The Godfather: "I Believe in America"

"I believe in America." With undertaker Amerigo Bonasera's opening words from The Godfather, draped in shadow while he speaks, American prosperity is connected to Death. Acculturating oneself in America also means the sacrifice of ethnic values: the New World is at war with the Old. Whereas the opportunities of which one takes advantage in America become a means of overcoming the elite "big shots," identified throughout Mario Puzo's novel as the pezzonovante, representatives of the State and Church. The venturing capitalist's trajectory in The Godfather however dooms the individual to become such a pezzonovante, pulling the strings and isolated from other people. Our adoration of The Godfather figures into the absurd Mitch Daniels pitch, that "America is not a country of 'haves' and 'have-nots,' but a country of 'haves' and 'soon-to-haves.'" The American Dream is tainted by ruthlessness, at odds with the content of religious symbols overwatching the proceedings.


“I believe in America; America has made my fortune, and I raised my daughter in the American fashion. I gave her freedom, but I taught her never to dishonor her family. She found a boyfriend, not an Italian. She went to the movies with him, she stayed out late…I didn’t protest. Two months ago, he took her for a drive with another boyfriend. They made her drink whiskey, and then they tried to take advantage of her. She resisted. She kept her honor. So they beat her like an animal. When I went to the hospital, her nose was broken, her jaw was shattered, held together by wire. She couldn’t even weep because of the pain. But I wept. Why did I weep? She was the light of my life. Beautiful girl…now she will never be beautiful again. I went to the police, like a good American. These two boys were brought to trial. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison, and suspended the sentence. Suspended the sentence. They went free that very day! I stood in the courtroom like a fool, and those two bastards, they smiled at me! Then I said to my wife, “For justice, we must go to Don Corleone.”

Bonasera’s introduction establishes the pertinent themes, in addition to a sense of atmosphere, as he’s surrounded by shadow, silence, and framed in a close-up that slowly zooms out. There are two Americas in the world of The Godfather: the official one of a governmental structure, and the private one of heritage, blood, family, and tradition. As much as southern Italians have tried to assimilate into the larger portrait of a country, they are still detached, an ethnic tribe separate from the mass culture.


“Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first?” asks the shadowy figure with his back to the camera. Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) is declaring this division between his paison and the American government. Bonasera, in his adherence to an official idea of America, wants to “buy” a favor from the godfather, but Don Corleone is trying to communicate the idea that a favor from him is symbolic, with debt and repayment based on reciprocity and not money. “I’ll give you anything you ask,” Bonasera pleads.

Cut to a wide shot of the office, the don at his desk. To the don’s right is his son and protégé, Santino, or “Sonny” (James Caan), drink in hand. Closer to the foreground and sitting with his back to us is the consigliore-in-training, adopted son Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall). The three Corleones are stationed like chess pieces, their movements perfectly blocked as the pressure of darkness weighs on the pleading undertaker. The don is cradling a cat (one of the film’s many wonderful on-set improvisations). “We’ve known each other many years, but this is the first time you ever came to me for counsel or for help. I can’t remember the last time you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee.” This is a clever psychological ploy the godfather uses in establishing power in the relationship. He continues, “But let’s be frank. You never wanted my friendship. And you were afraid to be in my debt….You found paradise in America. Had a good trade, made a good living. Police protected you and there were courts of law. You didn’t need a friend like me. But now you come to me and say, ‘Don Corleone, give me justice.’ But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me ‘Godfather.’ Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter’s to be married and you ask me to do murder, for money.”


“I ask you for justice,” Bonasera tries to clarify. “That is not justice. Your daughter is still alive,” replies Don Corleone. “They must suffer then as she suffers. How much shall I pay you?” Corleone gathers his thoughts and the board moves, Hagen setting his drink down and Santino shuffling. The powerful pieces encircle the pawn.

“Bonasera,” the don begins. “What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully. If you’d come to me in friendship, then the scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies then they would become my enemies.” He lifts his finger. “And then they would fear you.” Bonasera humbles himself. “Be my friend?” he asks. Corleone shrugs. “Godfather?” the awed Bonasera bows and kisses the godfather’s ring.

