the good father in The Godfather

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.

movie marathon: the Statue of Liberty and immigration

Remember when I suggested (implicitly) that you should watch The Godfather Part III alongside Thor: The Dark World because of all the juicy family drama?  Well, now I’m suggesting that you watch The Godfather Part II alongside An American Tail (yes, 80’s kids, that’s the first Fievel movie).  Despite the radically different audiences to which these two films were marketed, the similarity is actually pretty obvious: both follow the adventures of a European boy (or young male mouse) who arrives in New York Harbor during America’s golden age of immigration.  If you watch them together, you’ll see all kinds of connections.  Here’s a disclaimer: I’m writing this post as a movie fan, not a historian.  I’m getting some relevant details from Wikipedia and drawing my own conclusions.  If you want a thorough and thoughtful history of American immigration, don’t read this.  If you want an idea for a movie marathon that will involve your mind and your heart, keep reading.

1. An American Tail (1986).  The Mousekewitz family leaves Russia, fleeing violence,* and sails to America in the crowded third-class hold of a ship.  Their young son, Fievel, falls overboard and washes up in New York Harbor, alone and afraid.  During his brief stint as a street urchin, Fievel runs afoul of a nasty underground (literally) crime boss, attends a political rally, and has some cross-cultural immigrant experiences when he visits an Irish wake and makes friends with an Italian teen.  After participating in a successful plot to break the crime boss’s hold on the community, he is reunited with his family.

Oh, also–the Mousekewitzes are mice fleeing cat violence, Fievel is fished out of the harbor by pigeons, the crime boss is a cat, and Fievel also makes friends with a harmless (vegetarian, tender-hearted, and silly) cat during his underground adventures.  That Italian “teen” is a mouse, and so is pretty much everyone else in the movie.

But none of this detracts from the seriousness of the story.  An American Tail is still an excellent film about family, fear, injustice, resilience, and American diversity.  The animation is timeless, the story is taut and exciting, and the music, scored by James Horner (whom we miss), is emotionally pitch-perfect.  Some of the songs have become classics.  Even if you’ve never seen this movie, you’d probably recognize the sad split-screen scene in which Fievel and his sister both sing “Somewhere Out There” against the background of an enormous full moon.  And “There Are No Cats in America,” the rousing number sung in the hold of the ship, is basically the rodent version of Bruce Springsteen’s “American Land”–both are deliriously hopeful songs of immigrant dreams that America could never fulfill.

Much of this movie’s action takes place against the heavily symbolic backdrop of the Statue of Liberty, whose construction is completed during the course of the story.  In An American Tail, the Statue represents hope.  It’s there, to a nest in Liberty’s torch, that Fievel is first taken by the pigeons, and it’s there that the head pigeon (who is French, to represent the Statue’s designers) tells him, in song, to “never say never.”  The Statue is one of the last images we see in the film as well.  The overall tone of An American Tail is celebratory of the opportunities that American affords, yet it isn’t blindly so.  The irony of “There Are No Cats in America” sounds a cautionary note: no country can fulfill the wildest dreams of the desperate.

Fievel and Henri the pigeon fly past the Statue of Liberty

Fievel and Henri the pigeon fly past the Statue of Liberty

2. The Godfather Part II (1974).  By the time the silent 9-year-old Vito Andolini arrives at Ellis Island (alone, like Fievel) in 1901, escaping a vendetta in his hometown of Corleone, Sicily, the Statue of Liberty has been finished for 15 years.  An immigration official misreads Vito’s identification tag and writes down his name as “Vito Corleone,” and the rest is history–movie history, anyway.

I’m not going to summarize The Godfather Part II for you.  It’s 200 minutes long.  (An American Tail is only 80.)  It has two major plot lines, and both of them sprawl over giant swaths of time and space.  For the purposes of this post, I’ll say that among all the film’s many themes (such as family, fear, injustice–actually, they’re really similar to An American Tail‘s themes), immigration–specifically, what we mean when we say that America is a melting pot–is a big one.  And that’s not only true in the young Vito, 1920’s-NYC plot line, but also in the plot line that takes place in 1958, after both the Corleone family and America have gotten a lot bigger and a lot more complicated.

I’ll give you one example: listen to the vitriolic ugliness of Senator Geary’s bigoted comments in the privacy of Michael Corleone’s study at the beginning of the movie, and then listen to the senator’s awkwardly well-rehearsed speech about his “Italian-American friends” in the hearing scene near the end.  Official tolerance masks private hatred in the hypocrisy (as Michael rightly calls it) of relations between politics and crime.

