Going Undercover: ‘The Godfather’
How many Italian words do you know?
If you’re like me, the total probably caps out at a stunning two: “ciao” and “rigatoni.” But you might know another without even thinking about it: “Consigliere.” It’s a term that we are so intimately familiar with, it appears in political and financial headlines with healthy regularity. Consigliere, of course, refers to the second highest position in an organization, a murky backroom advisor of sorts. And the reason we are all so familiar with the term is one film: “The Godfather.”
There are several more Godfatherisms, pieces of the film’s narrative language that we have naturally embedded into the American lexicon. These lingual appendages are a testament to the influence that “The Godfather” has on our vocabulary, as pervasive as they are persistent.
Among my favorite Godfatherisms “going to the mattresses,” a tactic of mafia soldiers to prepare for factional wars by stuffing dozens of mattresses in a single apartment like a military base. The phrase now refers to a ramping up of political tensions, the pregnant stretch just before a cutthroat conflict. Inarguably though, the most iconic Godfatherism is the concept of Fredo. Fredo is the eldest, weakest and most naive of the sons of the Corleone family, but he lives on in the way we discuss any trio and its weakest link.
So much has been said about the sprawling epic of Vito Corleone and his mafia powerhouse that it would be pointless to heap more praise for Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece on the mountain of it that has accumulated over the past 47 years. Instead, much like I did for my first installment of this series with “The Departed,” I’ll be taking a thorough look at several characters in the film to decipher what they signify about culture and its intersection with organized crime. Beyond the Godfatherisms that have employed themselves in political and business dialogue, the key players in the film have become avatars for a shared yet conflicted sense of American identity.
While both “The Departed” and “The Godfather” anatomize organized crime in morally ambiguous ways, the relationship they have to each other regarding ethnicity is certainly worth considering. “The Departed” is primarily and proudly comprised of Irish characters, but in “The Godfather,” the few Irish characters stick out like sore thumbs among the Sicilians around them.
Among the most fascinating aspects of what “The Godfather” has to say about cultural shift manifests in Vito’s sons Michael and Sonny. The story subtly employs these two characters as vehicles to tell a far larger narrative about American values after World War II, and each time I return to the film, their arcs have a renewed weight.
There is something gravely profound about Michael’s transition from an adorned World War II veteran to the Don of the Corleone crime family. When he first greets his relatives after returning from the war during his sister Connie’s wedding, he is a shining, humble hero. His smile is bright, his military suit is decorated lavishly with medals, and his arrival is a delight within the ongoing celebration. Michael’s reception largely mirrors society’s adoration of the American war hero in the late 1940s.
The tragedy is that his turn to the criminal underworld is catalyzed by the simple act of protecting his father in a derelict hospital. After a corrupt Irish captain, McCluskey, strikes him across the face on the night of his father’s abandonment, Michael realizes — much like the post-war society did — that the institutions he had clung to and believed in were corrupt and unjust. This sudden loss of faith in the government that he had once fought for shakes his entire worldview and disposition. The film considers this idea in its very first scene, when Vito actually reprimands a friend, Amerigo Bonasera, for seeking justice in courts rather than the Corleone family. But McCluskey’s brutal hook across Michael’s jaw represents the violent realization of distrust in the government by the film’s initially pristine war hero.
Michael’s descent into a world of corruption mirrors a broader shift in proud American stories about cowboys and soldiers to a darker acceptance of crime and moral confusion. Naturally, this crumbling of moral superiority parallels the rise of counterculture in the ’60s, the uproar of political descent that rattled American discourse like nothing else had. It’s particularly telling that the mark of McCluskey’s punch is more of a scar than a bruise, lingering on Michael’s once-beaming face as an ugly purplish welt for years. Al Pacino’s performance isn’t the same afterward, betraying not a modicum of complacency for the rest of the movie.
Sonny’s arc, on the other hand, plays out more like the fatal consequence of this cultural shift. Where Michael and Vito are reserved and intensely focused, Sonny is loud and brazen, an embodiment of inflated masculinity (in more ways than one, if you’ve read Mario Puzo’s source material). But how does the film reward this machismo, this gleefully angry charisma? It doesn’t. This rash quality is precisely what gets Sonny killed. His emotional opaqueness exposes him to the Corleone’s enemies as an easy target, and they punish him mercilessly for it. His infamous toll booth massacre is an always-jarring moment in “The Godfather,” but perhaps equally noteworthy is the way he dies — writhing and cursing in agony on the doorframe of his bullet-riddled Cadillac until the bitter end.
“The Godfather” and “The Departed” share several similarities after all, despite their opposing environments and cultural backgrounds. Both films rebuke state institutions and the idea of moral superiority in ways that are striking considering the difference their respective release dates. This cultural iconoclasticism is not rare in organized crime stories, but the reason that both are so rewatchable goes beyond their cynicism. The two employ characters as vehicles for the American aspirations, anxieties and fallacies — all while playing out as wildly entertaining human dramas.