(Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Mark Malvasi as he examines corruption and The Godfather trilogy. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher)
America, that bright, shining land of freedom, opportunity, and progress, is irredeemably corrupt. It is in the hands of debased and hypocritical politicians, judges, businessmen, and their servants, such as the debauched Hollywood film maker Jack Woltz, the belligerent New York police captain Mark McCluskey, the rapacious Las Vegas gambler Moe Greene, and the contemptible Nevada senator Pat Geary, who are motivated by the desire for wealth and power. None of these men exercises self-control. All are driven by lust, anger, greed, vanity, and prejudice, easily losing their tempers and getting unnecessarily carried away. Unless he has power, or has powerful friends, a man who finds himself in such a depraved and perilous world is alone, isolated and vulnerable. In America, it’s every man for himself. Conflicts are resolved according to the strict letter of the law, which is considered the ultimate arbiter of legitimacy and truth. If one prevails at law, then nothing more is required. One is innocent, or is at least legally blameless. Yet, for the victims, this system does not yield probity or righteousness any more than it promotes responsibility and moderation among those clever enough to exploit the law to secure their own advantage. All pretense to the contrary notwithstanding, America has only the letter of the law, formal, cold, abstract, and still America has no objective legal standard that applies equally to everyone. That is why for justice men must go on their knees to Don Corleone.
The undertaker Amerigo Bonasera is the first to make such an appeal. Bonasera “believes in America” and has desired nothing more than to be a good citizen. He obeyed the law and raised his daughter in the “American fashion,” which means that he asked no questions when she began dating a young man, the son of a powerful United States senator, who was not an Italian. Free from parental interference, his daughter can make her own choices. When she resisted her date’s sexual advances, however, he and a friend beat her so cruelly that she was hospitalized with serious and disfiguring injuries. “Now,” a grieving Bonasera laments, “she will never be beautiful again.” As an honest American, Bonasera reported the incident to the police and brought charges against his daughter’s assailants. They were tried and convicted, but the judge, acceding to political influence, suspended the sentence. “They went free that very day,” Bonasera complains, and they mocked him as they left the courtroom.
Listening with compassion to a father’s tale of anguish and heartbreak, Don Corleone nevertheless responds with a sarcasm and disdain that reveal his ethical code. He wonders why Bonasera has come to him with this problem, since in the past he assiduously refused to do so. “We have known each other many years,” the Don reminds him, “but until this day you never came to me for counsel or help. I can’t remember the last time you invited me to your house for coffee though my wife is godmother to your only child. Let us be frank. You spurned my friendship. You feared to be in my debt.” When Bonasrea protests that he sought to avoid trouble in his adopted land, the Don reproaches him further. “You found America a paradise. You had a good trade, you made a good living, you thought the world a harmless place where you could take your pleasure as you willed….After all, the police guarded you, there were courts of law, you and yours could come to no harm. You did not need Don Corleone.” In this moment of desperation, Bonasera has abandoned his previous scruples, only to enter the Don’s home on the day of his own daughter’s wedding and insult him by asking him to commit murder for hire.
Don Corleone advises Bonasera to forget the entire affair and instead to comfort his daughter with candy and flowers when he visits her in the hospital. Bonasera has no reasonable cause for complaint. He put his faith in the American courts and the judge has spoken. He received the justice he sought. If he is unsatisfied with the results, he has no one to blame but himself. The pursuit of vengeance for an injury suffered is un-American. “Forgive. Forget,” the Don counsels. “Life is full of misfortunes.” Had Bonasera accepted Don Corleone’s friendship, then the “scum who ruined [his] daughter” would already have paid for their transgression. According to Vito’s way of thinking, Bonasera has gotten what he deserves for abandoning his true friends and placing his welfare, and that of his loved ones, in the hands of men who regarded them with contempt.
The image of American society that emerges from The Godfather corresponds to the type of social organization that the nineteenth-century German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies identified as Gesellschaft. In Community and Society, published in 1887, Tönnies explored the implacable tension that existed between the traditional neighborhood community and the modern corporate society. The competitive market, Tönnies argued, dominated the Gesellschaft, which then functioned according to the sort of impersonal, legalistic, and bureaucratic mechanisms that prevail in the world the Corleones must navigate. The Gesellschaft has more in common with a corporation or a state than with a family or a community.
