice system, do not usually work well in the fringes of society. Ethnic communities that do not have political influence cannot fight for justice the traditional way. If there is prejudice, then there’s a lack of empathy. Their plight is not perceived as the nation’s problem. Therefore, the ethos of hard-work-equals-rewards becomes just empty promise.
These two masterpieces taken together – and to a lesser extent, the third film too – are so complex in their exploration of the power games in America that they are capable of explaining a whole political realm in less than ten hours. To my understanding, The Godfather and The Godfather – Part II are not only impressive artistic achievements, but more generally, magnificent intellectual accomplishments. How many people in the US still ‘believe in America’? I mean, not in a patriotic or jingoistic way. Everywhere around the world people love and admire their own countries. No, the question is, how many Americans still think that the United States is a true meritocratic nation?
There is no denying the astonishing artistic vision and superb landmarks in the history of American cinema that both films represent. These are incredibly multi-layered with meanings and subtexts. Just to mention few of them: how to reconcile the young and handsome hero who turns into the most despicable of villains? If familial bond and loyalty conflicts with justice, which virtue should prevail? Is the feminist ideal, as embodied by Kay, compatible at all with cohesive family life? Watch these films again and again, and see what they can do for you…