I believe in America. These are the first words uttered in Frances Ford Coppola’s venerated Godfather trilogy, spoken by Italian undertaker Amerigo Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto) over a black screen at the end of The Godfather’s opening credits. The way Coppola chooses to introduce us to Bonasera’s esteemed America is striking: In an unbroken two-minute shot, he justifies his tenacious belief in his new homeland by explaining to Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) that his American-raised daughter was raped and disfigured by her boyfriend and his friends. He begs Vito to murder her assailants. Make no mistake, America isn’t a country where people don’t do bad things. Rather, it is a violent country, one that eagerly inflicts harm on anyone who dares disrespect the sacred tenet of family.
The Godfather follows a business that has been around for generations and favors family over anything else. Vito Corleone has four children to pass his crime syndicate on to: Michael (Al Pacino), Sonny (James Caan), Fredo (John Cazale) and Connie (Talia Shire). And while Michael at first resists intimate involvement in the organization altogether, he is the only one of Vito’s children who is really cut out for it, as evinced by his steady hand in the face of threat and ability to maintain a poker face before he shoots two men in the head point blank.
As the only World War II veteran of his family, Michael’s heavily desensitized perspective on violence helps strengthen the Corleone business. Indeed, it only makes sense that a widespread apathetic attitude toward violence is conducive to mob mentality, but things get a little more complicated when taking into account the domestic shifts that accompanied the war.
The nuclear family—the cornerstone of Vito’s business, not to mention Bonasera’s admiration of America—underwent a number of critical transformations in the late 1940s. The drafting of the country’s working men, for example, drove women into the workforce—a cultural shift that awarded them more independence, which they understandably weren’t ready to surrender when their husbands and brothers returned home. This familial revolution doesn’t become totally apparent in The Godfather until, halfway through the film, Michael visits Italy. After murdering two members of a rival mob family to protect his father, he hides out in Vito’s homeland of Sicily until the investigation subsides. While there, Michael gets accustomed to an old-fashioned lifestyle—one that is strikingly different from what he is used to back in New York.
Shortly after arriving in Italy, Michael meets a beautiful local woman named Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). The way their love story develops takes the shape of something that one might read in a Victorian novel: Michael meets Apollonia’s eye and, before they even exchange words, asks her father for permission to propose to her. Up through their wedding day, each tryst sees Apollonia’s large family trailing behind the new couple. If, from Coppola’s perspective, there is a single thread that ties 1940s Sicily together, it’s that it favors conventional family values and roles over everything else—a custom that The Godfather’s post-war America is rapidly losing.
The clearest depiction of the vast discrepancies between Italy and America in The Godfather is the stark difference between Michael’s respective love interests, the film’s central female characters: Apollonia and Michael’s New York girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). Where the former embodies the traditions that Vito desperately clings to—an explicit emphasis on family, the upkeep of antiquated gender roles (she doesn’t work, can’t drive and requires definitive familial permission to marry)—the latter is modern and independent. Kay has a job and is financially self-sufficient. Her family is never mentioned and she is persistently inquisitive about Michael’s line of work, even when he warns her that it is not her place to understand such matters.
The contrast between Apollonia and Kay illustrates the fact that, while Vito looks to pass his family business on to one of his sons, the very meaning of the nuclear family is dramatically shifting. At the end of Michael’s stint in Sicily, Apollonia is murdered by a car bomb intended for Michael. Apollonia’s modernization (she was learning to drive) is directly at odds with her safety. It is clearest here that a life of crime is not conducive to the modern family; you must choose one or the other. The very fabric of the mafia family requires a kind of domestic purpose—a group of people to protect. When the mafia boss’s clan moves toward independence, it leaves him astray, without a clear justification for his violence. So what does it mean, then, when you remove the justification of familial protection from an inherently violent America?
With Vito’s waning health, Michael necessarily steps up to run the business. Upon his return from Italy, Michael still very much operates under the guise of being a family man. It’s not long, however, until he realizes that, in a post-war world, the alienation of family has become a necessity in upholding such a business.
By the time The Godfather’s end credits roll, Michael has successfully ostracized every member of his family in one way or another. With Vito and Sonny dead, Michael’s domestic circle has shrunk significantly, leaving only Fredo, Connie and Kay. Fredo has started a new life in Las Vegas to hide from the fallout following Michael’s assassination of rival mob members, forming an allegiance with Los Angeles mob affiliate Moe Greene. Connie’s dealing with the slaughter of her husband, Carlo (Gianni Russo), for his secret loyalty to enemies of the family. The film ends with Michael closing the door on Kay, now his wife, as he discusses work matters—a gesture which draws a definitive, physical barrier between business and family.
In The Godfather: Part II, we see nine-year-old Vito migrating from Corleone, Sicily, to Ellis Island in New York. More than escaping a vicious Mafia chieftain, young Vito is on a quest to uncover the ultimate American dream—as evinced by the iconic shot where he gazes longingly at the Statue of Liberty. Vito’s exodus from Italy to America represents a literal transference of his own traditional culture into one that holds boundless opportunity for fame and fortune. But as a belief in the nuclear family waned, and business and family became two separate things entirely, a belief in America was no longer about a conviction in the principle of opportunity, but rather a devotion to something colder and more sinister: Prosperity at any cost.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.