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5:29 a.m. - 2021-12-21
Francis Ford Coppola's THE GODFATHER, based on the bestselling novel by Mario Puzo, is almost universally accepted as a great film. It's a compelling story, well-acted, with iconic scenes and dialogue so memorable that some of it has become part of the American language. ("I made him an offer he couldn't refuse.") I don't dispute any of that, but THE GODFATHER is not my favorite movie or even my favorite gangster movie. It's flawed, and some of the flaws are important, particularly in its depiction of the Mafia. I think Martin Scorsese's films are much more insightful in terms of Mafia life; so too the TV series THE SOPRANOS.

THE GODFATHER presents an ethos of loyalty and family honor. Michael Corleone, against his will and aspiration, finds himself in a situation where those two virtues demand that he give up his relative innocence and become the head of a criminal organization. In contrast, GOODFELLAS (1990) shows us a criminal organization in which the phrase "honor among thieves" is ironic at best. After a successful six million dollar robbery of Lufthansa at the JFK International Airport, the criminals begin turning on each other, eliminating the least cautious and not coincidentally cutting down on the number of people to share in the wealth. In THE GODFATHER the gang war is precipitated when Don Vito Corleone refuses to enter into a partnership with Sollozzo because he doesn't want to deal in drugs. This seems like a very fine tuned moral sense, since he already deals in prostitution, gambling, bribery, extortion and murder. It's like saying, "I'm still a good man as long as I don't cross this line," and he gets to choose where the line is drawn. He's more virtuous than Sollozzo, which only makes him the cleanest hog in the wallow. GOODFELLAS and THE IRISHMAN draw no such spurious moral lines, and Tony Soprano's likability is based more on the James Galdolfini performance than any presumed ethical superiority.

The three principal women in THE GODFATHER are not particularly admirable nor even likable, and function to be protected from the harsh reality of the world ruled by their men. Connie Corleone, whose marriage bookends the movie with her wedding at the beginning and the murder of her traitorous husband at the end, is a battered woman who remains loyal to her abuser. Sonny's need to protect his sister leads to his murder by ambush. Apollonia ("Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday . . .") is the innocent bride whom Michael fails to protect, leading him to shelter the hapless and highly malleable Kay from the cold realities of Mafia life. In contrast, Lorraine Bracco's character Karen is equally strong to Ray Liotta's, and she knows full well what he does for a living. The same is true of Carmela Soprano, who is not above using her influence and power as a Mafia wife to further her own ends. The "women need to be protected" theme is exposed in THE IRISHMAN, when Frank's daughter Peggy figures out early on exactly who and what her father is, eventually cutting him out of her life. Frank remains clueless on the subject, still insisting in his declining years that his only purpose was to protect his family. Taking his young daughter to watch him beat up a man who insulted her demonstrates how out of touch Frank really is.

In THE GODFATHER mob violence is never without reason and is carefully planned and executed. The almost military precision of Michael's elimination of his enemies toward the end of the movie is thorough and deliberate. But the Joe Pesci character Tony Devito in GOODFELLAS kills people in fits of rage: Billy Batts and later Spider, whose demise begins with a childish attempt to copy a cliche scene from Hollywood westerns: fake macho building on fake macho. In the SOPRANOS the murder of Tracee by Ralph is brutal and spontaneous, and there is a sad, comic element when Christopher and Paulie kill a waiter who complains about the size of his tip. Criminals kill for a reason sometimes, but they also kill because they don't care about human life and because they can get alway with it.

Both movies and the HBO series can be seen as ironic commentaries on the American dream, and THE GODFATHER most certainly had an influence on all of the movies that followed. It's a powerful film, worth watching more than once, but it's depiction of the Mafia is sadly romanticized.


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