The Gemeinschaft, by contrast, represents a traditional society distinguished by bonds of blood and friendship in which personal loyalty and mutual obligation determine conduct. Just as Tönnies preferred the Gemeinschaft to the Gesellschaft, so The Godfather recommends the old-fashioned community of the Corleones over modern American society. Both novel and films posit that, for all its crime, violence, and brutality, for all the limitations it imposes on individual freedom, the traditional milieu of the Corleones is more natural and more wholesome than contemporary social organization.
Not the shadowy, anonymous, indistinguishable figures who people the corporation, the Corleones are instead men of honor. Fighting with their little band against uncompromising foes and impossible odds, they are akin to the heroes of classical literature. At their finest, they are extravagantly intelligent, able to unravel the intricate schemes that their enemies have contrived for their destruction. “Did you think that little farce you played with my sister would fool a Corleone,” Michael admonishes his brother-in-law, Carlo Rizzi, during the climatic scenes of The Godfather. (Never mind for the moment that it had once fooled a Corleone.) The Corleones, at least Vito and Michael, take the measure of their rivals, weigh their strengths, foibles, and vulnerabilities, anticipate their behavior, and fashion complex intrigues to oppose it, all the while holding in check their own emotions, words, and deeds. Strong and cunning, they have battled tirelessly to achieve and maintain the welfare of their family and their friends. In an alien and hostile world, the Corleones know that they must stick together and aid each other if they hope to survive. They must keep each other’s secrets, remain forever wary of established law and official authority, and mistrust strangers and outsiders. They must preserve their honor and dignity at all costs, never permitting even the most trivial insult to go unanswered and unavenged.
At the outset of the story, Michael has disavowed this traditional sensibility and embraced the American way of life, evinced by his enrollment in Dartmouth College, his military service during the Second World War, and his courtship of Kay Adams, the daughter of a Baptist minister from New Hampshire. “That’s my family, Kay,” he reassures her. “It’s not me.” Yet, for Michael, blood will tell. Vito Corleone had not intended his youngest son to participate in a life of crime. When crisis befalls la famiglia Corleone, Michael rises to the occasion, for it is his nature. He is a born mafioso.
Besides identifying an organized criminal syndicate, the word “mafia,” explains the Italian writer Luigi Barzini, also denotes “a state of mind, a philosophy of life, a conception of society, a moral code….In this sense, mafioso is anybody bearing himself with visible pride.” The attempt on his father’s life and the attack on his family propel Michael back to the heritage he has rejected. His exile in Sicily completes the transformation. As a consequence, much of the drama and tragedy of The Godfather arises from Michael’s decision not to become an American but instead to assume leadership of his family and his people. It is not the life he wanted or imagined for himself.
In the struggle to avenge his father, Michael becomes nearly the ideal Machiavellian prince. He subscribes to Machiavelli’s essential premise that the world operates by force and that power originates in violence and crime. “Considering its origins carefully,” wrote Machiavelli’s younger contemporary Francesco Guicciardini, “all political power is rooted in violence. There is no legitimate power….” Michael’s cynical but discerning judgment persuades him that Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo, the drug lord who had sought (but was refused) financial assistance and legal protection from the Corleones, will try again to murder the Don. Only with Vito out of the way can Sollozzo hope to make a deal that will advance his interests. To the amusement of his brother Santino, his half-brother and the family consigliori Tom Hagen, and the caporegime Peter Clemenza and Sal Tessio, Michael suggests a preemptive attack. Kill Sollozzo before he can strike again.
Among the most celebrated discussions in The Prince is Machiavelli’s commentary on the dual nature of man and how a ruler ought most effectively to apply it. “You must know, then,” Machiavelli wrote:
that there are two methods of fighting, the one by law, the other by force: the first method is that of men, the second of beasts; but as the first method is often insufficient, one must have recourse to the second. It is therefore necessary for a prince to know well how to use both the beast and the man….A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.
A prince must be at once aggressive and shrewd. Regrettably, from Machiavelli’s perspective, few men combine the qualities of the lion and the fox. Most are either all one or all the other. Santino Corleone is a lion. His fierce temper and his affinity for violence are legendary even among fellow mafiosi. His character unites the elements of the family name, “cuore” and “leone,” which can be translated as “lionhearted,” dal cuor di leone, Corleone. Sonny’s instinct for battle ceases only in death. He stubbornly pursues his vendetta against Sollozzo to the detriment of business, as Tom Hagen often reminds him. Hagen is the fox. He examines every detail, analyzes every circumstance, and plots an appropriate response. In this instance, he urges Sonny to reach an accord with Sollozzo to keep the peace and secure the family interests, especially if the Godfather dies. Sonny objects. “No, no, Consigliori, not this time…No more meetings. No more discussions. No more Sollozzo tricks. When the negotiator gets in touch with us again for our answer I want you to give him one message. I want Sollozzo. If not, it’s all-out war. We’ll go to the mattresses and we’ll put all the button men out on the street. Business will just have to suffer.” Sonny is immersed in the Corleones’ traditional way of life, to which he can imagine no alternative.