“Good,” the don nods. He puts his arm around Bonasera and leads him to the door. “Someday, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But…until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.” “Grazie, Godfather,” Bonasera says, happily exiting. A flute from the outside dances into the scene, the exterior world of celebration and ritual emerging in the dark chambers of illicit alliances, almost like how the cabaret drifts into the backstage area of Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel. The Godfather, smelling the flower on his tuxedo, looks to Hagen. “Give this to Clemenza. I want reliable people, people who aren’t going to get carried away. I mean, we’re not murderers. Despite what this undertaker says.” Indeed, Don Vito Corleone is introduced as a man so powerful that he makes the emblem of Death, an undertaker, tremble.


The godfather values authentic relationships between people, “friendship” and “family relations” instead of cold or impersonal capital exchanges. “The Godfather” – a title denoting both a spiritual and familial relationship – offers something that the impersonal systems of control and governance cannot give to a man like Bonasera. Buying into America’s paradise is, in the context of the scene, putting one’s faith in the structures such as the courts that have betrayed Bonasera. As Michael (Al Pacino) tells Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin) in Part II, “We’re both a part of the same hypocrisy,” and then later speaking of the political bodies combating him in Part III, “Italian politics have had these men for centuries. They’re the true mafia.” The opening of The Godfather, Romance though it is, speaks the same sentiment as the prologue in the more anthropologically-correct dramatization of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, where Henry Hill narrates, “What the organization is offering is protection for people who can’t go to the cops. That’s…what the FBI could never get. Like a police department for wise guys.”

The sanctity of the Family must be preserved at any cost. This is where the prodigal son, Michael, enters the story and why he weighs heavily on Vito’s mind. Vito won’t take the family photo at Connie’s wedding without Michael, though it would be expedient not to wait. Michael is the family’s black sheep, having turned away from the family business in the interest of personal goals: he enlisted after Pearl Harbor, which greatly upset his father (“Your country ain’t your blood” is the father’s philosophy, voiced by Santino), and he is openly in a relationship with a WASP, an outsider from the comfortable homogenous suburbs of New Hampshire, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). These two issues are in plain sight when we first see Michael at the wedding, out of place in his military uniform and Kay, dressed in red, on his arm. For most of the picture, cinematographer Gordon Willis shoots old Vito Corleone with the whites of his eyes buried. But when we see him from outside his window, peering between the blinds at Michael, his eyes are fully lit.


We learn that Vito Corleone turned to criminality because the ends justified the means (it was the only move open to him on a board controlled by “big shots”), and that his dream rested on the youngest son to move the family towards social legitimacy, where the emblem of the family would have wide social respect and not fearful reverence (what difference does it make considering that all structures, “legitimate” or “illegitimate,” are innately corrupt in the world of The Godfather?) The Godfather trilogy is not Vito’s story but Michael’s, the father being the postulating echo that haunts the actions of the son. In contrasting these two characters, we note how one lives and dies mostly happy and fulfilled, passing away in a moment of grandfatherly bliss, long before his family will be spiritually ruined. The son has a much more troubling fate.

The conflict of Michael begins with a story he tells Kay regarding his father’s relationship to one of the wedding’s most prestigious guests, Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), a singer/actor that author Mario Puzo may have based on Frank Sinatra. Vito is Fontane’s actual godfather, and he is always eager to help him (“He’s a good godson,” Vito humors Tom Hagen after the consigliore says, “We haven’t seen him in two years, he’s probably in trouble again.”) Michael tells Kay how Fontane was having trouble with a band-leader who wouldn’t let the singer go on his own. Fontane went to his godfather for assistance. “My father assured [the band leader] that either his signature or his brains would be on the contract” – the famous offer that no one can refuse. Kay is hushed in shock. “That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me.” There’s a clear divide for this young man who has, by appearances, gone out into America searching for what it can offer him, wearing military fatigues, going to Ivy League colleges (“Joe College” is the put-down nickname Santino gives him), and seeking romance outside his hermetical tribe of Italians.


This contrast with the family is why Al Pacino’s casting was so essential. Coppola felt that this character needed to have a countenance that looked like the map of Sicily. Pacino is the most ethnic of the film’s main characters, which caused great frustration for producers like Robert Evans and the other Paramount heads, who would have preferred Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal – a more homogenized and safe look when compared to Pacino’s diminutive stature and big nose. Pacino’s ancestors came from the actual Corleone, Sicily, and Michael Corleone, though he is rebelling against his origins and reaching out to what the melting-pot has to offer, is nevertheless bound to something in his blood. He is an aberration, but loyal. His principles sew his disastrous seeds, such as—in all three movies—his need to wrap up all loose ends, even violating what is sacrosanct. His reassurances to Kay are ironic, though the implications of whether or not he is in fact as his family is cause him grief.

