This contains plot spoilers.
On January 1, Netflix finally earned its modest monthly cost in full, when it began streaming the iconic, award-winning trilogy, “The Godfather.” While older generations may know everything there is to know about the quotable mafia flick, millennials may have yet to bask in the glory of Marlon Brando’s mystifying role as “godfather” to an Italian-American family operating the “family business” in New York City.
Your significant other wanna “Netflix and chill”? Not this weekend, baby. You’re legit-binge-watching one of the greatest American mafia films of all time.
1. It’s the Best Mafia Story Ever
There are films dedicated to characters and films dedicated to plot, and a handful knock both out of the park. These do so with the same characters three times. The Godfather Trilogy is to the Italian-American mafia what “Citizen Kane” was to American politics. The story involves everything a good film or novel should: Sex, lies, murder, love, and loyalty. The trilogy manages to show just what you think the mob would do—on steroids. In other words, the plot remains just beyond the average moviegoer’s active imagination, which is part of its lasting appeal.
In “The Godfather,” released in 1972, family patriarch Don Vito Corleone is shepherding his sons through the family business: organized crime. At first, Vito’s oldest, Sonny, takes over while other son Michael gets his hands dirty getting back at a drug lord for attempting to assassinate their father. As a result, he is forced to hide in Sicily, where he marries a woman who is subsequently killed in a car bombing. After Sonny is murdered, Michael returns to America to take over. He proves a vicious patriarch.
“The Godfather Part II,” released two years after the original, is said to be one of the best sequels of our time. It presents parallel dramas, prequel and sequel to the first. This centers on Michael’s ability to lead as the new don, keeping his business ventures successful. The film shows several flashbacks of Vito’s childhood in Sicily and migration to New York City.
“The Godfather Part III” was not released until 1990. It completes Michael’s journey as don, as he tries to legitimize his mafia empire. Sonny’s son Vincent begins to take over for Michael. It includes several fictionalized real-life events like the death of Pope John Paul I.
In every plot and subplot, first-time viewers will struggle to predict the next scene, which keeps everyone inundated. Even the “predictable” scenes—like when Kay tells Michael she had an abortion—don’t end how one might predict. The flashbacks during the second part are particularly rich and woven well with what audiences have already learned in the original “Godfather.”
2. The Characters Are Unforgettable
The trilogy centers at first around the Godfather himself, Vito Corleone, and his son, Michael Corleone, taking on the “family business.” Michael is the epitome of the protagonist and antagonist: He is all stoic, alpha male, and all brutal, evil assassin. Even as he plots and schemes, audiences root for him. Women adore him, and men want to emulate him. He is the epitome of a mafia protagonist.
Other characters in the trilogy sear the screen with their presence. Audiences get to see the family patriarch Vito as a child and new father in addition to an up and coming gangster, and of course as the head of one of the five major crime families in New York City.
Vito’s son, the quick-to-violence Sonny, is paired with Vito’s other son, the incompetent and weak Fredo. Who can forget these polar opposite characters? Fredo has become so synonymous with weakness, every teenage boy should see “The Godfather” just to know what not to become. As Michael says at one point, “Fredo has a good heart, but he is weak…and stupid, and stupid people are the most dangerous of all.”
Even the minor characters leave a lasting impression. Their roles may be small, but are still critical to advancing the plot and filling in the details, leaving impressions that have lasted decades. When one hears, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” everyone knows it’s Peter Clemenza, even if they don’t know the actor added “take the cannoli” spontaneously.
In an unusually astute and powerful move, the female characters in the trilogy are just as strong as the men. Kay Corleone, while hardly as magnanimous as Michael, is alluring in her own way, mostly because, while she loves him, she refuses to be a doormat and seems to care little what “the family” thinks. She remains strong when she disagrees with Michael and unafraid to show her distress.
Even Michael’s younger sister Connie grows from a timid wife in part one to a protective younger sister who orders hits in part three. All of the characters come together to form a cohesive unit central to advancing the story through all three chapters.
Heavily infusing Italian culture and stereotypes,while showing the complexity and beauty of Italians living as American immigrants, remain one of the most impressive aspects of the film. It’s second only to the unprecedented insistence that men of the mafia portray considerable psychological depth and complexity.
