My review of The Godfather trilogy requires some preliminary discussion. Why have I chosen to consider all three films in one review and why is it a “kosher” movie in spite of the fact that there is much violence and profanity in the film?
I have defined a “kosher movie” as a film that has something meaningful to say about life, a film that can help us navigate our own lives. In this sense, the Godfather films have many life lessons that can apply to us, lessons about leadership, about succession within an organization, lessons about relating to family members who strongly disagree with you, lessons about how important it is to control one’s temper, and insights into how difficult it is to repent for one’s misdeeds.
I chose to write about the three films because, taken as a whole, they tell one story about the life of one family, and how the people in the family change and how relationships within the family change. To review only one of them is not to recount the entire story of a family’s evolution as it tries to preserve its own unique identity as a family.
Let me begin with the opening scene of The Godfather: Part I, a wedding celebration. There is a tradition that “no Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day,” and so many guests at the wedding of Don Vito’s Corleone’s daughter in the summer of 1945 come to ask the head of the Mafia Corleone family for favors. At the wedding are Don Vito’s three sons, the mercurial and hot-tempered Sonny, the slow-witted Fredo, and the decorated Marine hero, Michael, who attends with his girlfriend Kay.
One guest, a singer, wants help landing a movie role to revitalize a moribund career. Another wants revenge against men who raped his daughter. Still another wants help to enable his nephew to become an American citizen. Don Corelone responds with the classic tagline: ”I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” which is an oblique way of saying that I will use violence to accomplish my ends.
Things become complicated when other Mafia gangs want to go into the heroin business. They ask for the Don’s political assistance since he has many friends embedded in the legal and political communities. The Don refuses because he knows that his involvement in the drug trade will destroy his political friendships. This interchange plants the seeds of insurrection within the ranks of the rival gangs, ultimately leading to an assassination attempt on the life of Don Corleone.
All this turmoil influences Michael who loves his father and wants to protect him. Michael offers to kill the two men who were behind the assassination attempt, and an elaborate plan is devised. The only downside is that Michael will have to leave the country for some time until it is safe for him to return.
In the interim, tragedy strikes when the hot-tempered Sonny is violently shot to death by his enemies. Don Corleone wants to end the madness, and so offers to provide political protection to those gangs involved in the drug business as long as it not sold to children.
When Michael returns to the United States four years later, he reconnects with Kay, his former girlfriend, and they marry with Kay believing that Michael will legitimize his business within five years. A key to his success is keeping a tight lid on family disagreements. They are never to be revealed publicly even though privately they can disagree. Moreover, he understands how important it is not to be careless. As the Don says to Michael: “I spent my whole life trying not to be careless. Women and children can afford to be careless, but not men.” These are valuable leadership lessons: do not air dirty family laundry in public and do not be careless in planning for important future events in your life.
The Godfather: Part II interweaves the lives of Michael Corleone, the new head of the Corleone family, and Vito Corleone, his father as the young Sicilian who founded the Corleone dynasty.
The film opens in 1901, in the town of Corleone, Sicily, where Vito’s brother and mother are killed in mob-related violence. Vito is forced to flee for his life, and ends up in America, where he begins his life of crime with small –time theft, graduating to murder and intimidation for huge profits. Slowly, Vito becomes a man with whom to consult to solve problems and he is highly feared and respected by the community.
The story then shifts to 1958 with Michael Corleone, Godfather of the Corleone family, dealing with business and family problems during an elaborate celebration at his Lake Tahoe, Nevada compound. He needs gaming licenses for his casinos in Las Vegas and enlists the support of a United States senator to help him negotiate fees. He also has conversations with his younger sister, Connie, who is about to marry a man of whom Michael disapproves. He also discusses a possible alliance with Hyman Roth, a gangster who is encouraging Michael to establish gambling venues in Las Vegas. While he wants to follow the advice of Roth, his adviser reminds him of his father’s attitude towards Roth: “your father did business with Hyman Roth, your father respected Hyman Roth, but your father never trusted Hyman Roth.” Another leadership lesson: respect others but do not always trust them to have your best interest at heart.
Michael, like his father, survives an assassination attempt, which leads to a new cycle of violence. But what rankles Michael is the discovery that his brother Fredo was indirectly tied to this event and that Fredo has lied to him, the ultimate betrayal by a family member.
The Godfather: Part III depicts Michael in his twilight years. Now almost sixty, he seeks redemption for a life of crime and violence. To assuage his guilt, he donates money to the Church and other charities. But yet again, his criminal past asserts itself and he is engulfed in more violence, compelling him to appoint Vincent Mancini, Sonny Corleone’s illegitimate son, as his successor.
Classic lines from all three films relate to leadership strategies and life lessons, and they reverberate long after seeing the movie. Here are some of them uttered by Michael Corleone: “My father taught me many things. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” “Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.” “Never let anyone know what you are thinking.” “Temper clouds your judgment,” “The higher I go, the crookeder it becomes.” “The only wealth in this world is children; more than all the money, power on earth.” “Give me a chance to redeem myself, and I will sin no more.”
All the quotations reveal leadership strategies and convey life lessons, echoed in various chapters of Ethics of the Fathers. As Michael Corleone matures, he sees things from the balcony. He is less concerned with day-to-day matters and more concerned with family and his personal legacy. He wants spiritual redemption and he wants a relationship with his children. His life has been a melange of crime and violence and he wants to end it with a legacy of peace.
Judaism encourages us to see things from the aspect of eternity, and that is what Michael Corleone finally does. No longer is power and money important. What is important are the human connections that transcend the desire for material things. The only things that will accompany us on our final journey, say our Sages, are our good deeds, which are sown in the garden of family and friends. At the end of the day, that is all that matters.