The Godfather, by Mario Puzo, was the best-selling book when it was first published and the film adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola is rightly considered a masterpiece. The drama of The Godfather is an epic; it is an epic because it deals with the quintessential themes that all epics deal with: family, love, and time. It is a drama that wrestles with the complexities of the human heart, the human condition, and the fallenness of man. As such, it captures the odyssey of the human heart poignantly.
As an imaginative work of art, The Godfather is the Augustinian film par excellence—though it does not conclude where Augustine’s vision ends. I shall return to this theme later. Additionally, the film is a deeply traditional one—for this one need only look at the themes it concerns itself with: family, love, and loyalty. What causes the story to advance is the breach of the code of family loyalty. Transgression against the family, especially the filial head, which is the film’s equivalent to sin, always demands punishment.
The first member working for the Corleone family to be killed is Paulie Gatto, Peter Clemenza’s right-hand man and groomed successor. In the novel Paulie is given a more prominent role as one of the men chosen to take revenge for the beating of Amerigo Bonasera’s daughter, one of the “trusted” men selected for fulfilling Bonasera’s request. Paulie also serves as Vito Corleone’s bodyguard and driver, a position that puts him close to the family head which Sollozzo exploits to perpetrate the failed assassination attempt on the Godfather. Sonny has no illusions that he is the traitor who “sold out the old man.” The first person to betray traditional values of loyalty to family is killed off letting the viewer know what values matter in the Corleone family. Loyalty to family is everything and there are well-established boundaries that are not meant to be crossed; when those boundaries are crossed there are consequences to pay.
Indeed, the Corleone family is classical to the core. Vito Corleone is the undisputed pater familias and treated as God—for the head of the family is the source of affection and stability in the otherwise cold and chaotic civitas terrena that the Corleones find themselves in. Like the traditional cult of the father bound up in the practice of filial piety, “Pop” or “Papa” is the cornerstone on which the Corleones act and think—and both terms are ones of endearment and affection (as is “Godfather”). Imitatio Dei is replaced by imitatio pater. It is the highest aspiration that a Corleone can have.
At the end of the second film Sonny takes pride that he talks like Vito in declaring “your country ain’t your blood.” Connie’s reconciliation with Michael at the wake of their mother is because of her revelation that Michael is acting like their father did—out of love and protection for the family. Fredo wishes he could “be more like Pop.” Furthermore, Michael confides to Tom after the failed assassination attempt on him that Vito taught him how to think like those around him and tells Frank Pentangeli that his father taught him to, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” Vito Corleone’s headship is everywhere even after he died. When Michael comes to his mother for an intimate talk about family the conversation begins with Michael wanting to know what his father truly thought, not in his mind but his heart, “Tell me something, Ma. What did Papa think deep in his heart?” Such the Augustinian moment.
The first act of The Godfather centers around Vito Corleone as the aging but wise patriarch of his family and his family’s criminal empire. It establishes the Corleone family and the values that they operate by. The revenge sought against Sollozzo (and McClusky by contingent relationship) is for the attempted assassination of the patriarch of the family. Sonny and Michael won’t rest until Sollozzo is put to his grave for having stepped over a line in attempting to kill the head of the Corleone family which was a boundary of transgression that Sollozzo—and those under his thumb like McClusky—must be punished for.
But what prompted the hit against the Godfather in the first place was Sonny’s uncontrollable outburst at the meeting with Sollozzo. “Never tell anybody outside of the family what you’re thinking again” Vito chides his son. Sollozzo thought that if he could eliminate Vito Corleone from the picture and intimidate Sonny into control (through Tom Hagan) he could get what he needed from the Corleone family to begin a successful drug trade in New York City.
There is tragic irony in this. Sonny is devotedly loyal to his father. But his passion always gets the better of him. His unintentional enthusiasm for Sollozzo’s deal lands his father in the hospital and sets off the cascade of events that concludes with Michael murdering the Turk and corrupt Irish police captain and fleeing to Sicily as Sonny crossed a boundary (unintentionally), and every transgression of the boundaries of family leads to consequences. At the end of the day it isn’t until Sonny’s death, which began with his accidental transgression, that concludes the war between the families. (Which then sets up Michael’s rise to take revenge for what happened to Sonny.)
