The Godfather: Decline of a Family

The Buddenbrook family has been namedropped in recent years by Francis Ford Coppola, relating to a two-part “live cinema” project with the titles Distant Vision and Elective Affinities, the filmmaker’s purportedly 500-page screenplay chronicling three generations of an Italian American family of artists in the 20th century, their story being concomitant with the invention and development of a whole new means of seeing, television. Being momentarily excursive from the subject at hand, this is the focus of his recent book Live Cinema and its Techniques, in which Coppola discusses work-shopping sequences for his embryo at college campuses, testing out his dream innovation, something wholly distinct from “live television,” which he has been trying to realize since 1982's ill-fated One from the Heart (the idea reportedly nixed by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro). As the filmmaker approaches his 79th birthday, it remains uncertain if this, his new life’s work, will finally come to fruition. The project itself, compressing the representation of a filmmaker's autobiography into a single evening (or whenever Coppola calls 'action') of his autumn years, is modeled on Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1900), though, as Coppola’s family is made up of artists (calling to mind the Tetrocinis from Coppola’s deeply personal 2009 production, Tetro), for Mann the emergence of the artist signals the end. The Buddenbrooks have their more established Coppola cousins elsewhere with the Corleone family, the subject here, though for popular culture the subtitle “Decline of a Family” hasn’t necessarily took hold when applied to The Godfather. Despite its legacy, the tragedy at the center of The Godfather eludes its broader cultural interpretation, pity and terror not penetrating the world enthralled by Mario Puzo's epic, which, since the first film’s 1972 release, has been processed as sound-bites and indelible pop images feeding pastiche, parodies, and memes, the Romantic and Mythic Mode chuckling in an Ironic degradation. The Mannian contemplations—whether regarding solitary individuals floating through time, or an entire nation—are muted in the sensational violence, a story of fresh generations decaying in the shadow of the legends of older ones—intrahistorical changes in cultural ideals—eclipsed by theatrical spectacle and regressive wish fulfillment. The Godfather engages us in the dialectic of America, unwinding through the 80-plus year narrative of an immigrant family's rise and decline in conjunction with broader historical and cultural changes. The story of Vito (Marlon Brando in Part I and Robert De Niro as a younger man in Part II) and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is one of survival, prosperity, decadence, and annihilation. Yet these films are adored by many people (and respected, even imitated, by many who haven’t seen them), who may interpret them as fairy tales of strength and achievement. We project our personal fantasies of success onto the Corleone family.


But it’s the violence implicit in a Mafia saga that gives the Corleone story a dimension absent from the Buddenbrooks, especially if viewers become receptive to the often neglected, however artistically rich, Part III. Audiences loved the Corleones because they were unbeatable. Michael Corleone inherits his father’s almost supernatural resistance to death, something that proves to be ironically tragic. No matter how many forces align against them—rival mobsters, corrupt public officials, stool pigeons, double-crossing business partners, and even the Roman Catholic Church—the Corleones are always victorious, satisfied with the humiliation and death of their adversaries. Superficially, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II comprise a fantasy: the enemies who put one’s own family in peril being justly punished in grotesque and gruesome ways that are evocative of Dante, giving our repressed sadism an outlet. The Corleones again tie up loose ends in Part III, but Michael, in such a way that parallels how readers must interpret characters in the Old Testament (e.g. the many stages of King David), is a different character. No longer Godfather II’s creature of reptilian calculation, he is diseased and tired, laden by guilt and depression, attempting to be a legitimate statesman and businessman. Though the flaws in Part III warrant criticism, its cultural dismissal traces back to a question of why we love the first two parts. The success of the Corleones is a failure; it represents the death of a man’s ideals and the decay of morality. Part III wears ecclesiastical colors along with its shadows and autumnal light; Don Vito or the younger Michael would never pray in front of a corpse, or confess their sins to a priest. America has a history of shunning self-appraisal, reflected with 2012’s presidential candidate titling an autobiography No Apologies. This is the tragic credo of the Corleone patriarchs.

