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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


“It’s business, not personal”

This statement, as well as its several variations, is probably the most repeated line in the entire trilogy. At times, it seems like the official slogan of organized crime, an organization-wide mantra. All the mafiosi in the films euphemistically refer to themselves as businessmen. They do this in part to hide from the public the violent reality of what they do, but they also use euphemisms when speaking among themselves. Rather than talk plainly, mafiosi speak about the “family business” and “an offer he can’t refuse.” Such manipulation of language reveals a basic discomfort with the truth of their actions. The mafiosi not only need to tell policemen, judges, and congressmen that they are businessmen, they also need to tell themselves. They need to hear the lie so that they can look themselves in the mirror without being overwhelmed by guilt. The frequent use of this line also points to the Mafia-wide desire to keep business and personal life separate. The mafiosi may all work in the “family business,” but the realms of home and office are never supposed to mix. Violence is supposed to leave the wives and children unharmed, and personal feelings are not to influence business decisions. Of course, all this is much easier said that done. While the separation of family and business may sound good in theory, no mafioso seems capable of forgetting that the guy who killed his son did so only to cement a business deal.

The Different Worlds of Men and Women

Shortly after Michael becomes head of the Corleone family, his father gives him this advice: “Women and children can be careless. Not men.” In the world of the Mafia, Vito tells his son, men and women live in vastly different realms. Men should never discuss “business” with women, and women should never question the judgment of the men. Women can be careless, Vito says, they can make mistakes, because if a woman makes a mistake, no one dies. In other words, women can be not only careless but also carefree. They can live a relaxed life that the men, who must constantly watch their backs, cannot. In The Godfather Part III, the barrier between men and women is breached by Connie, who becomes involved in the family business. But never does any woman achieve status in the family hierarchy equal to that of Vito or Michael, nor does any woman ever have to bear such a tremendous burden of responsibility.

The Conflict Between Respect and Legitimacy

Michael is concerned with legitimacy, while Vito cares more about respect. From the moment he takes over the Corleone family, Michael wants to make his family “legitimate.” By “legitimate” he means free of criminality and immorality. He is also concerned with assimilation. He doesn’t want to kill, bribe, and extort, and he doesn’t want to make money through gambling, prostitution, and drug trafficking. Legitimate means being respected by American law and society. Vito’s concern, on the other hand, is with respect, rather than legitimacy. As a don, he requires respect from everyone around him, and people respect him out of fear and the desire for Vito’s favors. Respect is the backbone of a Mafia family hierarchy, with the top members, such as the don, receiving respect from everyone beneath them. Disrespect, or even inadequate respect, is rewarded with death. Respect establishes power relationships and functions as a method of exchange. For Vito, showing proper respect, kissing the don’s ring, exchanging favors, making requests politely—all these formal gestures are more than just show. They are part of the order that keeps the social structure in place.


Return to Sicily

In the Godfather trilogy, there is a direct relationship between how many movies a character appears in and how central he or she is to the plot. Michael, Connie, and Kay, all principle characters, are in all three movies, while secondary characters like Archbishop Gliday or Senator Geary appear in only a single film. Of course, such a structure makes sense. The plot follows the most significant characters, while the less significant die or are forgotten. But every rule has its exceptions. In the Godfather trilogy, one such exception is the insignificant, little-known Don Tommasino. Tommasino appears in every movie because he is Vito’s and Michael’s host and friend in Sicily, the island of Vito’s birth to which characters return in every film. In the Godfather films, Don Tommasino may be a minor character, but Sicily is not.

In The Godfather, our first view of Sicily is a wide-angle shot of a hilly countryside. The day is sunny and beautiful, and the landscape, though rocky, seems uncorrupted by any signs of modern life. Even the characters, many of them dressed like peasants, appear as if they were from the past. The impression, which is repeated by the initial shots of Sicily in The Godfather Part II and Part III, is of a pastoral paradise where a life of innocence is possible. Indeed, Sicily is always more than just a quaint Italian island—it is a symbol of a different life, a place of escape. In The Godfather, Michael goes to Sicily to escape the Mafia war sure to follow his killing of Sollozzo. In Part II and Part III, the return to Sicily is associated with more metaphorical notions of escape. In Part II, Sicily is the place of Vito’s brief innocence, his childhood. In Part III, it is a place of art, site of the opera house where Anthony will make his debut.

In all three films, the real Sicily fails to live up to this mythic image. The true Sicily is no paradise, but a place haunted by blood feuds and barbaric violence. In fact, every Sicilian journey culminates in a dramatic act of violence: the killing of Apollonia in The Godfather, the death of Vito’s entire family at the beginning of Part II, the subsequent revenge killing of Don Ciccio later in the film, and the murder of Mary in Part III. Ironically, it is the Corleones’ failure to escape from, rather than to, Sicily that prevents them from leaving their violent past behind. After all, Sicily, despite its rural charms and enticing vistas, is still the ancestral home of the Mafia.

