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February 27, 2008

The Godfather - A Film of Paradoxes

A paradox - where two seemingly incompatible truths co-exist to make up a deeper truth - makes a story stronger. A film like the Godfather contains a number of paradoxes, and it's one of the reasons it remains relevant and important and memorable all these years later.

A man’s daughter suffers a great injustice. He exhausts all his legitimate avenues for justice, and finally turns to the underworld mob boss.

But his request offends the boss. Why? Because he asks the Godfather to kill in vengeance? No, that’s not really the reason. It’s because this man, this undertaker by trade, did not have the personal relationship, the close familiar ties, to ask for such a thing. For truly, by the Don’s own words,

“Had you come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And that by chance if an honest man such as yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.”

But because this man comes to the Don offering money, as a pure business proposition, this is disrespectful.

By the end of the scene, the undertaker takes his cue, and kisses the Don’s hand, addressing him as “The Godfather.” Essentially, he joins “the family” and becomes a friend to Vito. Appropriately, his wish will be granted. It’s clear that the Don will wield his power to gain justice, and that those who wronged the daughter will meet their end. But, the Don is quick to add, “We're not murderers, despite of what this undertaker says.”

This seems like such a paradox, that killers could truly say they aren’t murderers. Yet – in the world of the Don – this statement, though apparently false, rings true. In a world where the family matters more than anything else, fighting those who threaten the family is not murder, it is duty.

In The Godfather, the main character, Michael, gives up his innocence and his straight and narrow ways as a sacrifice to the family. Yet in a tragically ironic turnaround, his actions threaten the very survival of that family, ruin all of his intimate relationships, and in the end create a starker, more brutal family than his father ever would have led. The film is structured around such a profound paradox, so it should be no surprise that it’s made up of many other paradoxes.

A tough man, Luca, nervously reciting his greeting to the dawn like a clumsy schoolboy, for instance. Or a squeaky clean war hero who reluctantly accepts power and becomes a more bloodthirsty leader than either his underworld mob father or his hotheaded older brother, eager to lead.

Michael tells his girlfriend, Kay, a story about how the Don got Johnny Fontane (ie Frank Sinatra) out of a bad contract. The Don had a meeting with Fontane’s band leader and “made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

Luca Brasi held a gun to his head, and my father assured him that either his brains - or his signature - would be on the contract.
(then)
That's a true story.

Seeing Kay’s horror at this revelation, Michael is quick to add, “That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.” Of course, this is true, but not in the way either Michael or Kay could probably have realized. Indeed, Michael would be different than his family, but in a horrific, not a comforting, sense.

Because while the Don might have threatened a band leader with death, by the end of the story Michael would have killed a cop, a casino owner, and a multitude of family bosses. In the case of each of these people, “the family” (that Michael was “not like”) would never have elected to kill. But Michael was different, and he was comfortable with the escalating violence.

Ironically, it was Michael’s status as being outside the mob that probably led him to being more brutal once he accepted his role within it. In this way, he played an intermediary, one who was new to the underworld, who was willing to question its status quo – “You don’t kill cops and you don’t start wars with other families.”

By being new to the scene, he was able to defy these assumptions. If he had taken to the family business from the young age, he likely would have assimilated his father’s own principles, and abided by an older, more restrained creed.

When discussing the situation of Solozzo and his father’s near murder with a group of seasoned mobsters – his brother included – Michael asks the simple question: “Where does it say that you can't kill a cop?”

This naive query is met with laughter and disbelief, the very concept is so foreign to the “old ways of doing things.” But soon, once Michael’s defiance becomes clear – the simple questioning of this old boundary makes it appear antiquated, and a important line is crossed. This is an action which will eventually lead to the gunning down of Michael’s brother, Sonny.

By staying an innocent for so long, Michael eventually brought a whole new perspective on the mob with him, and indeed was responsible for escalating the violence. In the end, his influence on the mob results in a full-fledged mob war, the death of his loved ones, the betrayal of his sister, and the alienation of his wife.

In other words, to save his family, he reluctantly enters their underworld, changes it through his outside influence, and in the end destroys what he sought to save in the first place. Yet at the same time, he doesn’t, because he builds a stronger, more brutal organization, more likely to survive in a harsher new age.

Posted by jason on February 27, 2008 01:10 AM

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