The Godfather is one of those movies that’s so famous it can be easy to write off as over-hyped, but I find myself returning to think about it over and over again despite having seen it only a handful of times.
I was again ruminating on the story a few weeks ago and decided to read the book by Mario Puzo.
If you love the film, the book is worth reading to get inside the psychology of the characters a bit more (but tbh, the film is so great, most of this comes through even without access to the inner thoughts of the characters).
Notes and quotes…
In this antique garden, Michael Corleone learned about the roots from which his father grew. That the word “Mafia” had originally meant place of refuge. Then it became the name for the secret organization that sprang up to fight against the rulers who had crushed the country and its people for centuries. Sicily was a land that had been more cruelly raped than any other in history. The Inquisition had tortured rich and poor alike. The landowning barons and the princes of the Catholic Church exercised absolute power over the shepherds and farmers. The police were the instruments of their power and so identified with them that to be called a policeman is the foulest insult one Sicilian can hurl at another.
Faced with the savagery of this absolute power, the suffering people learned never to betray their anger and their hatred for fear of being crushed. They learned never to make themselves vulnerable by uttering any sort of threat since giving such a warning insured a quick reprisal. They learned that society was their enemy and so when they sought redress for their wrongs they went to the rebel underground, the Mafia. And the Mafia cemented its power by originating the law of silence, the omerta. In the countryside of Sicily a stranger asking directions to the nearest town will not even receive the courtesy of an answer. And the greatest crime any member of the Mafia could commit would be to tell the police the name of the man who had just shot him or done him any kind of injury. Omerta became the religion of the people. A woman whose husband has been murdered would not tell the police the name of her husband’s murderer, not even of her child’s murderer, her daughter’s raper.
Justice had never been forthcoming from the authorities and so the people had always gone to the Robin Hood Mafia. And to some extent the Mafia still fulfilled this role. People turned to their local capo-mafioso for help in every emergency. He was their social worker, their district captain ready with a basket of food and a job, their protector.
But what Dr. Taza did not add, what Michael learned on his own in the months that followed, was that the Mafia in Sicily had become the illegal arm of the rich and even the auxiliary police of the legal and political structure. It had become a degenerate capitalist structure, anti-communist, anti-liberal, placing its own taxes on every form of business endeavor no matter how small.
Michael Corleone understood for the first time why men like his father chose to become thieves and murderers rather than members of the legal society. The poverty and fear and degradation were too awful to be acceptable to any man of spirit. And in America some emigrating Sicilians had assumed there would be an equally cruel authority.
“The trouble is all that damn trash in the movies and the newspapers,” Michael said. “You’ve got the wrong idea, of my father and the Corleone Family. I’ll make a final explanation and this one will be really final. My father is a businessman 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 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 he considers far superior to the legal structures of society.”
Kay was looking at him incredulously. “But that’s ridiculous,” she said. “What if everybody felt the same way? How could society ever function, we’d be back in the times of the cavemen. Mike, you don’t believe what you’re saying, do you?”
Michael grinned at her. “I’m just telling you what my father believes. I just want you to understand that whatever else he is, he’s not irresponsible, or at least not in the society which he has created. He’s not a crazy machine-gunning mobster as you seem to think. He’s a responsible man in his own way.”
“And what do you believe?” Kay asked quietly.
Michael shrugged. “I believe in my family,” he said. “I believe in you and the family we may have. I don’t trust society to protect us, I have no intention of placing my fate in the hands of men whose only qualification is that they managed to con a bloc of people to vote for them. But that’s for now. My father’s time is done. The things he did can no longer be done except with a great deal of risk. Whether we like it or not the Corleone Family has to join that society. But when they do I’d like us to join it with plenty of our own power; that is, money and ownership of other valuables. I’d like to make my children as secure as possible before they join that general destiny.”
“But you volunteered to fight for your country, you were a war hero,” Kay said. “What happened to make you change?”
Michael said, “This is really getting us no place. But maybe I’m just one of those real old-fashioned conservatives they grow up in your hometown. I take care of myself, individual. Governments really don’t do much for their people, that’s what it comes down to, but that’s not it really. All I can say, I have to help my father, I have to be on his side. And you have to make your decision about being on my side.” He smiled at her. “I guess getting married was a bad idea.”
- Read The Godfather by Mario Puzo.