Family Gatherings

Family gatherings in the Godfather trilogy are just as much about business as they are about pleasure. In the Godfather films, the word “family” refers to family in the traditional sense, but also to family in the uniquely Mafia sense (i.e. crime family). For this reason, Mafia family gatherings, whether for a festive party or solemn funeral, always involve backroom schmoozing. Deals are made, hits are ordered, respect is exchanged, honor is shown, and fights are initiated or resolved. All three films open with large gatherings, each of which begins with a large gathering for a formal occasion: The Godfather with Connie and Carlo’s wedding, The Godfather Part II with Anthony’s communion, and The Godfather Part III with the award ceremony for the medal of the Order of St. Sebastian. In the parties that follow, there is always a good deal of dancing, singing, and drunken revelry, but the mafiosi seem most interested in conducting “business.” The plot of each film is determined during these mid-party backroom sessions. Later, subsequent family gatherings are important occasions for resolving plot strands. In The Godfather, for instance, Michael learns that Tessio is a traitor at Vito’s funeral and has the heads of the five families killed during Carlo and Connie’s son’s baptism. In Part II, Michael and Fredo have a temporary reconciliation at Mama Corleone’s funeral. And in Part III, the pope and Archbishop Gliday and his associates are killed and Mary is killed by a bullet intended for Michael after Anthony’s opera performance.

Corruption Is Everywhere

Michael, Vito, and the rest of the Corleone family may be criminals, but they seem cleaner than many of the public officials they encounter throughout the trilogy. Each of the films presents at least one character in a position of power who is not only thoroughly corrupt, but also ugly, crass, and duplicitous. In The Godfather, Sergeant McCluskey is a police officer who doubles as a bodyguard for the drug trafficker Sollozzo. In Part II, Senator Pat Geary tries to extort money; spews bigoted, anti-Italian invectives; and frequents whorehouses. In Part III, Archbishop Gliday, as head of the Vatican bank, has gotten involved in underhanded dealings with criminal elements and plays a part in their corrupt, illegal activities, including the assassination of the pope. From one movie to the next, these officials occupy more powerful and seemingly respected roles in society, and at the same time they grow uglier, more corrupt, and more sinister. While there are a few examples of well-intentioned public officials, most notably Cardinal Lamberto, who becomes Pope John Paul I, the examples of corrupt public officials are more numerous. By comparison, the protagonists of the Godfather trilogy emerge as morally complex figures. Placed beside Senator Geary in a lineup, Michael, even at his most ruthless, would appear a sympathetic figure.



Windows divide the outer, public world from the inner realm of the home. As a boundary, the window is fragile and permeable, and too often windows become an easy entry point for bullets. A shot of a fluttering curtain, a sign of the outer world invading the private space of the home, often anticipates an eruption of violence. In Part II, for instance, the window curtains of Michael’s bedroom flutter, and moments later a barrage of bullets rains down upon him and Kay. A window can also function as a screen through which a character sees the world, and onto which a character projects his thoughts. When young Vito, upon arriving in America, is quarantined on Ellis Island, he sits on the little chair in his cell and gazes out the window at the Statue of Liberty. For three months, this vista is the closest he will come to American freedom. At the end of Part II, Michael, who spends countless hours in his glass-enclosed Tahoe boathouse, stands before the walls and looks out on the water as his brother Fredo is killed. In the case of young Vito, the window looks onto what he desires but cannot have. In the case of the boathouse, the window is an insufficient wall to protect Michael from ugly, painful reality.


In the Godfather trilogy, doors separate women from men. Most of the doors we see are interior doors within houses. They separate one room from another, and they divide the home between the male domain of business and the female realm of family. Whenever men have business to discuss, they close the door to the study and shut the women out. Front doors, entryways to houses, are rarely seen, but when they are, they are even more solid boundaries against female freedom. When Michael discovers Kay visiting the children after she’s left him in Part II, he closes the door in her face. Similarly, Kay is prevented from leaving the compound in Part II when Michael is in hiding. Throughout the Godfather trilogy, a woman needs a man’s permission to cross through any door.


Chairs serve many purposes in the Godfather trilogy, but what unites them all is the sitter’s solitude. Above all else, the chair is a symbol of isolation. The most obvious function of a chair is that of a throne. The Godfather sits in a chair as suppliants pay their respects and kiss his hand. Remaining seated while others stand is a way of asserting power. Chairs are also places of contemplation. The young Vito sits in a chair to gaze upon the Statue of Liberty from his Ellis Island cell. Michael sits in the chair in his boathouse at the end of Part II as his memory leads him back to the day he enlisted for the war. In that memory, he remains fastened to his chair as the rest of the family goes to the door to greet Vito. Chairs are also places of death. A number of characters die while sitting, most notably Michael, who falls dead from the chair on which he’d been sitting in the yard of his Sicilian villa.

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