Hagen introduces another complication. New York City police captain Mark McCluskey is on Sollozzo’s payroll, serving as his bodyguard. Hagen implores Sonny to recognize that as long as McCluskey is shielding the Turk he is invulnerable, for, as Hagen points out: “Nobody has ever gunned down a New York police captain and gotten away with it. The heat in this town would be unbearable what with the newspapers, the whole police department, the churches, everything….The Corleone Family would become outcasts. Even the old man’s political protection would run for cover. So take that into consideration.” Undaunted, discerning only his obligation to family, Sonny will not relent. He is prepared to wait as long as necessary for an opportunity to kill Sollozzo, no matter the cost.
Michael negates the impasse. Like his father, he is one of that rare breed who transcends the division between the lion and the fox, and overcomes the limitations that it represents. Bold enough to assassinate Sollozzo and McCluskey and ingenious enough, through the family contacts, to sully the victims in the newspaper, Michael combines Sonny’s tenacity with Hagen’s prudence. Brilliant in its simplicity, Michael’s plan, by turns ruthless and intelligent, satisfies both the lion and the fox. Delay is out of the question, Michael insists; it places the Don in even greater peril. He, therefore, recommends accepting Sollozzo’s offer to negotiate a settlement, but insists that the proposed meeting be held in “a public place…Let it be a restaurant or a bar at the height of the dinner hour, something like that so that I’ll feel safe.”  Sollozzo will be relaxed and thus defenseless, never anticipating that the Corleones would dare to murder him while he is under McCluskey’s protection. Knowing that McCluskey will search him for a weapon, Michael directs Clemenza to find a way to smuggle a gun into the restaurant as soon as the informant has discovered the location of the conference. When he pulls the trigger, Michael confirms himself as his father’s heir.
The Don had marked Sonny to follow him. Not only Sonny’s vices but also his virtues effect his undoing. Like his American counterparts, Sonny is self-indulgent and cannot restrain his frequent outbursts of emotion. Wrathful and lascivious, he is, at the same time, tender and sentimental. As a boy, it was Sonny who brought the ill and destitute Tom Hagen home, insisting that his father adopt him. Although he cheats on his wife, Sonny’s devotion to family is steadfast. “Your country ain’t your blood,” he scolds Michael when he learns that Michael has enlisted in the Marine Corps following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Even such monumental events are incomprehensible to Sonny unless they bear the most personal countenance. His anger at the Japanese originates less from their treachery than from their having carried out the assault on his father’s birthday. Carlo Rizzi uses Sonny’s utter but impetuous attachment to family to lure him to his death. That is why the farce he played with his wife could fool a Corleone. Such a ploy would never have deceived Vito or Michael, who, despite their attention to the sacred duties of family, are far more circumspect and imperturbable than Sonny. If nothing else, neither Vito nor Michael would have interfered in Connie’s domestic troubles, a lesson that Sonny never learned.
Nonetheless, like Sonny, Vito and Michael respond to every provocation, but do so in their own time and their own way. As Michael describes his father, Vito is not so much the Machavellian prince as the Nietzchean superman who rises above the fray and sets the terms in which it will be conducted. Upon his return from Sicily, Michael, reunited with Kay, explains that his father is:
trying to provide for his wife and children and those friends he might need someday in a time of trouble. He doesn’t accept the rules of the society we live in because those rules would have condemned him to a life not suitable to a man like himself, a man of extraordinary force and character. What you have to understand is that he considers himself the equal of all those great men like Presidents and Prime Ministers and Supreme Court Justices and Governors of the States. He refuses to accept their will over his own. He refuses to live by rules set up by others, rules which condemn him to a defeated life. But his ultimate aim is to enter that society with a certain power since society doesn’t really protect its members who do not have their own individual power. In the meantime, he operates on a code of ethics that he considers far superior to the legal structures of society.