However much The Godfather is an indictment of capitalism and aggression, it has been embraced by enthusiasts of Ayn Rand, military hawks, and even ruthless dictators. In Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, the rich business owner played by Tom Hanks refers to The Godfather as the I Ching, citing its sententious phrases as codes to live by. In 2008 there was published The Godfather Doctrine, a foreign policy model for handling the escalating conflict with Iran: Santino is the neo-conservative and openly militaristic approach; Tom Hagen is liberal diplomacy; the manifesto indicates we need a pragmatic blend of soft and hard power, the Michael Corleone approach – “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”


Part I is a tale of survival and revenge, more immediate, as the family stakes a claim to prosper in the future. The audience is certainly more forgiving of Michael Corleone than his sister Connie (Talia Shire) is, after he has her abusive husband, Carlo Rizzi, killed because Carlo conspired with rival mafia heads to have Santino “Sonny” Corleone whacked. Even though the dichotomy of what’s business and what’s personal is a false distinction, Michael’s shrewdness is practical and reasoned. In Part II, Puzo and Coppola turn inward, asking us to confront ourselves in relation to the deep past and how history reverberates presently.  When we see the bloodlines develop, as we do in the dual father/son storyline in Part II, the world gets greyer. Michael not only orders the death of his brother Fredo, but he also, as his confession in Part III makes clear, kills his mother and father’s son. The hidden strands of murder veiled by reason are exposed, and the truth is unbearable.

In agreeing to direct Mario Puzo’s novel, Francis Ford Coppola didn’t think of the material as a “crime story,” but as the story of a great king with three sons, each with their unique characteristics. The family story would act as a metaphor for American capitalism, capturing the spirit of the production's period, the politically tumultuous and morally foggy days of the Nixon Administration. The mafia den’s machinations are dramatized like the courts in Elizabethan drama more than East Coast wise guys. While he’s too tightly wound to be a fresh figuration of the revelrous Prince Hal, Michael’s destiny has a precursor in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, where the rebellious prince embraces his ailing father, refashioning and purifying himself from his wild ways. “I’m with you now, pop,” Michael says to his father at the hospital, swearing his loyalty in a bedside moment that vaguely recalls Henry IV II IV.5. Other tragic forebears move through him, as an increasingly isolated ruler who must wipe everyone out, or “just my enemies” as he tells Tom Hagen. He changes into the fallen patriarch, suffering a diabetic stroke, thunder rumbling as long-buried truths stampede from his mouth, at least becoming a twisted evocation of Lear at the end, holding tight the lifeless daughter who died because of his sins, sinking into unconsciousness on the steps outside a Sicilian opera house on Easter Sunday. Over the course of nearly a century, an immigrant’s westward flight into the future becomes an odyssey leading back home. The Corleone family has gained everything and yet still has nothing. 

"I'm with you now, pop." Michael at the bedside of his father. 

"I'm with you now, pop." Michael at the bedside of his father. 

The Corleone story recalls other literary families from Dickens and Trollope, but Buddenbrooks casts the most striking resemblance. Mann’s novel spans from the 1830s to the 1870s, its focus being a wealthy German mercantile family grasping the summit of social power and then gradually evaporating as a stable unit, its last offspring being a sickly, musically inclined representative of the third generation, Hanno. The background canvas features the development of the European Union, where smaller principalities and more independent centers of power dissipate with the interweaving of states and corporations, symptomatic of evolving technologies, most importantly the railroad. Social unrest, such as the revolutions of the 1840s, further add to the breakup of bourgeois values until finally there is no longer a family or the family business but, in the 1870s, a solidly engineered German political state. Through its ironically detached narrator, Buddenbrooks discerns the loss of strong cultural strands that hold the traditional family unit together, as “strength for the family” becomes confused with strength for the family business, and then the larger nation state or social movements (“Socialism is at the gates!”) 

