Bonasera: “I believe in America. America has made my fortune. And I raised my daughter in 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. . . . Then I said to my wife for justice we must go to Don Corleone.”
The Godfather trilogy opens with these words. They are said by the undertaker Bonasera, who requests that Don Corleone render “justice” on two American boys who beat his daughter and got off with only a suspended sentence. Bonasera’s words implicitly link the boys’ crime with the failure of the legitimate American justice system. As such, his statement becomes a strong condemnation of the society to which he has moved. American justice having failed him, Bonasera requests Sicilian “justice,” by which he means murder. In his request, we see the first example of what will become a common occurrence throughout the trilogy: the use of euphemism to describe the mafiosi’s violent, criminal acts. Vito responds by saying, “We are not murderers.” But of course killers is exactly what they are, and killing, or at least maiming, will be the chosen response. The way the Mafia uses language to cover up, even excuse, their criminal actions is another important theme introduced in this opening.
Lastly, Bonasera’s words make clear that we are dealing with an immigrant community. The characters may be rich and powerful, but they still face the same struggles that all immigrants confront every day. Assimilation is not easy, and immigrants, when unaware of local customs, can be taken advantage of, as is Bonasera’s daughter. The tragedy that befalls her makes Michael’s genuine, loving relationship with the blue-blooded American Kay Adams seem all the more remarkable. At the opening of the movie, Michael presents himself as a totally assimilated Italian-American. Later in the trilogy, when he becomes Godfather, he grows obsessed with the idea of making the family “legitimate,” which, in a sense, is a euphemism for “assimilated.” Michael wants to de-Sicilianize the family, to take the crime out of it, so that the Corleones will be as American as anyone else.
Kay: I thought you weren’t going to become a man like your father. That’s what you told me.
Michael: My father’s no different from any other powerful man. Any man who’s responsible for other people. Like a senator or president.
Kay: You know how naïve you sound? Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.
Michael: Oh. Who’s being naïve, Kay?
When Michael returns to America after his year of exile in Sicily in The Godfather, he decides to track down his old girlfriend, Kay, and propose to her. Years have passed since the beginning of the movie, when the couple dated, and this excerpt of dialogue comes from a discussion in which Michael tries to fill Kay in on all that has happened to him in the interim. Michael has changed significantly since Kay last saw him. Whereas at the beginning the film Michael dressed in an army uniform, now he wears the bowler hat and pin-striped suit of a mafioso. Whereas earlier he been unable to say “I love you,” now he is able to tell Kay those words she longs to hear. The most important change, however, is that Michael has begun “working with [his] father,” meaning he has become a member of the Corleone Mafia family.
This excerpt of dialogue is important for a number of reasons. First, it shows Michael unambiguously defending his father and the Mafia life for the first time, signaling that the transformation of Michael from “civilian” to mafioso, a process that began with McCluskey’s punch to his face, is complete. Second, it introduces a criticism of broader American culture. By comparing a Mafia don to the president of the United States, Michael may be manipulating language and meaning, but there is no question that Coppola also wants the viewer to seriously contemplate the comparison. The Godfather was released in the midst of the Vietnam War, and Michael’s cynicism about politicians was common during that time. In The Godfather, we learn that Vito hopes Michael would someday become a senator or president, reinforcing the irony of this statement. Third, this dialogue shows that the tension that exists between Kay and Michael goes well beyond Michael’s difficulty in expressing love. From the start of their marriage, husband and wife are engaged in a clash of values, and ultimately this, rather than Michael’s inability to show warmth, will drive them apart.
Michael: “Fredo, you’re nothing to me now. You’re not a brother, you’re not a friend. I don’t want to know you or what you do.”
(The Godfather Part II)
After Fredo admits that he had contact with Hyman Roth, thereby aiding the attack on Michael’s life, Michael dismisses his older brother from his life with these words. Fredo insists quite believably that he had no idea that Michael would be attacked, but Michael doesn’t care. In dismissing Fredo so coldly, he displays the same ruthlessness with which he has carried out many of his actions. As strong and forceful as these words are, Michael is not done punishing Fredo. At the end of the movie, Michael has his brother murdered. If one had to pick a single climactic moment for the entire trilogy, the murder of Fredo would probably be it. There is a sense in this action that Michael has so internalized the role of Godfather, adopted the mantra “it’s business, not personal” so completely, that there is no other way he could act.
Don Ciccio, we learn in the same movie, wants to kill the nine-year-old Vito Andolini, because if he doesn’t, Vito will come back one day and kill him. Murdering a young child may seem extreme, but the plot proves Don Ciccio correct. There is a clear logic behind retributive killing: if I don’t kill my enemy, he will kill me first. Vengeance is taken not out of any sense of honor, but as a mode of self-protection. It is a rational, rather than emotional, act. At first, the killing of Fredo seems consistent with this logic, but it may not be. Unlike Carlo, Connie’s husband, whom Michael also had killed, Fredo appears unlikely ever to intentionally hurt Michael. His carelessness, while dangerous, is probably manageable. But even if Fredo did want to hurt Michael, he probably would not be able to. If Michael were to bide by the words in this quotation and never speak to Fredo again, there would be no way that weak, insecure, fearful Fredo could touch him.
