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Godfather-Family Values?


By Magenta Kate Edwards

How are family values represented in The Godfather?

photo of Magenta
Magenta Kate Edwards


Family Values: a political and social concept used in various cultures to describe values that are believed to be traditional in that culture

Representation: the way individuals and groups are portrayed by the film.


Gangster narrative structure: the Inciting Incident~ Progressive Complications~ Crisis ~ Climax ~ Resolution.


Introduction: the history of the Gangster Genre and audience appeal:

The gangster genre has always been popular inHollywood history- until the 1960’s when it went in to serious decline. The term gangster film suggests the films are about gangs, but most of the films are really about individuals who happen to be in a gang. It the nature of the hero that is fascinating about the films because the gangster is defined by what he does: namely rob and kill.


The genre does have strict conventions, however many interesting choices of formula. It may be worth noting that although often described as one of the best gangster films of all time, The Godfather is also often referred to as a production depicting a historical dynasty.


The trilogy masterfully balances the story between family life and the ugly business of crime in which they (the Corleones) are engaged. It is chilling portrait of a Sicilian family’s rise and near fall from power. I shall be investigating how family values are represented within the three films and how honestly they represent Sicilian ethics.

Narrative: the Godfather is presented through a classical tragedy.


Aristotle (384-322BC) presented a narrative theory which has been influential ever since, especially to that of dramatist William Shakespeare. His ideas can be applied to The Godfather particularly as one of the major themes of the film is its mythical and tragic nature.


Coppola saw The Godfather as a romance about a king with three sons. Ref King Lear. The success of the film is partly due to the stature of this ambition – to make a film about a family of gangsters, make them sympathetic to the audience and draw parallels with contemporary society.

Michael is the protagonist hero – the one the tragedy centres on. The essential ingredient is that out hero could have been a great king: he is a war hero, he is loyal and at the start of the film he is morally upright. However an error of judgement (harmartia) is the tragic flaw. Michaels love for his father and loyalty to the family set him on a morally destructive course: from the moment he tells his father he will take care of him, Michael’s future is set.

From this point the hero can not return the stability he once enjoyed – he inevitably moves towards catastrophe.

The ultimate conflict of the gangster film is contradictory impulses within the gangster himself.

Pride makes the protagonist ignore the moral path, love for the family corrupts his vision, it becomes unthinkable to him that he will not vanquish his enemies. However he must be seen to suffer for his sins, in classical tragedy he must ultimately die at the moment he has the full realisation of what he ahs done. In Michael’s case the retribution has a modern slant: he lives to watch the suffering of those closest to him.

 Michael Corleone

For the emotion experience of this the audience sense self-relief, unlike Michael they have not thrown away everything they prize, soul included.

Aristotle was interested in the human understanding of fate and the individual being intensely aware of his or her existence, freedom and responsibilities.

At the end Michal is left with one thing he can not destroy: his guilt. He is forced to live within the tragic consequence he has created; watched his daughter be shot is a fate worse than death itself.

Plot The conflict in the film is simply the stage which Coppola uses to set out what he is interested in: Loyalty Family and Power. The Corleone family is in dispute with the otherNew York mafia families about selling drugs, the Don (Brando) is anti drug and an assassination attempt destabilises the peace. This is when Michael is brought in to the family business.

Francis Ford Coppola creates sympathy for the hero’s by limiting the scope of the film which takes place in a family setting. We are present at the Wedding, Baptism, in their home and businesses. The Godfather is presented to us in third person narrative, meaning we feel the camera is objectively detached and allowing us to sit in on all events: Omniscient Narration. We can go anywhere and see anything; there is not a single point of view.

The family runs protection against gambling rackets; this is portrayed as a benevolent, paternal organisation worthy of respect. The family show kindness to those who show respect, but ruthless violence to those who interfere with ‘the good of the family’

The story is based on one man’s journey, we are party to the decisions that require to be mad, a path it seems fate had already mapped out and perhaps follows the belief that due to Michael’s blood line he was always destined to take over the family business – was his ambition to continue at college his denial?

Over the three films Michael makes decisions which, due to restriction, we as viewers can feel compassion for. We can understand why his actions were necessary, as a son, as a brother as a Corleone. For the family business to survive Michael is the only realistic candidate.


When Michael returns from Sicilyhe is reunited with Kay and tells her he wants to marry her, the Don is semi-retired and Michael becomes in charge. He promises Kay to make the family completely legitimate within five years. Knowing that Kay as an inquisitive female would refuse to marry him otherwise, but also I believe, because Michael himself believes this to be possible and true.

Sicilian Mythology Sicilian culture is highly religious and to join a ‘Mafia’ family there is an almost Masonic tradition ritual: it conveys non human strength. New members are expected to hold a picture of a burning saint in the palm of their hand and announce “may my flesh burn like this Saint if I fail to keep my oath”


Sicilians are also expected to adhere to a law of silence known as Omerta, which states to speak or connive with the police or government is forbidden.

The culture is regulated by unwritten but iron and inexorable rules. Omerta means ‘Manhood’ and refers to the idea of man resolving his own problems: this is due to lack of competence of law enforcement authorities and distrust of the state.

Everything has its price and if politicians, the police and judges etc can be bought off, of course they have a point.  {In America the Corleone family has many high status figures on their payroll}Sicilyhas a traditional sense of suspicious of outsiders.

