Thursday, November 8, 2012

Compromise in "The Godfather"

“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 ‘boy friend,’ 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 boy friend. 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. A 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 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.’” 

“The Godfather” is consistently among the most regarded films, both with critics as well as film fans. It is very good, but I have always been a bit mystified with its immense popularity. There was a time when the B gangster movie was one of the more beloved entertainments. I suppose “Godfather” did for that genre what “Raiders of the Lost Ark” did for the adventure serial. However, “The Godfather” also has a lot to say, it delivers a lot of insight into American Culture.

If the cowboy is the American archetype for self reliance and a sense of justice in a lawless frontier, then the gangster is the darker side of that American coin. We like the idea of someone who will make their own way in the world, be it by right or by might.

The opening scene shows the more pervasive American frailty. We want to appease our own idea of justice; we want the world to be made right in our own eyes. Sometimes, this desire leads us into places we know we shouldn’t go. Here, Bonasera has avoided the Godfather his whole life. He wanted to build and honest career and avoid the evil of crime. However, when his thirst for “justice” becomes strong enough, he will do anything to get it. He will even make a deal with the devil.

Perhaps it is going too far to suggest the average American would side with evil if they thought it would accomplish a greater good. (And perhaps not!) However, even we believers will side with lesser forms of wrong. We rely on the old institutions: government, religions, any worldly power… to get what we think we need. We will climb in bed with just about anyone using the justification: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

If you want to see how that downward spiral works out, rewatch “The Godfather.”

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