The Godfather’s Justice

The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola

“For justice, we must go to Don Corleone.”

The appeal of Vito Corleone is his love of family, his passion for justice, his hard work and up-by-your-bootstraps ethic, and his dislike of unnecessary murder. The Godfather is a kindly uncle, a benevolent papa who showers his closest family with his protection, with gifts, and with the wit and charm of his presence. We love Vito because we want to believe he is, at heart, just a lovable big daddy.

We know he can get tough, but we trust that he knows when it’s okay–indeed, when it’s necessary. It’s a rough world, and someone has to protect us. Who better than the old man who’s been around the block a few times? So while we love him, we also fear him a little. We know that he is capable of some tough stuff. But let’s don’t think about it too much.

Roger Ebert wrote that “‘The Godfather’ is told entirely within a closed world. That’s why we sympathize with characters who are essentially evil.” Ebert’s right. The Godfather (1972), one of the masterpieces of American cinema, chooses for its protagonist a Mafia boss, a criminal mastermind and murderer–and it never shows him do anything criminal. We see Vito grant favors to family and friends, host a glitzy wedding for his daughter, weep over his dead son, putter around his house in his dotage, and play with his grandson in the garden. Violence whirls around the Don like a storm, but he stands impassive at its center, seemingly unconnected to it.

That’s why it is so easy to like the Godfather–indeed, to want to be the Godfather. This movie is famously admired–it is the second greatest film of all time, according to both the American Film Institute and IMDB.com, and won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1972. It has memorable, quotable lines (“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” and “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli”). And it is one of the most well-acted and -crafted movies in history, earning 29 Oscar nominations and nine wins between it and its two sequels.

But its appeal has gone far beyond other classics. I hear people talk about The Godfather in a way wholly different than they speak of Citizen Kane or Raging Bull (reviews here and here). The Godfather and its sequel seem to have a living cache that other old classics lack. It still connects on some primal level.

II.

I suspect it is because viewers–mostly men–love its image of masculinity, of loyalty and friendship and honor. And it’s cloaked in the old-fashioned virtues of fatherhood and family. “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man,” Vito (played by Marlon Brando) tells one client. “Never tell anyone outside the family what you are thinking,” he advises his son, Michael (Al Pacino). The Don is fiercely protective of his own.

He is also protective of his sense of honor and self-respect. When one petitioner offers to pay him to murder his daughter’s rapists, the Don is offended. He is no hired gun. He won’t kill for money. But “if you’d come to me in friendship, this scum who ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by some chance an honest man like yourself made enemies they would become my enemies. And then, they would fear you.” The man replies plaintively, “Be my friend….Godfather?” The Godfather invests in personal relationships like a mentor and friend; the occasional murder done as a favor to a friend is just another way of showing you care.

The Godfather doesn’t think of himself as a crime boss and he is no common criminal. If that’s all he was, no one would admire him they way we do. That’s why his oldest son, Sonny, is a failed Don. He is too erratic, too in love with the fight, too violent. Vito is something more. He is a dispenser of justice.

Augustine asked “What are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms?” Because Vito deals in gambling and prostitution and rules his fiefdom with a few thugs, he’s called a Mafioso. But if someone else deals in oil and alliances and enforces his empire with nuclear bombs and aircraft carriers, he’s called the President.

Vito Corleone is king of his realm and a master of his men, and it is only the injustice of the world that put his realm on the wrong side of the law and labels him a criminal. He has a kingly presence and magnanimity. He has all the marks of sovereignty. Men seek his counsel, ask for his protection, defer to him, and kiss his ring.

The Don’s kingliness is seen mostly clearly in that he is his own source of justice; he wrote his own code. He is answerable to no one. He tells his son, Michael (in the only scene that captures a private moment between the two of them)

I work my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all of those big shots. That’s my life, I don’t apologize for that.

Vito mirrors the sovereignty and, even, the aseity of God. This is part of why The Godfather gets under our skin: “It’s good to be king.” The Godfather, with his class and grace, shows us it’s fun to be king.

III.

But if that’s all it was, The Godfather would not be the epic, Shakespearean achievement that it is. There is something else. The Godfather is a tragedy. Vito is gunned down early in the film–he spends, in fact, a large stretch of movie off screen or comatose in a hospital bed. He wakes to learn that his oldest son has been viciously murdered. The scene of Vito struggling to keep control as he views his son’s mangled corpse is among the most devastating ever filmed. Vito never regains his former vitality. Something has been taken out of him. The price for playing God is steep.

There is a double tragedy. Vito passes the torch to Michael, his youngest son, who gradually comes to dominate the film’s latter passages even as he betrays some of the elder Don’s most cherished rules. Michael’s journey is fascinating on its own and, as it merited its own movie in The Godfather Part II, also merits its own post. Suffice to say that even in the first movie, we see the beginnings of Michael’s gradual descent: he murders his brother-in-law and lies to his sister and wife. Vito built a criminal empire to provide for and protect his family; Michael now begins to clear away the family to protect the empire. The Don’s warmth and magnanimity have been succeeded by the stone cold heart of a businessman.

It is heartbreaking because Michael did not set out to inherit the mantle. In the opening scenes of the film he tells his soon-to-be-wife that he has no role in the “family business” and desires none. He, a respected war veteran, was set on going legitimate. He changes his mind when he saves his father, unconscious in his hospital bed, from assassins. The act of filial loyalty binds Michael to his father and his father’s legacy.

The Godfather is a meditation on the sins of the father. How terrible that the Don’s sins are truly visited upon his children and his grandchildren. The very empire he built, thinking it was his children’s protection and provision, turned out to be their undoing and their destruction; he was blind to the whirlwind he was sowing, and that they would reap.


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