According to popular myth the word mafia was first used in the Sicilian rebellion – the Sicilian Vespers – against the oppressive Anjourule on 30th March 1282. Mafia is the acronym for “Morta Alla Francia, Italia Anela” (death toFrance this isItaly’s call)


The orientation ritual in most families happens when a man becomes an associate and then a solider. He is then brought together with three ‘men of honour’ of the family and the oldest member warns that “this House” is meant to protect the weak against the abuse of the powerful. Then he pricks his finger and blood is spilt on to a sacred image.

American Ideology: post warAmerica and indeed post depression,Hollywood genres anticipated certain social issues that reinforced and renegotiated their ideology. Idealised cultured self image used commercial film making as a form of contemporary mythmaking.

The Godfather is seen as a metaphor for corporateAmerica, an anti-ideology of the American dream. If we are unable to depend upon the forces of law and order, if the politicians are not moral and upright and the only way to get justice is to pay a mafia hood, then the society is dysfunctional.

What is instead portrayed is an idea that crime does pay andAmericais a perfect location to commit certain crimes: due to lots of money, jobs and freedom from the rules at home inSicily. CorporateAmericais interested not in the people but itself; it is based on greed and self interest. The Old Testament morality of an eye for an eye is central to this view. Don Corleone sees himself as a defender of the little man against the ineptitude of the judicial system.

Michael takes these matters further by killing McCluskey and asking where it says you can’t kill a cop, justifying the murder as moral because the cop is crooked, almost as if providing a service.

 Sicilian Family Values: the 250,000 word Sicilian language is spoken now really by an older generation and an intellectual elite, Italian is now the first spoken ‘lingua’ of the island. Dialogue: The use of Sicilian dialect within the trilogy creates realism. The characters frequently speak in Italian with subtitles for non Italian speakers. It would work against the realism of the film if we didn’t hear any Italian at all.

A Sicilian proverb states ‘he who digs a grave for his brother, falls in it himself’

When emigrating to America, Sicilians carried with them a fixed set of rules concerning women’s roles within the patriarchal household. Fathers perceived a fierce obligation to protect the chastity of their daughters and when they were old enough to marry, they were protected and dominated by their husbands. Wives and daughters stayed strictly within the boundaries of running the households and didn’t work outside the home: such a system could not be maintained inAmerica. Fathers were unable to supervise the activities of their daughters in the manner they were accustomed. At school the girls learnt “American ways” considered unsuitable and compromising to their chastity by Sicilian standards.

Sicilian men were not in the habit of considering any education important for females. Such as Michael’s wife Appolonia: she is courteous, virginal and unsophisticated, a passive and childlike figure. Kay on the other hand questions Michael about the business, she is educated, curious and takes matters in to her owns hands by aborting her child.

The importance of weddings, baptisms and funerals has not diminished among later generations of Sicilian Americans. As an extension of their Roman Catholic faith combined with elements that are more for tradition.Such as the opening which depicts the tradition that “no Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughters wedding day”

This is why the start of the first film is centred around an Italian wedding: a scene is set and we are introduced to a culture which is realistic, ongoing and an important aspect of the ideology. The mise-en-scene is very visual and can reveal many aspects of this community. They all involve the family- central to the major themes. Also too is the director able to produce a binary opposition within the opening sequence: the innocent and happy (female) exterior of the garden wedding party, but the serious and grave (male) interior. This is further underlined by the festive Italian music at the wedding sequence whereas silence reigns in the Don’s study.

Baptisms are also very special within this culture and the role of godparent is chosen very carefully, for that role represents a substantial investment of time and money to the person chosen. A baptism is preformed as soon after birth as possible: an unbaptised baby is susceptible to the devil. The reference to Don Corleone as the Godfather is possibly stating that he is the protector of Sicilians against a ‘hellish’ American society.

The famous baptism scene in which Michael wipes out all his enemies in one fell swoop flicks between the church scene and the numerous murders, whilst the priest dictates the oath in Latin occasionally requesting a response from Michael: “Do you renounce Satan?” to with Michael replies “I do” as a bullet smashed through the lens and enters a pulpy brain.

The manner of execution in the first of these two incidents is calm and emotionless: purely business.

Many Sicilians felt that family loyalty as a whole suffered as a consequence of migration to theUnited States. The early Sicilian immigrants attempted to duplicate traditional family patterns in the new world, but as the children of immigrants began to absorb American ways, they felt increasingly resentful of the expectations of their parents and the old ways of automatically turning over their wages to their parents, the parents in turn felt hurt by this ‘lack of respect for the family’

 Mise-en-scene: within the trilogy this aspect is highly realistic; with thousands of pieces of set and costume being made bought and borrowed.

In the scene where Paulie is murdered, we are observing the scene in extreme long shot with the Statue of Liberty in view as if only her eyes can see this event: she is the only witness. A parody of the American dream?

In the Solozzo and Capt. McClusky shooting scene we notice a volume rise in the diegetic sounds of the train going by, we become aware of the momentous nature of this point in the narrative: Michael is about to cross the line into his fathers world, as the decisive moment approaches another train approaches and the sound grows almost completely drowning out Sollozzo’s monologue, but this is not simply that, it reinforces what is going through Michaels mind and has a direct effect upon the audience, building tension before gunshots and a cross over.

In the opening scene the lighting is low-key, it is impossible to see everything clearly. The visual texture of the opening is in complete contrast to the world outside, it is (the Don’s study) brown and black, rich and heavy: a large oak desk with leather trim, grand dark brown wooden doors and panelling. Then when we switch to the wedding we get the feel of old fashioned footage by using Eastmancolor negative, this with the lively music emphasises the differences in environment, both physically and ideologically.


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