Soon after this exchange, we look at the first son, the would-be successor Santino, governed by his instincts. When we first see him in action, he smashes a photographer’s camera, then, calming down, drops a couple bills on the ground to compensate the damage. He seduces a bridesmaid, Lucy Mancini, just as his wife Sandra is demonstrating to other women just how large his penis is. Coming late to his father’s office after this rendezvous, the don scolds him. “You spend time with your family?” Vito loudly asks Johnny Fontane. “Yes,” the singer answers. “Good,” and the godfather turns to Santino before looking back to Fontane. “Because a man that doesn’t spend time with family can never be real man.”


Disloyalty to the family, for Vito, is an egregious error that makes this independent structure vulnerable, an idea embellished when Vito blames Santino’s blundering transparencies during a meeting with a gangster seeking protection, Virgil Sollozzo (Al Leiteri), on his careless infidelity. Later on, shortly before his hot-fused anger puts him in a careless position resulting in his ambush and death, Santino is seen leaving Lucy’s apartment, connecting the search for comfort outside of the religiously established structures of family with failure; in Part III, Santino’s bastard son born from the liason, Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), will stage a murder of a rival gangster during a festa, Coppola paying close attention to the traditional religious and cultural icons being shattered and destroyed. A similar festa occurs in Part II, as the young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) carries out his righteous workers’ revolt with the murder of the “Mustache Pete,” Don Fanucci (Gaston Moschin), but Vito is careful in his execution, not disrupting the sanctity of the ritual as he kills Fanucci in the closed quarters of the mafia chief’s apartment building.

Vito is careful to construct this Family Business with Family coming before Business. When Tom Hagen suggests that Vito give an important role to his new son-in-law, Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo), Vito is quick to say, “Never. Give him a living, but never discuss the family business with him.” This indicates that for his children’s families, in particular his youngest child, daughter Connie (Talia Shire), he wants the illegality of organized crime to become diffused – something at odds with Carlo’s motives, as he probably married Connie to become a major player in the family business. His dissatisfaction leads to domestic violence and assisting rival mafia families in murdering Santino. Yet all the while, Vito’s values are synched with a reactionary position of non-involvement in his daughter’s abuse (as opposed to Santino, who kicks the shit out of Carlo); for Vito, the sacred element is the marriage and the inception of the Family, and that cannot be violated. For his children, the first wave of the Greatest Generation emerging into adulthood during World War II America, the Individual takes precedence over the old ethnic values, followed by the larger partnerships with outside organizations and government powers, and finally, in The Godfather Part III, set in 1979 just before the Greed is Good era, an assimilation with the most impersonal organizations. “My father hated foundations,” Michael says while signing hundred-million-dollar contracts with his lawyer, B.J. Harrison (George Hamilton). “Man to man” was how Vito handled things. 


We first meet the Corleones right after World War II. New Deal policies have fostered the construction of an America where more people can be educated and incorporated into the larger American portrait, ghettos dying out in favor of something homogenous and liberating from the past's relegations. The college educated war veteran, Michael, represents the future. But in The Godfather the past is not really past.


In spite of progress and prosperity, racial categories are rampant; to cover his tracks in helping a baker’s assistant named Enzo get citizenship so that he can marry the baker’s daughter, Vito instructs Hagen to make sure the political strings are not pulled with “our paisan,” but rather with a Jew congressman in another district. Later, Hagen sends apologies from congressmen and judges who regret that they cannot attend Connie’s wedding – “They said you’d understand,” Hagen says, but we can assume it has just as much to do with Corleone’s syndicate status as much as it does to his ethnicity; the wedding exudes tradition, something tribal and separate from the rest of America. When Hagen confronts Jack Woltz (John Marley), the belligerent producer who refuses to give Johnny Fontane an important role in an upcoming war picture, Woltz fires at him, “I don’t care how many Dago Guinea Grease-balls come out of the woodwork!” Hagen calmly replies, “I’m German-Irish.” Woltz vituperatively responds, “Well let me tell you something my Kraut-Mick friend! I’m gonna make so much trouble for you, you won’t know what hit you!” The social progress enabling individuals to be more independent of their origins is illusory, and the entrenched values of rustic chivalry remain in place.