Vito Corleone runs his family, and empire, through an unflinching loyalty and devotion to him. It is the ultimate form of filial piety. The piety of the sons is measured through their dedication to their father. Religion also surrounds the landscape of The Godfather, adding the pious element to devotion to the filial head. While the only scene in a house of worship proper in the first film is the baptism scene, brilliantly set to highlight the simultaneous hypocrisy and fidelity of Michael’s own split faith—his nominal Catholicism and actual filial piety—the reality of filial piety and the intimacy tied to devotion to one’s family fills the air throughout the film.
The association of the Corleone family with a sort of neo-pagan Romanism—where the household father is the household god that structures all life—cannot be missed by the educated viewer. The family is immersed in Old World culture through the aesthetics that surround them and the bodily actions of each Corleone family member. Intimate participation rules the family. From Connie’s Wedding to the family plotting their revenge against Sollozzo, from Vito’s grooming of Michael to Michael’s elimination of all the family enemies by the end of the first film.
But Michael Corleone’s devotion to his family was not something guaranteed when he is first introduced on screen. He is the absent son and brother. He was the only one to serve in the Second World War, keeping him away from the family business in his formative years. He is the only Corleone son not present at the start of the wedding and the only one not related, in some way, to the work of his family.
The tragedy of Michael, and The Godfather is a tragedy with Michael as its lead protagonist, is that he is torn between the duties and obligations to his family and his want to be legitimatized which amounts to his shedding of his heritage, identity, and fidelity to family. In talking to Kay Adams, Michael reflects that the ways of his father are not his ways. In the novel, in the famous dinner scene before visiting the hospital where his father is recovering, Michael instructs Kay to tell her parents about their plan to marry and how he was a distinguished graduate at Dartmouth, received the Distinguished Service Cross and Purple Heart in the war, is hard working, and, most of all, honest. In the film this occurs at the wedding dinner, but Michael’s attempt to present himself as not his family amounts to his rejection of who he is and entails a rejection of his family.
This establishes Michael’s wounded and schizophrenic heart. On one hand Michael desires to become assimilated into American society. On the other Michael desires to avenge his father which would amount to his totalizing embrace of his family and heritage. This dynamic within Michael is reflected through the two women of his life and what they each represent.
Apollonia is Sicilian. She is submissive. She is Michael’s dark side, his Sicilian side, his family’s side. She is his soul mate. She represents his homecoming to his family through her Sicilian roots that bring life to Michael’s Sicilian blood which he has hitherto suppressed.
Kay is American. She is headstrong. Moreover, she is the embodiment of America in the mid-twentieth century. She is white, Protestant, and naïve. Michael’s desire to be married to Kay symbolizes his desire to be integrated into white, Protestant, and idealistic American society free of the bonds of family loyalty and being defined by one’s family. Michael’s desire to be integrated into America through Kay would mark his freedom from traditional values, his family name, and the liberation from the past.
Furthermore, Kay is egalitarian. She intrudes on Michael’s business by asking about his father and his work and continues to do so when Michael becomes head of the family as if she is a family member and Michael’s equal. But Michael keeps her at a distant, “Don’t ask me about my business Kay.” She remains an outsider no matter how close Michael and Kay grow in their relationship.
Apollonia, in her submissive demeaner, accepts Michael’s patriarch headship. Michael’s Sicilian guards even joke that she will make a good wife. She will be happy with Michael’s providing and she will not have the audacity to question him or intrude in his business affairs because she is not an egalitarian at heart but a traditionalist who accepts the reality of male headship irrespective of the consequences that come with it.
Michael’s marriage to Apollonia (before his marriage to Kay) seals his marriage to himself: His Sicilian, and therefore family, heritage is bound up with this fate. Apollonia’s death foreshadows Michael’s fated future. Through his brief encounter and marriage to Apollonia Michael’s transformation is complete. He cannot escape his blood. He cannot escape who he is. He fled New York for Sicily, which is the greatest symbolic moment in the film given that Michael must leave his family in New York to be integrated to his family by returning to the land of his father. By stepping onto the soil of his father’s birth Michael seals his everlasting union with his father and his Sicilian heritage. Virgil would be proud of the pietistic fatalism bound up in Michael’s character and how he is destined to carry his father and his family legacy into the brave new world that beckons.
