The Godfather

The Godfather Themes

Public Vs. Private

In the opening sequence of The Godfather, there is a clear line between public and private. On the lawn of the Corleone Mall, Connie Corleone is getting married to Carlo Rizzi with much pomp and circumstance. Inside the house, her father, Don Vito Corleone, conducts his business. He meets with various constituents and determines whether or not he can help them with their problems through illegal means like bribery and violence. Don Corleone is careful to keep these two worlds separate. Similarly, the Corleone family works out of the Genco Olive Oil Offices, the company that serves as a front for their illegal dealings. Behind closed doors, however, they discuss drugs and murder. At the end of the film, Michael is being catechized while a massacre he planned for is being carried out. The nature of organized crime forces each of the characters in the film to essentially lead a double life - one in the light, and one in the shadows. At first, these worlds can co-exist harmoniously, but as the film goes on, the boundaries start to collapse.


Coppola wrote in his production notebook, "'POWER, POWER, POWER, POWER, POWER - never forget that it is from a fascination of the limits and manipulations of Power that keep people interested in this book'" (Jones 25). At its core, The Godfather is a study of how Michael and his family are changed by the ebbs and flows of power. Coppola presents Don Corleone as an omniscient being from the beginning of the film, and by his death, he is just a scruffy old man lying in a tomato patch. When his power is stripped away, he becomes a doting grandfather. Michael, meanwhile, starts the film as a young man trying to figure out his life's path. As he claims more and more of his father's legacy, his inner ruthlessness comes out, clouding any compassion he once possessed.


Coppola explores the roots of the Corleone family much more in The Godfather, Part II, but it is clear from the beginning of the film that Sicilian tradition is important in both the Corleones' business and in the family. Despite Don Corleone having been in America since he was 9 years old, many of the rules and rituals of the organized crime world come from Sicily. Because Francis Ford Coppola himself is Italian-American, he interweaves the Old World Values into the film without making it feel caricatured. Connie's wedding is a particular example - most of the guests are Italian or Italian-American, the music is Italian wedding music (composed by Coppola's father, Carmine), and many of Coppola's family members are extras. Meanwhile, Don Corleone upholds certain Old World traditions - he can never say "no" on his daughter's wedding day, he keeps his wife and children separate from his work, and he believes in helping those who have helped him - and vice versa. Sonny and Michael, however, start to overthrow these traditions and, therefore, wreak havoc on the infrastructure and reputation that their father established.


In the world of The Godfather, loyalty is currency. A man's word is more valuable than his money. In the very first scene, Amerigo Bonasera wants the Godfather to help him seek revenge on his daughter's attackers. It does not cost him money (Corleone is insulted by the offer), but rather, his loyalty. When Don Corleone comes to Bonasera for a favor, he will have no choice to comply. Loyalty governs many of the major decisions Coppola's characters make - and a betrayal means certain death. Tessio, for example, knows from the moment that Tom Hagen confronts him that he's been made - and understands exactly what this means. He weakly tries to save himself, begging Tom to release him "for old time's sake", but he does not run.


One of the major differences between Coppola's representation and the "gangster" films of the 1930s is the director's representation of violence. While they are criminals, the members of organized crime families in The Godfather are not bloodthirsty pirates - at least not on the surface. In the scene where Don Corleone collects all the heads of the 5 families, everything comes out in subtext, not in some kind of unrestrained battle. It's more like a boardroom than a gang war. The code of violence exists under the guise of integrity, which is crucial to the infrastructure of this world. Peter Cowie writes,"Clearly, Coppola approves of the Don's grandiose manner more than he does of Michael's postwar wisdom. Perhaps he sees in the father something of the spirit of the pioneering America, an ample vision that has been displaced by a kind of colorless, industrial barony. Don Vito's humility is discarded by Michael and the new generation" (Cowie 71).


In the scene between Michael and Don Corleone in the garden, shortly before Don Corleone passes away, the differences between the two men come to the surface. Don Corleone became a Don because it was what he knew - he needed to take care of his family. He is a king, yes, but of a dark underworld where his life has always been in the balance. Meanwhile, Michael had a choice. In the moment when Don Corleone is lying in the hospital and Michael comes to see him, he makes a choice - he is going to do whatever it takes to protect his father, even if that means committing murder. However, his motivation starts to take root in his quest for power rather than his responsibility to his family. In fact, due to his rapid ascension to the top of the organized crime world, Michael actually ends up driving a wedge between himself and his family.

Business Vs. Personal

As laid out in The Godfather, it is important to make decisions that are best for the Family and not simply based on a personal vendetta. Sonny, with his hot temper, has difficulty controlling his aggression and has a tendency to strike out at will. He is driven by his emotions, which is what makes him a bad Don (and ultimately costs him his life). Michael, meanwhile, is much more calculated, which makes him grow cold, as well. Sonny beats up Carlo, his brother-in-law, because he loves his sister and cannot control his anger. Michael later has Carlo killed - not because of the abuse, but because Carlo was a traitor. He does not even do this himself - he stands by and watches Clemenza strangle Carlo. He never even considers his sister and her children. While Michael's shrewd business ability makes him a successful and ruthless Don, it also drives him to make decisions that hurt the people he cares about.