The Corleones may be above the law, but, more important, they are the source of their own social and political order. Yet, in trying to be the arbiters of their fate, they exhaust themselves and waste their strength and intelligence. Even their most formidable accomplishments solve no problems, or perhaps solve them temporarily and create others in the process. New crises continually intrude. With unerring eye, Vito and Michael see the storm gathering in the distance, but can do little to ward it off or to avoid it. They can only meet it when it breaks. They enjoy momentary advantages, but no lasting triumphs. They are tormented by external threats and internal discontent. To make matters worse, Michael, like a faltering emperor, clings to the decaying remnants of the past, unable to surrender the memory of former greatness, which, by The Godfather, Part III, with the House of Corleone in literal and figurative disarray, has become a dim and fabulous legend among the younger generation. Tradition has been no match for the allure of modernity, as the Corleones’ gradual assimilation into modern American society demonstrates.
With regret, Ferdinand Tönnies anticipated the dissolution of the Gemeinschaft, which, he thought, would inevitably give way to less stringent ideals and more permissive attitudes of the Gesellschaft. When the saga of the Corleones begins, the family is immersed in the culture of the Old World, which binds them. To celebrate Connie Corleone’s marriage to Carlo Rizzi, Italian musicians perform traditional songs and the guests themselves sing and dance. The food is also customary fare, much of it prepared in the homes of friends and relatives; the neighborhood baker, Nazorine, has donated the wedding cake in exchange for favors, past and present, that Don Corelone has bestowed. In addition, the local police and the F.B.I. are kept at bay; Sonny insults them. Most of the judges and politicians with whom the Don does business have politely declined his invitation, though all have sent gifts. Those few who do attend the reception have come in rented cars, the license numbers of which cannot be traced to them.
The confirmation of Michael’s son, Anthony, in The Godfather, Part II, illustrates the changes that have taken place. Emulating the westward course of American expansion and opportunity, the family has moved from New York to Nevada. A professional orchestra and professional dancers entertain the guests, who are more an audience for, rather than participants in, the festivities. None of the musicians know Italian songs. The best they can do when Frank Pentangeli requests “La Tarentella” is a rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Far from excluding the police, Michael’s lieutenants bring plates of food to the state troopers who provide security. Among the catered dishes, not one is Italian. Finally, Senator Geary is an honored guest. Unafraid to be publicly associated with Michael Corleone, the devious Geary also has no reservations about being photographed in his company or accepting from him a generous donation to the University of Nevada. Michael once promised Kay that the Corleone family would soon be legitimate. Ironically, in The Godfather, Part II, the degree to which the family has been incorporated into mainstream American life registers the extent of its corruption and decay. Modernity has caught up with, and absorbed, the Corleones, dissolving the bonds of family and community.
Two distinct but related conflicts define the action of the second film: the first between Michael and the Jewish mobster Hyman Roth, a more sophisticated version of Virgil Sollozzo, and the second between Michael and members of his own family. The requirements of power ordain that Michael do business with Roth, who, because he is not enslaved to his appetites and emotions, is the most attractive but also the most diabolical agent of the modern Gesellschaft. Dealings with Roth necessitate tactical concessions on the part of Michael’s subordinates, such as Frank Pentangeli, who controls the remaining interests of the Corleone family in New York. The uncompromising representative of tradition, Pentangeli censures Michael for giving his loyalty to “that Jew in Miami” instead of to his “own blood.” Pentangeli’s specific grievance issues from Michael’s unwillingness to permit him to eliminate the Rosato brothers, who are in Roth’s employ. Focusing on prostitution and narcotics instead of gambling, the Rosatos, in Pentangeli’s estimation, head a criminal enterprise committed solely to profit, an attitude foreshadowed in the earlier decision of the Mafia chieftains to enter the drug trade. Insulting, untrustworthy, and rapacious, they do business with anyone as long as the venture promises to be lucrative. Predictably, their own syndicate is multiethnic and multiracial. “They recruit spics; they recruit niggers,” Pentangeli complains. More important, the Rosatos violate the restraints that fidelity, deference, and manners have long imposed, and do violence “in their grandmother’s neighborhoods.” Pentangeli wants them dead, but Michael will approve no conduct that upsets his grand designs.
“Sitting high up in the Sierra Mountains and drinking champagne cocktails,” Michael may seem to embody the American ideal of greed and success: The man who is committed to business before everything else, including his family. Like Roth, Michael “always makes money for his partners,” but like Pentangeli, he is also constant in the defense of tradition. During the conference of Mafia kingpins that takes place in The Godfather, Part III, Michael echoes Pentangeli as the spokesman for the Gemienschaft. He ridicules the street thug Joey Zasa for hiring “blacks into his family, which shows that he has a good heart.” Defiant, Zasa retorts: “Sure, I take blacks and the Spanish into my family, because that’s America.” The implications could not clearer: the ambitious and flamboyant Zasa, la bella figura, is, like the Rosato brothers, indifferent to custom and a traitor to his blood. Although at war with modernity, Michael himself cannot fully elude it. A publicist and a lawyer, rather than a consiglieri, now advise him. “You’re the new Rockefeller,” his attorney exalts, “a philanthropist.” Michael is skeptical. He reflects that “times do change, don’t they? My father hated foundations. He loved doing it by himself, man to man.” His attorney’s insistence that Michael’s charitable endeavors are “no different than any other large corporation” only deepens the irony that the Corleone family, swept up into legitimate society, has lost its cultural identity and its moral compass.