The latent power of race relates to the most famous theme explored by The Godfather: “It’s not personal, it’s only business,” a leitmotif suggesting that there is a divide between the cold world of business and politics, and the hot world of private lives, blood, and history. But business is personal, whether it’s the insult Woltz feels Johnny Fontane has inflicted on him in the past, or Sollozzo attempting to assassinate Don Vito (or the Corleone retaliation). Business offers that “can’t be refused” involve brains on a contract or, as Jack Woltz discovers, a beloved pet’s severed head lying in your bed sheets.


The changing times manifest in the question that emerges because of Sollozzo: should the Corleones, who have used their Genco Olive Oil business as a mask for whatever illegal practices, get into the business of narcotics? Sollozzo is seeking syndicate protection as he expands his business; he owns poppy fields in Turkey and factories that do heroin processing in Sicily, and for the Corleones’ protection he can offer immense capital growth. Vito asks Santino and Hagen for opinions. Santino oafishly shrugs, “There’s a lot of money in that white powder.” Hagen is more articulate. “I say ‘yes.’ There’s more money potential in narcotics than anything else we’re looking at. Now if we don’t get into it, somebody else will…Now with the money they earn, they can buy more police and political power. And then they come after us. Now we have the unions, we have the gambling, and they’re the best things to have. But narcotics is a thing of the future. If we don’t get a piece of that action, we risk everything we have. Not now, but ten years from now.”

Sollozzo pitches his idea to Corleone as an offer that the old don himself can’t refuse. Yet here’s where Vito makes the fateful choice of siding with his principle as opposed to the demands of changing economics and technology (mass heroin production cannot help but effect the underworld economy). It’s a moment that weirdly mirrors the film’s opening, where Vito derides Bonasera’s focus on capital exchange as opposed to the symbolism of the “God-Father” relationship.


“I must say ‘no’ to you, and I’ll give you my reason,” Corleone says, sitting next to Sollozzo after pouring him a drink. “It’s true. I have a lot of friends in politics. But they wouldn’t be friendly very long if they knew my business was drugs instead of gambling, which they regard as a harmless vice. But drugs is a dirty business…It doesn’t make any difference to me what a man does for a living, you understand, but your business…is a little dangerous.” During this circular discussion, as the don is joined by Santino, Hagen, caporegimes Sal Tessio (Abe Vigoda) and Pete Clemenza (Richard Castellano), and middle-child Fredo (John Cazale), he is probably the only person in the room carrying this sentiment, stubborn in his refusal to buy into the economics that only further endangers a dream of political legitimacy, the godfather’s end-game.

Sollozzo takes matters into his own hands, aided by the rival Tattaglia family. Sollozzo has two gunmen shoot Vito as he buys fruit (one of the first appearances of the trilogy’s ominous symbol of death, the orange), Tom Hagen is kidnapped, and the most feared Corleone soldier, Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), is garroted in a bar – a triple front assault that puts the Corleones on heightened alert. Sollozzo reminds Hagen of how Vito must have been “slipping.” “Ten years ago, could I have gotten to him?” he asks, knowing that Hagen agrees with him about how narcotics are the future. Sollozzo’s plan is to get Santino, presumably the “new don,” to go ahead with the drug operation, forging ahead the way of the future at the cost of tradition. Because, after all, money trumps tradition. “I don’t like violence, Tom,” Sollozzo remarks. “I’m a businessman. Blood is a big expense.”


Blood is indeed expensive: most of the Corleone family’s interests rest in Vito being alive. “We lose the old man,” Tom says, “we lose half of our political contacts and strength.” Santino is put in a position where he has to go forward with Sollozzo if Vito dies, though his instinctive pride feuds with any economic practicality. “If your father dies, make the deal,” Tom instructs as consigliore. “That’s easy for you to say, Tom, he’s not your father.” “I was as much a son to him as you or Mike,” Hagen counters, continuing the tangled web of business and blood relation, of which there is no dichotomy. Should the Corleones sell out? The godfather’s life was put at stake by one of the crucial actors in the family, working out of self interest. The culprit, unanimously decided by the inner-circle, is the don’s driver and bodyguard, Paulie Gatto (John Martino), whose execution is memorably carried out in front of amber waves of grain with the Statue of Liberty in the background. Clemenza instructs to the assassin Rocco Lampone, "Leave the gun, take the cannolis." As in Scorsese's GoodFellas 18 years later, the free-enterprise business of the mafia goes hand-in-hand with the benign aspects of a great culture (e.g. food). It's one of the many ironies of a trilogy, which begins with a close-up of an undertaker. A belief in America and its opportunities float alongside the angel of death. 

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"