Like Coppola’s survey of the Corleones, Mann’s Buddenbrook family is a kingdom at war with other families, obsessively trying to position a good heir to sit on the "throne." Modernity clashes with culture, and old values exhaust themselves in the new oxygen. Like the Corleones, the Buddenbrooks are surrounded by the empty vessels of cultural meaning. Their house is across the street from a great cathedral, St. Mary’s, and much attention is paid to the various baptisms, weddings, and funerals occurring there. The novel opens and closes with the sentiments of religion: we first see young eight-year-old Antonie Buddenbrook (who has many similarities with Connie Corleone, not least of which being her the sole survivor of her generation at the saga’s conclusion) practicing the catechism, while her grandfather (skeptical of religion) playfully teases her. The practice of this recitation indicates that the symbolic marvels that hang about this world mean no more than the arabesque decorations or fine linens on the windows: it is exercised for its form, function, and ritual, the ultimate meaning of a prayer, like the reality of death, not penetrating psychologically. The way Coppola uses religious ritual and iconography to complement the actions of the Corleones carries the same broad observation that Mann makes. As Cardinal Lamberto tells Michael in Part III, for centuries, men in Europe have been surrounded by Christianity, but like a stone in a fountain, Christ has not penetrated them. Their souls are dry. 

For centuries, Europe has been surrounded by Christianity, but Christ "has not penetrated it." Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone) diagnoses Michael's illness. 

For centuries, Europe has been surrounded by Christianity, but Christ "has not penetrated it." Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone) diagnoses Michael's illness. 

Nearly 800 pages and a half-century after Antonie Buddenbrook’s catechism recitation, all the male heirs of the family have either died or are unable to lead (the surviving brother Christian Buddenbrook, the Fredo of Mann's story, seems to be entering the tertiary stages of syphilis and is being institutionalized), and the women, middle-aged Antonie included, are left to contemplate the future and the family’s legacy. “Where have they all gone?” the women ask of the dead generations. “We shall see them no more…God strike me, but sometimes I doubt there is any justice, any goodness, I doubt it all. Life, you see, crushes things deep inside us, it shatters our faith. See them again—if only it were so.” This melancholy is confronted by a little hunchback who has grown old in the family’s company, Sesame Weichbrodt, who proclaims, “It is so!” Long stuck in her peripheral role, “tiny with certainty” Sesembe loudly announces God’s benevolent will must be triumphant: an absurd and haunting image, given all that this family has endured. Decline puts the Buddenbrook family in this serious contemplation of the Eternal. Michael’s hysterical cry and lonely death in Godfather III carries the same mixture of the sublime and tragic.

Mann and Coppola created masterworks relying on mirrors, where rituals reflect each other throughout the decades. The deaths of Vito and Michael are to be compared and contrasted, much like the photography in the opening rituals of all three Godfather pictures. At Connie's wedding in Part I, aside from Michael's girlfriend Kay, only the immediate Corleones pose for the main picture. By Part III's party photograph 35 years later, most of the proper Corleones are dead, divorced, or illegitimate offspring. Alien parties who turn out to be malevolent, like Don Altobello and Archbishop Gilday, have invaded the composition. As Altobello says to Michael at one point, with a theatrical affectation, “Treachery is everywhere.”

The artist as a symptom of decay: Anthony Corleone (Franc D'Ambrosio). 

The artist as a symptom of decay: Anthony Corleone (Franc D'Ambrosio). 

Prayers are there to save us from the emptiness of reality, but they are soon forgotten when we are in the present’s comfortable warmth. This is what leads Michael Corleone to pray and swear on the lives of his children that he “will sin no more”; it is what leads Michael’s gloom-besieged Buddenbrook counterpart, Thomas, to begin reading a volume of Schopenhauer, elevating his spirit and inspiring him to change his life. In both instances, the gravity of practical reality soon crushes any transformative thought or change of habit, like waking from a dream that’s forgotten as both feet fall on the bedside floor. Both men return to their lives of logical exchange and public performance, existences that are “artificial, self-conscious, and forced” as Mann writes, “the slightest deed in the presence of others [becoming] a taxing and grueling part in a play.” In The Godfather Part III, Al Pacino’s aged face has the expressive mask-like character of Lord Hidetora in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, another appropriation of Lear, a film certainly in Coppola’s mind during the last film’s production, given his grief over his son Gio’s death in 1986 (a trauma we elsewhere see in 2011’s ‘Twixt, and the feature debut of Coppola’s wife Eleanor, 2017’s Paris Can Wait).