Michael’s true character reveals itself in the conflict with Roth. Furious that, in the midst of elaborate and delicate negotiations with the Cuban government, Michael has asked who gave to order to kill Pentangeli, Roth asserts that the question is irrelevant and wrong. He reminds Michael of his associate and friend, Moe Greene, whose execution, Roth suspects, Michael authorized. When Roth learned that Greene was dead, he acquiesced. “I wasn’t angry,” he recalls. “I said to myself ‘This is the business we’ve chosen.’ I didn’t ask who gave the order, because it had nothing to do with business.” For Roth, crime is merely another occupation from which intelligent and enterprising men can benefit. “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel,” he boasts of Mafia ventures in Cuba. Business, Roth thinks, ought to be exempt from the sentiment and honor that Michael attaches to it. To Michael, on the contrary, violence against his father, his family, his friends, and himself demands retaliation. Such assaults do have nothing to do with business; they are always personal.
Three times Michael plots a massacre to eliminate his antagonists. At the end of The Godfather, he kills Philip Tataglia, Emilio Barzini, Sal Tessio, Carlo Rizzi, and all the others who deceived him or who participated in the conspiracy against his father. In the parallel sequence that concludes The Godfather, Part II, Michael insists on having Roth killed, even though he is old and sick, as well as arranging the deaths of his brother Fredo and his former caporegime Pentangeli. Only Roth’s demise will at last secure Michael’s victory in their contest of wills. From Michael’s perspective, Fredo is too weak, incompetent, stupid, and unreliable ever again to be trusted. Pentangeli refused to incriminate Michael when summoned to testify before the Senate committee on organized crime, but he knows far too much for Michael to rely on his continued silence.
The finale of The Godfather, Part III brings the slaughter of Archbishop Gilday, the furtive chairman of the Vatican Bank, his calculating accomplice, the Swiss banker Frederick Keinszing, the execrable businessman, Licio Lucchesi, and the insidious Don Altobello, who together have cheated Michael of $600 million and endangered his life. For Michael, each bloodbath is politically necessary and morally unobjectionable. “You’ve won,” proclaims Tom Hagen at the end of The Godfather, Part II. “Do you have to wipe out everybody?” “Only my enemies,” Michael answers. The logic of power, as Michael understands it, dictates that he be strong for the family and thereby defend and preserve it as necessity requires. He does as he must. The irony and the tragedy of his situation is that power has a relentless logic of its own, which, in time, turns against all who wield it. By being strong for the family, Michael presides over, and even hastens, its destruction.
Bedeviled by this state of affairs, he asks his mother whether by being strong for the family he can lose it. She does not appreciate the significance of the question. “You can never lose your family,” Mama Corleone says. “Tempi cambi,” Michael responds. “Times change.” To his sorrow, Michael learns that for most men and women the temptations of modernity are more powerful and seductive than are the appeal of loyalty, honor, and tradition. “All our people are businessmen,” he confides to Hagen. “Their loyalties are based on that.” Michael’s efforts to save the family are met with anger, hatred, and betrayal. Although she later reconciles with her brother, Connie is for a time estranged from the family and, to rebuke Michael, virtually deserts her children and permits herself to be humiliated and abused. Kay aborts their child, a son, an offense against the family that she knows Michael can never forgive. “He said there was something in it for me, on my own,” whimpers Fredo, explaining how Johnny Ola could tempt him to collaborate with Roth and again to take sides against the family, as Michael warned him never to do. “I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over…It ain’t the way I wanted it…I’m smart, and I want respect.” The forces of modernity that have infected the Corleones, especially a corrosive individualism, are irresistible. Michael cannot even slow their advance.
Older and in declining health, Michael, by the time of The Godfather, Part III, which is set primarily during the late 1970s, reviews the meaning of his life and ponders the condition of his soul. In this film, religion assumes a new significance. Formerly, religion served to comfort women, children, and weak men or to secrete crime. Fredo is the only man in the first two installments of The Godfather trilogy to take religion seriously, and his view of it is that of a child. He tells his nephew, Michael’s son Anthony, that the key to catching fish is to recite a “Hail Mary” before casting his line into the water, as Fredo does just before Al Neri blows his brains out.
