We know, of course, that we’re not supposed to like the Corleones. We know that what they’re doing is terrible and the effect they have on the greater world is horrible and detrimental, yet we like them anyway. They are immoral, evil murderers. We know that. We understand it. But within the world of The Godfather they are the heroes.
The Godfather changed the rules of one of the oldest genres in movies by changing its perspective. The movie examines the world of the mob from the inside-out so that we understand the workings of the mob from their point of view. In that way, it allows us to shift perspective so we see the story through the eyes of The Corleone family who seem (and basically are) inherently evil, but within this inner sanctum of crime families are actually the heroes.
The morality inside this society of gangsters and mafia families is completely alien to our own. The word “family” comes to mean, not just blood lines but genetic lines. It is not just a family of fathers and sons but also of generals and soldiers. We are introduced to various families which are established like different countries. They do business together, they make treaties, they go to war and all fall under a long-established, self-made code of conduct whereby the rules that we are familiar with are distorted. The only sin in their world is disloyalty and the wages of sin is death.
Dispensing with the idea of the playing field of cops and criminals, the only characters in the film of any real relevance are connected with the mob. The heroes of the story are the Corleones, a powerful New York family that has thrived on an olive oil business and money made from prostitution and gambling – which Vito, the family patriarch, calls harmless vices. We meet his extended family and several other key players in the now famous wedding sequence which introduces us to at least two dozen characters and their connection with the Corleones. When this scene is over, we have been introduced to almost all of the major players who will be significant later. This way, all the needless introductions are out of the way and the story can flow more smoothly.
Casting is key. Coppola wanted faces, memorable faces to populate his film so that they would also populate our minds. He casts actors who are hefty, with large jowly faces that are lit well and leave an impression in our minds. Did you ever notice in some movies that all the characters sometimes look the same: chiseled, good-looking models that you never meet in real life. The brilliant casting by Louis Di Giaimo allows the deep lines in the face to be accented by the dark lighting.
Key to The Godfather is the character of Vito Corleone, the wise, cool-headed patriarch who manages his family by avoiding unnecessary conflict. He is a businessman who sees a perspective on his business and his family that others tend to miss. He is even-tempered and would rather discuss a problem than drive toward violence. He remains even tempered, his only outburst comes when his weak-kneed Godson gets emotional rather than rational. He has ruled this family with an even hand for the better part of 50 years. We see that destiny hasn’t given him the promise of an heir to the throne. He has three sons, Santino (James Caan) – hot-tempered and violent; Fredo (John Cazale) – weak in heart and mind; and Michael (Al Pacino) – intelligent and patient, the most like his father and most likely to inherit the family business.
Michael remains outside the family. He goes to college, enlists in the Army, fights in World War II and returns a hero. His father wants him to use his intellect for something outside the family business – maybe politics. But the winds of destiny and circumstances draw him closer to running the family. The long-running struggle throughout the film is based around The Godfather’s refusal to get involved in the drug trade. He knows that the rackets like prostitution, gambling, alcohol are viewed by his political friends as harmless vices, however drugs are dirty and messy and unpredictable. Vito correctly guesses that it “is going to destroy us in the years to come”. Others see it differently and despite his warnings, they only see the money to be made. He is always looking ahead, like a chess master. The saddest element of The Godfather is that this nasty business of drugs will become a business that the level-headed Michael will inevitably inherit.
What makes the film work is the story construction. There are characters who are briefly introduced and given a purpose and later brought back into the story at crucial moments. Take for example Enzo, the baker. It is explained that he has came to America and joined the war effort, but now that the war is over, he will be repatriated back to Italy.. So, Enzo’s employer asks the Godfather to arrange it so that he could marry his daughter and stay in the country. Later, when we see Enzo, it is to visit The Godfather in the hospital after a botched assassination attempt and Enzo becomes a key figure in deterring a group of thugs who come to finish the job. There are all kinds of smaller characters like that who come into the film, seem to have little purpose but play key roles later.
The late film critic Gene Siskel observed that “The Godfather is about how justice denied becomes justice subverted”. This is especially true in the case of Bonesera. He had been denied justice when his daughter was assaulted by a teenage boy and now comes to the Godfather for restitution. Vito is slightly insulted that Bonasera would assume that murder is an afterthought for a mob bigshot like Corleone, but he is willing to make an adjustment for this man, reminding him that “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me”. When that day comes, the service is not beyond his means, it is not violence but a favor to make his murdered son look appropriate for his mother.
Moments like this help us to understand what has been lost when The Godfather dies. The future of this world of organized crime is becoming less crafty, more hot tempered, more reactionary and less compelled to weigh their options. Listen carefully, in the film to the score which comes in under the drama, Nino Rota’s music is funerary in its tone, a perfect evocation of a dying age.