Thus, Michael’s marriage to Apollonia is the engine that drives the second half of the film: Michael’s homecoming to his family and his succeeding his father as heir of the Corleone enterprise and legacy is set in motion through his marriage to her. For that is what his marriage to Apollonia sealed—his homecoming. In losing Apollonia Michael glimpses what it would be like for him to lose his father, his family, and his heart. The next time we see Michael on screen he is back in America and being groomed to be the next Don of the family as he reconnects with Kay who still exudes naivety insofar that she is unable to see the reality that (any) power corrupts.
While the second act of the film details Michael’s ascent to power, what is tied up in his ascendency is his fidelity to his father and his loyalty to his deceased brother. Where Michael was interested in leaving behind his family to become the legitimate and assimilated American, the conclusion of The Godfather shows his total immersion to the Corleone family. The enemies of the Corleone family must be wiped off the earth, for Vito’s sake and for Sonny’s sake. Michael assumes the position of an excessively devoted deity to his people—his family—and must do anything and everything to protect his beloved. Michael blesses those who bless his family and curses those who curse his family.
The role of love, as devotion, to family captures the dialectic of love in its totality. Love, as Augustine argued, required heartache and suffering. Love is not some abstract and charitable phenomenon detached from suffering but at the very core of suffering. Love without grief is no love at all.
It is the Corleone devotion to family that brings about their grief; it is a grief rooted in extreme love bordering on an ironic twist of the libido dominandi. In their love for the family the Corleones seek to exercise absolute control over the family, establishing well-defined boundaries that cannot be crossed and who is permitted in the inner circle of the family. There is a notable shift between the first two films on this issue. In the first film the Corleone inner circle is made up of those with Corleone blood or those who were a sort of adopted family owing to Vito’s arrival in New York without his family (Genco, Clemenza, and Tessio). It is a tight and intimate circle of trusted blood relationships. In the second film the Corleone inner circle is made up of men who are, by blood, outside of the family. Michael’s inner circle is not only smaller it is equally not as intimate and personal as the original Corleone circle was from the first film. This shift shows, however subtly, the slow dissolution of the Corleone family over time.
Moreover, Michael’s devotion to his family leads to his lust for domination on two fronts. First is his wish to control every detail and movement of those who are his blood relatives. He does this out of love and want for their health, but they end up becoming prisoners in Michael’s castle in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Second is his lust to dominate his enemies—not merely the “family’s” enemies but his enemies in particular; with his enemies on the run Tom asks Michael if he needs to wipe out everyone—Michael responds, “just my enemies.”
The language of Michael’s devotion changes from the first film to the second. In the first film he speaks repeatedly of his “family” and his “father” where the Corleone family is at the center of his heart. In the second film he speaks repeatedly of himself. Michael’s excessive devotion to his family ends with a devotion only to himself and his wish to control everything.
In Michael’s lust for power he ends up forsaking love. Love is corrupted and morphed into a lust for power reflected by how his “love” leads to his family being prisoners in his Nevada compound. Michael no longer expresses natural love, let alone relational love—that unique and special bond felt and embodied only in humans—but can only express a “love” for power where his desire to love and be loved is wrapped up in this pursuit of power. It is the ultimate tragedy because Michael does love his father and Kay—but this love soon becomes polluted in his pursuit of power which destroys his capacity for love. In forsaking love for power Michael has sealed his fate; Michael becomes an agonized and tormented soul because of this corruption of love.
In this respect The Godfather films are the greatest cinematic portrayals of the Augustinian dilemma and condition. There were two great masters of irony in the ancient world. Plato and Augustine. That there is a relationship between both is not coincidental. But where Plato’s irony was motivated by hatred of the sophists leading his satire of them, Augustine’s irony was moved by love leading him to take a sort of pity upon those whom he saw as reflecting what Pierre Manent calls “the noble error” in Augustine’s cultural criticism. It is not that Augustine thinks the pagan idolaters and critics of Christianity are intrinsically wrong in what they think and what they desire. They do desire admirable things. It is that they do not have the eyes to see or the ears to hear properly and, as such, they have become corrupt and empty shells of their loftier ideals that are out of reach. They embody lives completely antithetical to what they seek which is what makes their condition tragic in Augustine’s eyes, especially since they are unaware of their own depravity—they rationalize their shortcomings to clean themselves of wrongdoing like Pilate.