The Statue of Liberty isn’t a major symbol in The Godfather Part II, but young Vito and his fellow passengers take a slow, lingering look at it while they are still aboard the ship.  (Three-hour movies can afford a lot of slow, lingering looks.)  Some of the fellow passengers seem enraptured by the promise of America, but the young boy’s face is inscrutable.  There’s another shot a few minutes later in which Vito’s face is juxtaposed with a reflection of the Statue.  Again, he doesn’t appear to have any grand hopes.  For him, arriving in America simply means that he isn’t dead yet.

young Vito and Lady Liberty

young Vito and Lady Liberty

So, here’s the plan: block off five hours of your life, get your hands on these two films, and prepare to laugh, cry, and think.  After that, you might want to watch Fievel Goes West (a challenging exploration of the meaning of Manifest Destiny…well, sort of) and The Godfather (which opens with the line, “I believe in America”).  Stay tuned for more movie marathon recommendations!

*The violent event at the beginning of the film appears to be a cross between an attack by Cossack marauders and an anti-Jewish pogrom.  There are overtones of both.

Family drama

During the past 24 hours I have watched two movies that were good, but not great.  Both suffered–though not to a great extent–from cheesy dialogue and improbable plot lines.  Yet I was thoroughly engrossed in both, and now I can’t stop thinking about them.  The movies were The Godfather: Part 3 (generally agreed to be the least good–it would be false to say the “worst”–of the three) and Thor: The Dark World.  The reason I’ve invested so much thought and feeling into these movies has little or nothing to do with dark elves, astrophysicists, or bloodbaths in New York or Sicily.  It has to do with family drama.

Maybe it’s because my own immediate family has experienced mercifully smooth sailing over the years (I mean, we scream at each other sometimes, but that’s not enough to make a movie premise), but whatever the reason, I love stories about families trying to navigate the treacherous waters of heartbreak, betrayal, and that kind of stuff.  I’m especially a sucker for brother stories (see my poem on that topic; my latest Weasley fanfic also picks up on this theme), but any combination of sibling, parent-child, or husband-wife relationship will do it for me.

The Godfather trilogy is, of course, all about a F/family.  Though I consider all three movies to be well worth the significant time commitment, Part 2 is the one that absolutely blows my mind.  A lot happens in the three hours and 20 minutes we’re with the Corleones, but it all really comes down to sibling relationships, as the four children of Don Vito try to figure out what to do with his staggering legacy of blood and money.  We have a brother who blunders into an offense, a brother who can’t forgive that offense, a sister who is blindly loyal to her family, and a dead oldest brother whose presence is still there.  We have a fratricide–committed by proxy but no less real.  For me, the best scene in that movie is a flashback where all four siblings, young adults, are sitting around a table, celebrating a birthday (I think it’s their father’s).  We see Sonny, Fredo, Connie, and Michael having a very normal interaction that is bittersweet and fascinating only because we know who they will all turn out to be.  It is a brilliant scene.

In Part 3, though Michael’s problems with his own children and estranged wife take precedence, I was happy to see that the sibling relationships still get their due emphasis, even if only two of the siblings are still alive.  Connie is still there telling Michael the lies he wants to hear; Sonny is there in the person of his equally hotheaded son, and Fredo haunts Michael like Banquo’s ghost.*  I could have dispensed with all the Vatican stuff and even the rival mafiosi.  I could have just watched Michael sitting in a room surrounding by his closest family members with his conscience eating him alive.

Similarly, in Thor: The Dark World, I wouldn’t have cared if nobody ever visited Earth or any other realm (although I did feel like I was really cool when my limited knowledge of German helped me figure out quickly what “Svartalfheim” meant).  I would have been content to just watch the family drama play out in Asgard.  There’s certainly plenty of it.  Thor deliberately and calculatingly defies Odin’s orders, unlike in the last movie when he only did so on an angry whim.  And Frigga defies Odin’s orders too!  (Are you friggin’ kidding me?  Sorry, I couldn’t help it.)  And what is up with Loki?  Does he really love his mom, or is that part of his elaborate B.S.?  And then there’s the brother rivalry.  There are about five bizarre but wonderful minutes in which this movie becomes a fantastical version of a road trip comedy.  There is actually a conversation in which Loki criticizes Thor’s driving (flying) and Thor tells him to shut up.  This is spot-on sibling stuff.  I think my sister and I had the exact same conversation last time we were in a car together.

I’ve never read the Elder Edda, but from my limited understanding of Norse mythology, I don’t think the familial relationships were emphasized much at all in the original legends.  (Odin, to paraphrase a line from The Dark World, was far more All-Father than any specific person’s father.  And Loki was never actually adopted by the Odin family; he was merely a barely-tolerated mischief-causing member of Odin’s entourage.)  It may be blasphemous to say so, but I think Marvel Comics improved on the original by playing up and/or creating the deep connections between the characters.  It certainly made The Avengers much more interesting: Did you notice how Thor never really becomes just one of the guys?  The others keep their distance from him.  Surely this is not only because he’s semi-divine (like Superman, but without the human guise) but also, and probably more so, because he’s the villain’s brother.

I should stop.  Suffice it to say that I’m in serious geek-out mode right now about both of these fictional families, and I can’t wait to hash it all out with the next person I run into who’s seen either or both of the movies.  If you want to be that person, get the conversation started in the comments!

*Look, I know this is a spoiler, but I don’t think anybody has a right to complain about spoilers when the movie has been out for decades.