Rather than the prime example of Michael’s sangfroid, the murder of Fredo is in fact evidence of Michael’s greatest weakness. As much as it appears to be a decision of ruthless efficiency, the perfect business act of the perfect don, the killing is nothing if not personal. Michael cannot tolerate treachery and has a compulsive need for vengeance. This, more than anything else, is his fatal flaw. In The Godfather, the peace between the five families is made because Vito forswears his right to vengeance for Sonny’s death. But Michael is never able to make a comparable decision. The significance of this quotation is that Michael is unable to abide by what he says. When vengeance becomes emotional, rather than strategic, an unending cycle of violence results. This is the lesson that Michael learns in Part III. Despite his great desire and many attempts to become “legitimate,” he cannot escape the web of murder that he has played such a large part in weaving.
Kay: “Michael, you are blind. It wasn’t a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael. Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that’s unholy and evil. I didn’t want your son, Michael. I wouldn’t bring another one of your sons into this world. It was an abortion, Michael. It was a son. A son. And I had it killed. Because this must all end. I know now that it’s over. I knew it then. There would be no way, Michael, no way you could ever forgive me. Not with this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for two thousand years.”
(The Godfather Part II)
Toward the end of Part II, Kay announces to Michael that she is leaving him and taking the children with her. He refuses to let them go, they fight, and as their argument escalates, she launches this verbal attack at him. Kay’s chilling confession about the abortion is one of the trilogy’s most dramatic moments. But Kay’s words do more than just reveal the truth behind her “miscarriage.” They are a vicious attack on Michael and all he stands for. The attack is personal. Michael is blind, Kay charges, so consumed with his business of being a Godfather that he doesn’t even see what is going on in his own family. The attack is also directed at the entire institution of the Mafia, what she refers to as “this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for two thousand years.” Kay has decided that the Mafia is so destructive that she refuses to participate in it even indirectly. She will not give birth to a child who might in any way become part of this world of killing and retribution. In Part III, when she supports Anthony’s desire to quit law school and pursue a career in opera, she ensures that their surviving son will never participate, either. She cannot, however, protect their daughter, Mary, from Mafia violence.
In the previous scene, Michael was able to manipulate testimony at congressional Mafia hearings, destroying the state’s case against him. Michael had just defeated the United States Congress and seems at the height of his powers, but Kay’s words bring him back to earth. She mocks her husband for his powerlessness, both within his family, where he obviously has no control, but also in the larger world of the Mafia. What is his power against two thousand years of history? she asks. She dismisses his desire to become “legitimate” as a pipe dream. “You’re caught in something much larger than yourself, something over which you have no control—and there is no way out,” she says, taunting him. As if to add salt to the wound, she enunciates the word “Sicilian” with the derisive hiss of a bigot. The abortion is Kay’s assertion of control over Michael. At the same time, the fact that she must resort to such a desperate measure is proof of just how powerless she feels. But at least in this one instance, she gets to act as the protagonist, gets to be the victimizer, not the victim. In the twisted logic of the film, the abortion can also be seen as one more link in the chain of retributive killings. Were the son to be born, he might be killed, as Mary will be killed, and Michael would be responsible. Kay exacts preemptive revenge by killing him now.
Michael: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
(The Godfather Part III)
Michael utters these words shortly after returning home from a gathering of mafiosi in Atlantic City, where he and Vincent were among the few survivors of a massacre. With this simple sentence, Michael expresses the realization that despite his attempts to become legitimate, he will never be able to escape the Mafia life. Growing up, Michael never expected to be part of the “family business,” and his father and brothers didn’t want it for him. Their hope was that he would become a politician. When Michael does begin to work for and then take over the Corleone family in The Godfather, he has every intention of making its business legitimate. When he proposes to Kay, it is the early 1950s, and he gives himself five years to reform the family. By Part II, it is 1959, and Kay, frustrated by his inability to make good on the promise, winds up leaving him. By Part III, it is twenty years later, 1979, and Michael still hasn’t completed the transformation. But at the beginning of the film, having been awarded the medal of the Order of St. Sebastian and with the Immobiliare deal seemingly immanent, he believes legitimacy is finally within his reach.
Unfortunately, he quickly loses this illusion. In no time, the tension between Vincent and Joey Zasa, the Atlantic City massacre, and the complications around the Immobiliare deal make clear that going legitimate will not be possible. This sentence is Michael’s cry of despair. With it, he acknowledges that he will never be able to escape his past actions. These past actions, as much as other gangsters, are what “pull him back in.” Moments after speaking, Michael suffers a stroke, highlighting the statement’s importance. For Michael, the failure to make the family legitimate is his principle failure. Indeed, the question of legitimacy has always been about more than crime—it has also been an issue of assimilation. There is a Sicilian way of doing things and an American way, and it was Michael’s goal to bring his family into the American mainstream. As such, this quotation touches on the theme introduced by Bonasera in the trilogy’s opening statement. With this single sentence, Michael acknowledges that under his watch, the Corleones never achieved full integration into American society. When Vincent, who seems unconcerned with legitimacy, takes over, there is no indication that they will escape the cycle of violence any time soon. Mary’s death at the end of the trilogy is a grim signal that the Corleone future looks no less dark than its past.
Take a Study Break!