“A man who is not a father to his children can never be a real man.”

One of the many quotes attributed to the man to whom the title’s moniker refers, Mario Puzo’s ‘The Godfather’ depicts his protagonist as in possession of a fierce familial loyalty – often in conjunction with elements of ruthless cunning and ugly violence that too make up his character. For those familiar with the story, be it through the novel or the biopic released three years later, each element is as integral to the tale as the other. Though the concurrent existence of such antithetical sentiments in one man may seem contradictory – who could possibly approve of robbing another family of a loved one when they value their own so dearly? – through Puzo, the Don’s motives have always been clear: protecting and providing for his family in the perceived absence of America doing the same.

Is it this concept that secured the franchise’s place in both popular culture and cinematic history?

(Spoilers within.)

One could argue yes, it may well be that the notion of familial loyalty so struck a chord with readers and viewers, it offset the featured retribution and brutality, making the entire ensemble palatable, and thus profitable as a result. As the highest grossing film of all time on its release, and with Puzo estimated to have received over $1,000,000 in royalties for the hardback edition of his novel alone, there is no doubting the immediate popularity of ‘The Godfather’. The film won a huge number of awards in ’73 – Oscars, Baftas, and a Golden Globe -, was nominated for a great many others, and was reputed to be so popular in its portrayal of Italian Americans that real mob bosses at the time even sat up, took note, and altered their behaviours to better fit with the image Puzo had created. And over five decades after its inception, its iconic status still holds true today. Having been consistently highly ranked by readers of film magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, the first in the film trilogy also featured heavily amongst the AFI’s 100 years series, was recognised last year by the BFI as one of the fifty greatest films of all time (Part II also made the list), and has become such a cornerstone of popular culture, references to the franchise can be found in places ranging from ‘The Simpson’s’ to children’s animated film ‘Zootopia’. But with there being on average twenty violent killings per film, alongside other acts of bloody violence which include picturing a real severed horse’s head in the first one, should such a franchise still be so revered? Aside from legitimising a complete departure from legal conduct under the guise of familial interest, throughout his narrative Puzo also builds it up as a better alternative to being a model citizen as well – one that guarantees the victor his spoils where hard work otherwise has no pay off.

Centered around the character of one Vito Andolini Corleone, the story begins by introducing us to three individuals who have received invitations to his daughter’s wedding, and the situations they are plagued by. Amerigo Bonasera has just seen the two men who put his daughter in hospital receive a suspended sentence in court and walk free. Johnny Fontane finds himself with a second marriage in tatters, and a showbiz career long over. Nazorine the baker faces volatility at home if he doesn’t stop the deportation of his assistant, Italian prisoner-of-war Enzo. All three of them decide an audience with the Godfather is the answer. And Don Corleone doesn’t disappoint. Through his interactions with each of the aforementioned characters, Puzo demonstrates just how far reaching his criminal network is, and how much more stands to be gained operating outside the realms of the law than within them. In the book at least, this process starts with Nazorine the baker. The last to be introduced, he is the first the Godfather asks to see, and for a mere $2,000, is guaranteed the passing of a bill by a congressman, resulting in Enzo securing American citizenship and avoiding deportation. Bonasera too manages to leave with what he asks for – true justice for the harm that befell his daughter – though his request is a harder sell than the baker who came before him. Chided for not seeking out Don Corleone at the start of the affair, and for trusting American courts to deliver a sentence equal in weight to the suffering of his daughter, the Godfather uses this moment to deliver a learning point to both Bonasera and Puzo’s audience alike. He says:

“You go to the law courts and wait for months. You spend money on lawyers who know full well you are to be made a fool of. You accept judgement from a judge who sells himself like the worst whore in the streets…

But if you had come to me, my purse would have been yours. If you had come to me for justice those scum who ruined your daughter would be weeping bitter tears this day. If by some misfortune an honest man like yourself made enemies they would become my enemies… and then, believe me, they would fear you.”

Such a powerful and emotive analysis of Bonasera’s position serves to function twofold as the Godfather both undermines the American legal system and emphasises his own moral standing in the same breath. Having already seen how easily he presents passing a bill through bribing a congressman, though one could argue Corleone’s depiction of the judiciary here is deliberately negatively skewed in his favour, it takes little to imagine other wealthy patrons supplementing salaries to secure preferred outcomes for themselves. This in turn serves to weaken Bonasera’s portrayal further by very mention of his moral conduct, both in this instance and in the past as, through the Don, Puzo highlights the corruptible nature of the American system and the duplicitous character of its players. The Godfather, in contrast, is portrayed as an upstanding man with a sounder reputation, ready to offer and provide everything in his power to reset the scales and balance the score. So much is evident in the sincerity with which Corleone offers his own wealth, his conviction in the type of justice Bonasera seeks, and finally the promise of brute force when needed, legitimised through its defence of ‘an honest man’. Though this moment sees both the presence of fiery loyalty and the threat of ugly violence raise their heads, one could argue it is neither here that is really responsible for captivating the audience and reeling them in. Through the Don’s interaction with Bonasera, at this stage at least, Puzo offers us a glimpse into a broken system, and the criminal web spun by the Godfather that has been crafted to offset it. It is this play off between corruption vs evil that builds anticipation surrounding the remainder of his plot line, as Puzo subverts the traditional black / white format of storytelling and presents his audience with “heroes [who] are villains of the most evil kind”.

