A few weeks ago I wrote about my excitement at the prospect of going to see The Godfather in a movie theater during Fathom Events’ special 45th-anniversary presentation. Last Wednesday evening I finally got to see it, and I was once again floored by this brilliant piece of film-making that is, at its heart, a deeply moving story about the joy and pain (mostly pain) of being part of a family.
A simple way to summarize The Godfather is that it’s about Michael Corleone resisting becoming like his father until he finally can’t resist anymore. But Michael may have been a better godfather and a better man if he had been more like his father. The truth is that Vito Corleone cares very much about his family. When he says early in the film, “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family is no man at all” [all quotes in this post are from memory; please forgive any inaccuracies], we might initially hear this as a piece of hypocrisy that will serve to play up the ironic inconsistency between what Vito says and who he really is. But that isn’t true. I don’t think there’s a single scene in this film in which Vito isn’t with a member of his family. He dies while playing in the garden with his grandson (in contrast with Michael, who at the end of Part Three dies alone). And he isn’t forcing his company on his family for appearance’s sake or in order to use them: His family genuinely loves him. Look at his sons’ reactions to the shooting that nearly takes his life. Sonny responds with violence and vengeance because that’s who Sonny is, but his violence barely conceals his deep love for his father. The whole reason Michael gets involved in the family business, which he said he’d never do, is to protect his father from further assassination attempts. One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is when Michael leans over his father’s hospital bed (which he has just hidden in an empty room) and says, “I’m here with you now.” Another moving scene a little earlier in the film is when, right after Vito has been shot, Fredo breaks down weeping in the street, unable even to call for help. Clearly, these young men love their father.
But Vito’s definition of “family” isn’t limited to flesh and blood. He remains loyal to his two oldest friends in America, Clemenza and Tessio. He takes in a little orphan named Tom Hagen and raises him like one of his own sons. He stands godfather (in the religious sense) to Johnny Fontaine and remains invested in Johnny’s life as the years go by. (There’s a telling moment in the wedding sequence at the beginning of the film. Vito seems pretty bored by all the requests people are making as they file through his office, but when he looks out the window and sees his godson’s car pull up, suddenly he takes an interest.) We could say that Vito’s family is his entire community. After all, as we learn in Part Two, he got his start as the don by acting as a neighborhood hero, rescuing powerless people from bullies like Don Fanucci. Another beautiful moment in the first film is his funeral, attended by a multitude of people carrying a veritable field of flowers.
Vito Corleone grew his family by including as many people as he safely could. Michael, in contrast, after he becomes the godfather, keeps narrowing his definition of “family.” Throughout the three films, he systematically alienates (and, in most cases, kills) nearly all of his father’s old friends. He gets rid of peripheral family members like his brother-in-law Carlo (though, in fairness, that jerk had it coming) and his not-quite-brother Tom Hagen (removing Tom as consigliere is one of Michael’s first acts as godfather). Eventually, late in Part Two, he gets to the illogical point of killing his own literal blood brother in the name of the abstract concept he calls “the family.” When Vito talked about family, he meant the people he cared about and tried to protect. When Michael talks about family, it’s unclear what he means. There’s an ominous conversation in the first film in which Michael tells Fredo (the brother he eventually has killed) never to “align [himself] with anyone against the family again.” That doesn’t make sense; Fredo is family just as much as Michael is–if being family means being a Corleone. But that isn’t what the term means to Michael, apparently. When we get to Part Three and realize that he has driven away even his wife and children, we get the impression that there’s only one member of Michael’s family–himself. And he realizes, too late, that it’s incredibly lonely being a family of one.