The Godfather is a 1972 film based on a novel by Mario Puzo. The movie centers on a New York crime family, the Corleones. The first of a trilogy, this movie covers the transfer of power between the old Don, Vito Corleone (also known as The Godfather) and Michael Corleone, one of his sons. This movie is incredibly popular: it held the record for highest grossing picture and is considered by many to be one of the greatest movies of all time.
Superficially, the movie is a coming of age story for Michael Corleone, the most reluctant gangster of Vito’s children. By the end of the movie, Michael is just as “evil” as one might assume a gangster is. But yet, throughout the movie, we find ourselves drawn to Vito and Michael, these men of the Mafia. It is not merely their role as protagonists that draws us in. These men are the most principled people within the movie. Yes, crime permeates their lives. Their empire was built upon corruption and gambling, but yet these men are not themselves corrupt. Vito is the most profound in these respects. At the very beginning of the film, we see him refuse money to take out a man. While the task is essentially a hit, the refusal of money allows it to be seen in another light: Justice.
Justice is one of the main concepts around which the movie revolves. In the conflict among the Five Families, each act of violence is repaid in turn by another act of violence. All of these acts are retributions, acts of justice for previous transgressions. Yet, in most cases, we see these retributions ordered by people other than The Godfather. The Godfather, despite his reputation, is the man who commands the most respect in the movie. He commands much of this respect out of fear and payrolls, but when he calls for an end to the war between the Five Families, he commands our respect for his desire to see an end of death, guaranteeing protection of his family.
Family is important above everything to the Corleones. Michael sums it up well: “Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever.” The Importance of the family is prevalent in many ways, but Vito displays it prominently. His humanity is displayed throughout: his daughter’s wedding, playing with his grandchild, wishing Michael would not follow the family business.
An interesting contrast can be seen between Vito and Michael. Vito had to build the families empire. As a result, he bonded with the people he rose with, bonds displayed with the turnout of other mob bosses at his funeral. Michael was born into the power of the Corleone family. For him, it is merely business. He does not hesitate to eliminate those that stand against him while Vito would rather attempt compromise. We also see him willing to lie to protect his relationship with his wife. But perhaps the most poignant moment is when he orders the assassination of his brother for his transgressions against the family.
Traditionally, government is viewed as the pinnacle of authority. The Godfather captures how authority shifts when corruption is in play. Senators, Judges, and Cops are all paid off with ease, compromising their positions for cash. Vito, however, never compromises his values. He cannot be bought. He refuses to partake in the growing drug market because it clashes with his moral values. In the collapse of the authority of the government, we see people seek out the Mafia as a place of justice, which results in it serving as an alternative place of authority.
Theses can and have been written on this movie and what it says. What I have put here is merely scratching the surface. I encourage you do dig deeper on your own. It is certainly worth the effort.