“The Godfather is the I-Ching…” Tom Hanks, “You’ve Got Mail”
In the 1998 film, You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, is an independent bookstore owner whose family business is threatened by the opening of a large franchise bookstore. When she unknowingly meets the conglomerate’s owner online, she asks his advice on how to fight the closure of her store. The result is a hilarious scene where Tom Hanks’ character, Joe Fox, tells her she should go to the mattresses, explaining that the phrase is a reference to The Godfather and means she should be prepared to go to war to save her family’s store. When she responds with an exasperated “what is it with men and The Godfather,” he does his best Marlon Brando impersonation and tells her that The Godfather contains all the wisdom she needs to solve her problem.
I adore this scene and I’ve had similar discussions with my female friends who don’t understand my passion and love for what I consider the best movie trilogy ever made. Most women have told me that The Godfather is just too violent for their taste, and I can appreciate that. You can’t tell a story about the rise and fall of an influential Mafia family without depicting a certain amount of gore and brutality in the story. However, I feel that if that’s all you see in the films, you’re only superficially looking at the story.
Above all else, The Godfather trilogy is about family and the lengths you would go to in order to provide for those you love. This theme is exemplified by the beginning of The Godfather II. A young Vito Andolini’s father has been killed by a local crime lord, and his brother was killed trying to avenge their father’s death. Vito’s mother takes him to visit the Don to beg for her youngest son’s life to be spared. The Don, however, is a practical man and knows that as young as Vito is, he’ll harbor resentment over the deaths of his father and brother and return one day to kill the man who destroyed his family; therefore, Vito must die. In a desperate attempt to help her son escape, Vito’s mother pulls a knife on the Don and screams at Vito to run as a bodyguard lowers a rifle and shoots her at point blank range. It is a violent and shocking scene, but what mother wouldn’t sacrifice herself for the child she loves? For the only family she has left? Likewise, in The Godfather, when Connie’s husband, Carlo, abuses her, her brother, Sonny, him up. Afterward, Carlo retaliates by arranging Sonny’s assassination, and Michael takes things into his own hands, against the wishes of his father, who just wants time to mourn his oldest son’s death. When Vito passes away and Michael assumes the role of Don, he takes Carlo under his wing to instill a false sense of security in his nemesis. After revealing that he knows the truth about Sonny’s death, Michael tricks Carlo into thinking he’ll be sent into exile. Instead, Michael has an assassin garrote his brother-in-law in the car that is supposedly taking him to the airport. The brutality is once again underscored by the theme that family is all one has, and that a true man will stop at nothing to avenge a wrong done to his family, even if it means committing heinous acts.
Power is another central theme and through a well-crafted script, powerful acting and a stunning visual production, the viewer is drawn into each character and their motivations. The films portray Michael’s tragic transition from a man who wants nothing to do with his family legacy to a bitter old man whose decisions and influence ultimately leave him with nothing but regret. In contrast, in the course of the three films, Connie rises from a whiny, spoiled brat to the true power behind the Corleone name. Although she gains power as Michael falls, she becomes a shrewish woman who has nobody but her thuggish nephew, Vincenzo, to care for her. She tells Michael that with his power, his enemies will fear him, to which he replies “maybe they should fear you.” She lobbies to have Vincenzo installed as the next Don, but she makes it clear that she controls the decisions her nephew makes in regard to the family business. While it’s fascinating to watch her assassinate a former family friend with a poisoned cannolli at the opera, or order a hit while standing in a church, it’s equally tragic. The viewer knows that, although it’s not something you see in the story, power will corrupt Connie the way it did Michael and that in the end, she will die as Michael dies. Alone and unloved.
I could try to explain all the reasons I find the movies so visually compelling but I lack the background in cinematography to do so. I do know that The Godfather II is the only movie in history that is both a prequel and a sequel, a novel concept executed brilliantly by Francis Ford Coppolla. I have never tried, as Rudy Gulliani mentioned in a recent AMC airing for “Mob Week”, to watch them chronologically. That would be too much work. Instead, I just love to watch them and let the spectacle wash over me. Like a Greek tragedy, The Godfather movies encompass themes of family, love, hate, revenge, distrust, violence and the effects of hubris on both innocence and the innocent. Shakespeare couldn’t have written it better himself.