Michael’s initial conception of religion is closer to Machavelli’s doctrine in The Prince. It is more important, Machiavelli determined, not for a prince to be but to seem good. “Thus,” he wrote, “it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities.” More simply, Michael, like his father, adheres to the practical wisdom about religion that Cosimo de Medici dispensed: “It required something more to direct a government than to play with a string a beads.” Kay despises Michael’s misuse of religion to obscure his criminality, as she makes plain at the gala following his installation as Commendatore in the Order of St. Sebastian. “You know, Michael,” she asserts, “now that you’re respectable, I think you’re more dangerous than you ever were….I didn’t come here to see you disguised by your church. I think that was a shameful ceremony.”
Michael’s opinion of religion apparently changes when, upon his return to Sicily after an absence of many years, he meets Cardinal Lamberto, who is destined to ascend to the papacy. Unlike Fredo, Lamberto is a man of the world, genial, cultivated, astute, and dignified. There is nothing immature, cynical, or sardonic about him, and yet he is pious. As much as Vito or Michael, Lamberto appreciates human nature for what it is, acknowledging both its depravity and its virtue. Michael visits Lamberto on the advice of his old friend and benefactor, Don Tomassino, who has promised that the Cardinal can help him unravel the elaborate plot to defraud him of his money and rob him of control of the international conglomerate Immobilarie. Lamberto listens carefully to Michael’s accusations, but is less concerned to preserve the reputation of the church and avoid scandal than he is with discharging his priestly office to save Michael’s soul.
Lamberto shows that he is worthy of Michael’s trust by displaying his knowledge of men and the world. The power of faith is limited and evil dominates. Nevertheless, Lamberto has the courage to fight on in service to a cause that may already be lost. Michael understands that Lamberto is no mercenary; he is motivated by something other than worldly power and profit. Although Lamberto believes that faith and morality are indispensable to the conduct of life, they are, he knows, rarely, if ever, practiced. Like the stones that have been long submerged in water but remain dry inside, men have been surrounded by Christianity for centuries, but Christ has not penetrated their hearts. Lamberto appreciates the torture that Michael has inflicted on others and himself. “The mind suffers,” he remarks, “and the body cries out. Would you like to make your confession?” Michael demurs, objecting that he is beyond salvation and that there is no point in confessing if he does not repent.
Lamberto persists. He appeals first to the emotional solace that confession sometimes brings, and then invokes a more rational argument that he could have derived from Pascal’s Wager. Men live in darkness. If God is a fiction and belief is irrelevant, then faith is harmless. If, however, God is real, then faith is vital. It is wise to speculate that God exists, for doing so risks nothing. “I hear you are a practical man,” Lamberto exhorts Michael. “What have you got to lose?” At last, Michael capitulates, bearing his soul to Cardinal Lamberto as he has done to no one else at any other time in his life. He dissolves in tears, acknowledging at last that, like the sinners condemned to the ninth circle of Hell, he has betrayed all that he most loved: his wife, his family, himself. Lamberto absolves him, and insists that his “life could be redeemed,” though he does not expect Michael to change.
Lamberto nevertheless presents Michael with a painful and inescapable choice: He can be saved or he can be damned. With this recognition, Michael comes to ascertain, but never to unravel, the dilemma of freedom. His decisions and actions convince him that he enjoys free will and is not a fool “dancing on the end of a string held by all those big shots.” At the same time, his experience of the world shows him his chains–the chains of cause and effect that operate according an inexorable logic of their own. Michael is free to act, but once he does he commits himself to a sequence of events that circumscribes his freedom. He then has no choice but to accept the consequences of his actions even unto death.
Despite his strength, caution, and intelligence, Michael retains an astonishing capacity for self-deception. After the murder of Don Tomassino, Michael, seated before the open coffin, asks why his friend was so loved while he was so feared. It is not being feared that ought to disturb Michael. It is rather that he allowed himself to be hated. Since only exceptional men, such as Don Corleone and Don Tomassino, can simultaneously inspire both love and fear, if a prince must choose. Machiavelli concluded, then it is better to be feared than loved. Fear is more enduring. But the man who inspires fear, Machiavelli hastened to add, must “contrive to avoid incurring hatred,” and this Michael has not done. He has been too hardhearted, too resolute, too unforgiving, too merciless.