The way that Mann writes his novel, microcosmically detailing the environs surrounding the Buddenbrooks, is something that is hard for a motion picture to achieve with such feeling and authenticity, particularly given filmmaking’s logistical challenges. Coppola was fortunate to be able to return to his original Sicilian and New York locations for The Godfather Part III, made 16 years after Part II. When the Corleones return to a location, we do also. The sense of time passing, indeed of life passing—of our families and dreams and homes—is resonant in the families of Mann and Coppola. The Third Generation for the Buddenbrooks and Corleones both relate to decadence’s rejection of reality. Anthony Corleone is not exactly a misfit, but he is somewhat maladjusted, and that his father wants another son signifies a disappointment and desire for retrial (or maybe Michael just wants to make three sons, further replicating his revered father). Anthony, we discover, has an artistic temperament, drawing pictures in Part II and aspiring to be an opera singer in Part III, in opposition to a father’s wishes that his son have more financially lofty goals. In Buddenbrooks, Thomas’ only child (with a wife, Gerda, who, like Kay Adams in The Godfather, comes from a different ethnicity and “strange” culture – a Creole from Amsterdam marrying into a homogeneously German family), little Hanno, is also maladjusted and strangely isolated. He is immediately drawn to music. He is the family tree’s final bud, sprouting limply, as Art, for Mann, represents decay and that which is opposed to the world of the “living.” And though Michael differs from Thomas in being, with some reservation, supportive of his opera-singing son, it is at the opera's performance that the Corleones meet their conclusion: the Family’s alignment with Art syncs in their irresistible fall, given how the cultural world around them is reduced to performative pastiche. The only other male heir we see, in addition to the unruly and illegitimate Vincent Mancini, is Tom Hagen’s son Andrew, a young priest with “the true faith.”  The third Corleone generation is sterile, existing only as art, namely The Godfather trilogy. As Michael says shortly before the chaos on the opera steps, “When they hear the name Corleone, they’re going to think of a voice.”


While we don’t yet know how Distant Vision will end, if it’s autobiographical things are more promising for its heroes than the Buddenbrooks or Corleones, the healing of Coppola’s Tetro, concluding with two brothers, both survivors of familial trauma, embracing on a crowded street, a reversal of Michael’s deathly kiss of Fredo in The Godfather Part II, being a prelude. Coppola’s personal life was on the threshold of ruin throughout the 1980s leading to The Godfather Part III, from infidelities during the production of Apocalypse Now to years of near-bankruptcy. The successes of Godfather III and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) salvaged his finances, further padded by a burgeoning winery and travel business, his remaining children Sofia and Roman having their own accomplishments (e.g. Sofia’s Lost in Translation, Roman’s Mozart in the Jungle) and families. For the Buddenbrooks and Corleones, art precipitates the end, but for Coppola, it’s proved necessary and redemptive. In fiction, familial decline gives The Godfather its dimension and power as the story of a Family rising and falling under the weight of Eternity. The three-film saga is its own blood ritual with an iconography of fallen bodies. It is not murder or death that matters, but measuring how things change: great abundance and lofty celebration, on a path that exhausts itself and writhes on the ground in isolation, grappling onto dwindling memories as history’s ornaments become solid ghosts of an individual’s dreams and unfulfilled longings, fixed in marble in the cathedral. Fashioned thus as ritual, it’s beautiful, the means by which the Buddenbrooks and Corleones, at last, transcend nothingness---at least as long as people find value in reading Mann's book and watching Coppola's films. 

Originally written in the summer of 2009, revised 2012 and 2018.

The Godfather Project: 

1. Decline of a Family

2. "I Believe in America"

3. Enough Time

4. American Horizon

5. Coppola's Mothers

6. Revolutions

7. "Between the Brothers"

8. The Fruit to the Root

9. "Time, Who Eats His Own Young: Coppola, Corleone, and Catiline in "Megalopolis"

10. From the Stage to the Streets

11. "A Long Contemplation of Eternity"

12. "The Body Cries Out"