So much is emphasised when it is the turn of Johnny Fontane. We see the Don’s clear affection for his godson in his interactions, and as he scolds him for his poor conduct in the glitzy world of Hollywood, he comes across every inch the father figure determined to set his wayward child to rights. It is in this paternal affection, alongside the familial loyalty we have already mentioned, that Puzo humanises his protagonist further, as the audience learns from the offset that despite his moral failings, somehow such a man is still capable of love. And it is these moral failings that also make an appearance once Don Corleone finishes berating Fontane for his behaviour, as he promises to relaunch his career in much the same way he made it – by making a showbiz big shot “an offer he can’t refuse.” With the implication behind this offer being one of ruthless violence, or at least the threat of it, Puzo presents contrasting facets of the Godfather’s personality side by side for his audience yet again. And it is here, as is the case at many other points in his story, that Corleone is also described as metering out justice of his own, when it suits either him or the extended network of friends and family he is set on cultivating. But can such a departure from legal dealings and moral conduct really be indicative of just how dark a character he is?

It has long been suggested that individuals who are abused as children are more likely to go on to abuse their own children in the future. Termed ‘The Cycle of Abuse’, numerous studies indicate the generational transmission of negative interaction often plays out as a result of long-standing psychological damage the primary individual suffered growing up. And such a lasting impact into adulthood is also thought to be true in the case of other distressing childhood events as well. Research conducted two years ago at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that survivors of childhood trauma grew up to display signs of poor decision making, and were unable to appropriately consider risk. Academics involved in the study later linked this back to an increase in stiffer sentences for juvenile offenders, and concluded in light of this data that harsher punishments would in no way lead to the effective curbing of criminal activity. So much can be applied to Puzo’s protagonist.

Though the book and the films differ in some aspects of Vito Andolini’s origin, they both tell of a childhood spent in Sicily, with Vito’s early years coinciding with the Sicilian Mafia’s rise to power. Described by Puzo as “…the second government, far more powerful than the official one in Rome.” it is hard to believe that anybody growing up at this time did so completely sheltered from the state of affairs and the violence that undoubtedly accompanied it. And with the body of his father turning up dead and riddled with bullets shortly after he killed the local Mafia chief in a quarrel, young Vito’s life is then directly shaped by the criminal undercurrent in Sicily, as he effectively becomes an orphan when his mother ships him off to the US for fear of losing him to Mafia violence as well. Such a huge scale sense of loss and upheaval in a child so young could well be the definition of a distressing childhood event, and though in the immediate aftermath Vito grows up displaying no outward signs of any psychological damage, when faced with neighbourhood criminal Fanucci, it is hard to consider his response as a result of anything but. Having swapped one country of violence for another, complete with its very own Mafia presence, for Vito Corleone guns and murder seem to have become normalised avenues for problem-solving from the offset, tying in with study conclusions aforementioned where good, and dare I say, moral decisions can prove elusive to those who’ve suffered childhood trauma. Indeed, Puzo goes on to tell his audience:

“In later years, Vito Corleone understood that what had made him act in such a perfect, tactical way with Fanucci was the death of his own hot-tempered father who had been killed by the Mafia in Sicily.”

Such an insight into the sequence of events that led to Vito Andolini becoming the Godfather adds a different consideration to the story of the Don. Where the first film and Books I and II seem to have been appreciated despite the unrepentant brutality featured, or perhaps even ironically because of it due to real world parallels with the Mafia at the time, details of Corleone’s origin sees Puzo tease out the age old question of nature vs nurture, and put this to his audience instead. What was the defining moment in making the Godfather who he was, and take the path in life that he did? Would he have been any different if he was raised by both his parents in a Sicily untouched by a ruling crime syndicate and gun violence? And would he still possess such a strong sense of patriotism and loyalty for his own that he would do anything to prevent their loss, as he had been unable to his parents?

In posing these questions, or at least triggering a deliberation of them in his audience, Puzo takes a violent study of corruption in early twentieth century America amongst her institutions and citizens alike, and builds something altogether more remarkable. We see ourselves firmly placed and walking in the shoes of Corleone, as he loses first his father, then his mother and his country in the same breath. We feel the injustice he feels of growing up in a new land where more gun-wielding thugs demand pay offs, and the arm of the law is seldom untainted. And as he faces up to Fanucci, and begins on the path to Godfather, for a moment it is even difficult to imagine there being any other road he could’ve taken. It is in the creation of such a strong empathy for his original Godfather that lies Puzo’s true master stroke, and as we see the same battle between genetic and environmental factors play out in his son, there is nothing more to do than mirror the women Corleone – fervently pray for the best, and watch it all unfold.

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