With the corpse of Don Tomassino as his only witness, Michael asks God to forgive him. If God grants him a second chance, he swears an oath on the lives of his children that he will sin no more. Michael never imagines that God will now demand something of him—that God will insist he keep his part of their covenant. When almost immediately after taking this vow, Michael begins with his nephew, Vincent Mancini, to plot the murder of his enemies, he seals his fate. His daughter Mary becomes the innocent victim of his intrigues when she is accidentally shot and killed on the steps of the Palermo opera house in a failed attempt on Michael’s life. Michael’s children are his treasure, the only wealth in the world, he affirms, more important than money. He has pledged to “burn in hell” to keep Mary safe, but his actions have led to her death. Cardinal Lamberto was right. Michael cannot change. His life will not be redeemed. He has unleashed a violence and an evil that consumed him and all that he has loved.
In the final analysis, The Godfather is concerned with what the nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt identified as the problem of historical greatness. The Corleones have refused to be humbled, or permit themselves to be humiliated and ravaged. They will not bow to such men as Don Cicco and Don Fanucci, Virgil Sollozzo and Don Barzini, Senator Geary and Archbishop Gilday, Hyman Roth and Don Lucchesi. These men, as Michael says, “are the real Mafia.” They have contempt for all law, and their irresponsibility has made them unscrupulous. All are grands seigneurs, pezzonovanti, big shots. They manage corporations, churches, and even countries as if they were individual playthings, carrying out vast, ambitious designs brutally fashioned and executed to reinforce their own power. “We are not responsible to the .90 calibers, the pezzonovantis [sic] who take it upon themselves to decide what we shall do with our lives,” Don Corleone instructs the assembled heads of the New York crime families. “Who is to say we should obey the laws they make for their own interest and to our hurt? And who are they then to meddle when we look after our own interests?…We will manage our world for ourselves because it is our world, cosa nostra…Otherwise they will put the ring in our nose as they have put the ring in the nose of all the millions of Neapolitans and other Italians in this country.  The Corleones, to say the least, take command of their own lives, and resist all encroachments upon the world they have made.
Unlike the men with whom they do battle, the Corleones are not so much above and outside the law as they are the source of their own law and order. They see that ordinary men, in their wish to escape responsibility and live in peace and quiet without trouble, anxiety, or fear, at first welcome the restrictions others impose on them, the prescribed ideas, beliefs, values, and standards that mark them as both respectable and unexceptional. These manifest restraints soon become internal, and although many persuade themselves that compliance has been an act of free will, they quickly fall under the sway of a master and learn to be grateful for every meager comfort. Disgraced, burdened with injustice and a host of other outrages, these timid creatures behave feebly, abandoning their obligation to protect themselves and their families. Not so the Corleones. They are closer to Burckhardt’s description of the Italians of the Renaissance who, as “individually highly developed” men such as Don Corleone had “outgrown the limits of morality and religion” and come to “despise outward law, because [their] judges and officers were wicked men.” With their pride, judgment, and honor whetted to the sharpness of finely tempered steel, the Corleones find each ignoble hour of subjugation impossible to bear. Resistance is their imperative and retaliation their genius.
Independence, however, must be purchased with blood and sorrow. The Corleones know no rest. They will never enjoy the tidy and uneventful lives to which most people aspire. Forever vigilant against dangers and threats, the Corleones are prepared to kill both their rivals and the friends who would betray them. Worse, they are willing to forsake human intimacy, obliged as they are to conceal their thoughts and feelings even from those whom they love. “Do not reveal your secrets to anyone unless forced by necessity,” advised the sixteenth-century Florentine political thinker Francesco Gucciardini, “for you become the slave of those who know them…And even when necessity forces you to tell, you should do so as late as possible. For when men have lots of time, they will think a thousand and one evil thoughts.” The Corleones must remain silent, even as a yawning distance widens between them and the pleasures of ordinary life.
Burckhardt observed that, after they had discovered antiquity, the Italians of the Renaissance chose historical greatness over holiness. The same may be said of the Corleones. Having outgrown established religion and conventional morality, they have come to see all authority save their own as illegitimate, vile, and oppressive. The reliable security against such evils is honor, which Burckhardt characterized as an enigmatic sentiment, “a mixture of conscience and egotism,” that lives on after the death of faith, hope, and love. Honor, Burckhardt suggested, “is compatible with much selfishness and great vices, and may be the victim of astonishing illusions.” Attached to it are all the noble feelings that remain to a man after the destruction of his character. Yet, it is honor alone that keeps the Corleones from despair, from succumbing to a world that they know to be without real order, purpose, or meaning–a world in which, without honor, only raw power remains.