Augustine’s defense of Christianity against the fashionable, and ignorant, pagan critics in City of God reflects Augustinian irony—tragedy—to the fullest. The Romans are right to desire a kingdom of justice, peace, and prosperity; the Romans are right to seek moral virtue and personal character; the Romans are right to love their fatherland; and the Romans are right to want to honor their parents as the highest piety in life. The Romans are wrong in thinking, as Augustine shows with excruciating detail, that they ever had achieved anything they desired in the past and they are blind in believing that the Roman gods can provide those good and noble things they seek. Far from embodying any of the virtuous things they sought the Romans embodied only the lust for domination.
Having closed themselves to Christ they are unable to properly love all the goods worthy of being loved in the world (once they are properly subordinated to the Highest Good that makes all other goods possible to enjoy first by enjoyment of God). Christianity, Augustine argued, was the true religion of the Roman heart since Christianity, not “Rome,” would provide the justice, peace, prosperity, virtue, character, patriotism, and filial piety that the Roman heart sought to consummate. But the Romans, ignorant as they had become, and even antagonistic to their traditions except in moments of calamity, were too blind to see this reality which made their predicament so tragic.
And what is The Godfather, through the person of Michael, but an Augustinian tragedy? He is introduced as a dashing young war hero with the prospects of breaking free of the illegitimate and criminal underworld empire that is his family. He progresses into a man devoted to his family and wanting to provide for and protect his family. And there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the filial piety. Yet, Michael’s victory is also his defeat. He loses everything he held to him. Where his father was surrounded by his wife and children Michael lost his wife, his children, his mother, his brother, and even his relationship with Tom is strained by the film’s conclusion. Vito is always seen with his family; Michael is generally seen apart from his family.
Michael’s fall mirrors that of Adam, but there is no redeemer or moment of redemption for him. It was Adam’s devotion to Eve, to the point of excluding God, that led him to partake in sin and be cast from the Garden—perhaps most brilliantly reimagined by John Milton. The naked vanity of Adam is on display after eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil when he blames God for having created Eve, thus rupturing his relationship with both God and Eve. He is naked and ashamed. So too is Michael’s devotion to his father, then to Kay, the crux that transforms him into an immoral monster unable to see the Good, True, and Beautiful. It is his excessive devotion to both that precipitates his downfall from grace. The handsome, idealistic, and hopeful Michael introduced at Connie’s wedding is transformed into an unholy incarnation of Satan by the end of the second film.
Through this devotion Michael’s naked vanity is visible for all to see and it ends with him alone and ashamed—especially when he confesses his sins to Cardinal Lamberto in the third film. Michael transgressed his own boundary in killing his brother, and transgressions against the Corleone family require punishment regardless of who committed the transgression. So Cardinal Lamberto rightly tells Michael that it is proper that he suffers for his sins. Through Michael’s suffering we realize he did love Fredo despite being unwittingly betrayed and put in danger by his weak and stupid older brother whom he was quick to shun and just as quick to kill when the opportunity presented itself.
Michael emptied his heart to his family and what happened to him was the emptying of heart—not in sacrificial redemption but the corrupt hollowing Michael’s core. He became a perverse parody of everything he claimed to embody. His devotion to his family is aimed at the end of power which means he is incapable of love. He suffers because of this. Therefore, we should lament and pray for Michael as Kay does at the end of the novel.
Furthermore, the defeat of the Corleone family is seen through its breaking apart and absorption into the homogenous bland of mainstream American life. In this sense Michael truly becomes legitimate as the weight of progress and self-centered individualism takes over. What was noble from the Old World that the Corleone family initially embodied is destroyed in its absorption by the New World—it is not without coincidence that the Corleone family has moved into the new frontier of the New World: The American West which promises prosperity and liberation from the old ways. In the final bit of irony in the transformation of the Corleone family the family business dissolves into a corporate conglomerate ruled by a single man alone in the world. Michael is miserable, haunted, and alone. Michael was, in fact, assimilated into the American way of life he so craved at the beginning of the first film.
The Godfather penetrates the heart of the fallen condition and shows it for what it really is. It is the Augustinian film par excellence. It is also a conservative drama in showing the themes that truly matter in life and how we often fall short of the ideals of family, love, and honor. It also shows the reality of the fallen condition. But it also shows the limit of filial piety, the lust for power, and how easy love can be corrupted. Michael suffers but has no Suffering Servant to cleanse him and heal his broken heart. He dies alone with no one to love him and no one to love.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on November 22, 2018.