In defending their honor, other men may have found it no easier to forgive insults, injuries, and injustices than have the Corleones, but those others have perhaps found it easier to forget. The restless and vivid imaginations of the Corleones, by contrast, nurture the dreadful memory of past outrages making forgetfulness impossible. To avenge their blood has become for them an act performed in a way to make tremble all who witness it. When the law offers no redress, as it rarely does, or under circumstances in which no mere human law could ever afford satisfactory justice, the Corleones invariably take matters into their own hands. But there is more to their retaliation than the desire for vengeance. There is art.
For twenty-five years Vito Corleone painstakingly choreographed every detail of the murder of Don Ciccio and his henchmen, whom he ridicules before killing. Earlier he had danced across the rooftops in pursuit of Don Fanucci, a deadly ballet that ends when he ambushes and assassinates Fanucci in the doorway of his apartment. The operatic slaughter of the prized stallion Khartoum enacted to intimidate his owner Jack Woltz is as artfully horrific as it is practically effective. Michael’s play acting beguiles Captain McCluskey and Virgil Sollozzo, and each of the subsequent murders that he orchestrates is a daring virtuoso performance. The pleasure that the Corelones feel at the deaths of their adversaries is exceeded only by the disgrace that their adversaries endure, realizing in their final moments that the Corleones have outwitted them. A malevolent triumph of will and a crude application of force are inadequate to the Corleones’ style of revenge; to be fully vindicated and gratified, their honor requires la bella vendetta as Burckhardt called it. Like all great artists, the Corleones seek acclaim and command respect.
There is a kind of violence, which Burckhardt astutely detailed, that is savage but petty, the offspring of weakness. The Godfather trilogy recounts, as does Burckhardt himself in his history of the Italian Renaissance, the degeneration of powerful natures and estimable men. Michael’s life has been a tragic waste, for he is a man of incalculable, though unfulfilled, potential—a man greater than any of his principal adversaries. His deeds of heroism, his efforts “to settle all family business” with one furious blow and then to withdraw from the bloody world he has been constrained to enter, end as gestures of despair. One murder begets another and then another until Michael becomes more contemptible than the authors of the original crime. A sadness born not of grief or remorse envelops Michael. It arises less from the knowledge that his own life is unredeemed, than from his suspicion that all of history is so.
The Godfather thus advances an unremittingly pessimistic vision. It depicts a world in which beauty, truth, and goodness have no place and cannot survive. The American dogma of equality, justice, opportunity, and progress is illusory, but neither can traditional culture provide salvation. Life has no purpose, but is “a sea whipped by the winds,” as Guicciardini described it. There is nothing more fleeting than success in human endeavors. Michael’s quest to “keep his family safe from the horrors” of such a volatile and treacherous world is destined to fail. It has led to the alienation of his second wife and son, the death of his first wife and his beloved daughter, the sacrifice of his dignity and self-respect, and the loss of all that he held dear. That he has gained one final victory and become the majority shareholder of Immobilarie can now be only a perpetual reproach and torment to him. Comprehending the totality of his failure, he dies alone, with two puppies, ironic symbols of fidelity, as only his companions. He is a lost man. The life he led has delivered him to the powers of darkness, and in the end there is no one “to say the necessary prayers for the soul of Michael Corleone.”
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” originally was published here in April 2013.
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1. Mario Puzo, The Godfather (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969), 31.
2. Ibid., 32.
3. Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1957), passim. The title of the original German edition was Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft.
4. Luigi Barzini, The Italians (New York: Touchstone, 1996; originally published in 1964), 253-54.
5. Francesco Guicciardini, Maxims and Reflections trans. by Mario Domandi (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972), 119.
6. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince and the Discourses, trans. by Luigi Ricci; revised by E. R. P. Vincent (New York: Modern Library, 1950), 64.
7. Puzo, The Godfather, 132.
8. Ibid., 133.
9. Ibid., 134.
10. Ibid., 365.
11. Machiavelli, The Prince, 65.
12. Quoted in Niccolò Machiavelli, The History of Florence (New York: M. Walter Dunne, Publisher, 1901), 317.
13. Machiavelli, The Prince, 63.
14. Puzo, The Godfather, 293.
15. Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (New York: Modern Library, 1995), 320.
16. Guicciardini, Maxims and Reflections, 146.
17. Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 321.
18. Francesco Guicciardini, The History of Italy, trans. by Sidney Alexander (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 3.
19. Puzo, The Godfather, 446.