This is so spot-on that when real-life gangster Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano—of Gambino crime family fame—saw it, he said, “I left the movie stunned … I mean I floated out of the theater. Maybe it was fiction, but for me, then, that was our life. It was incredible. I remember talking to a multitude of guys, made guys, who felt exactly the same way.”
3. It Wasn’t Supposed to Be a Hit
While “The Godfather” earned dozens of positive reviews and even more awards after its release, the film was a bit of an underdog. Following its 1972 release, it won five Golden Globes and three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor—an irony since the studio didn’t want to cast Brando as the “Godfather” nor Al Pacino as Michael Corleone.
Even though director Francis Ford Coppola’s lackadaisical methods of hiring actors and getting production going ended up costing about $40,000 a day, it’s unclear if anyone at Paramount minded in the end: “The Godfather” was the highest-grossing film of that year and the highest-grossing film ever for many years.
Since it was based on a somewhat-successful novel by Mario Puzo, folks weren’t clamoring to make this film. Paramount Pictures obtained the rights to the novel for less than six figures and for a while executives couldn’t find someone to direct it. Originally, when they asked Coppola to do it, he turned them down because he thought Puzo’s novel was “pretty cheap stuff.” Eventually, however, he agreed, and it turned out to be the right choice.
He and Puzo co-wrote the screenplay, but see if you ever hear the word “mafia” or “Cosa Nostra” anywhere. You won’t hear it, because the Italian-American Civil Rights League banned the words to diminish stereotypes about Italian-Americans. (It’s unclear whether they succeeded, but I’m going with nah.)
Another reason Coppola was a genius pick: Originally studio executives wanted him to make the film reflect the current day, 1970s, but he insisted on setting the film in the days of the novel, the 1940s and 1960s, which added to its charm and believability. Despite budget constraints, they also let him film on location in New York City and Sicily, another bonus.
4. ‘The Godfather’ Shows the Complexity of Human Nature
It’s impossible to discuss “The Godfather” without identifying parallel themes of good and evil throughout the trilogy: Family, love, loyalty respect recur simultaneously with murder, violence, bribery, white-collar crime, and lying.
Even as “The Godfather” romanticizes criminality, it’s clear it’s as ghoulish as it is glamorous. The Corleones are a patriarchal family who are either doling or earning respect, yet it’s often hard to see what they’re doing that deserves respect.
Up until the making of “The Godfather,” films portraying members of organized crime typically relied on stereotypical and cartoonish characters that didn’t give viewers insight into human depravity. Nowhere is that more clear than when a priest asks Michael during his nephew’s baptism if he renounces Satan. As murders he ordered are carried out, Michael answers, “Yes, I renounce him.”
The films also present crime families in a romanticized way: The meetings. The rituals. The edicts. The customs. It all presents an almost Shakespearean image. Yet it’s clear behind all of the pomp and talk of “business,” these people are at their core violent thugs who rely on fear as a substitute for love and respect. Audiences wrestle with this dichotomy.
Even the way the film was shot highlights the fight between family and loyalty, love and respect. Cinematographer Gordon Willis turned down the initial offer to shoot “The Godfather” but later, after accepting, he and Coppola decided to use a “tableau format,” which is why the film feels at times like a painting. Astute observers notice an interplay of light and dark scenes throughout the film, mimicking psychological developments.
While the scenes in Sicily show a lush, beautiful, romantic Italian countryside, the New York scenes are grittier, darker, and edgier, to show that particular reality, especially for a crime family, assimilating from their beautiful Italy to the United States. All that glitters certainly is not gold.
5. ‘The Godfather’ Offers Big and Small Life Lessons
There are as many enormous life lessons in the films as there are small ones, sometimes in memorizable chunks. Many of these phrases have been immortalized in popular culture. Ever hear “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse”? Vito utters it with such nonchalance, you might miss it the first time. Yet it’s been said it’s so compelling real-life gangsters started using it for effect.
When Vito Corleone advises that “A friend should always underestimate your virtues and an enemy overestimate your faults,” who among us hasn’t nodded and thought it was a fantastic observation about humanity? Michael Corleone tells Sonny, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” One of the most underrated quotes of all time from “The Godfather” is when Vito explains the concept of respect:
I understand. You found paradise in America, you had a good trade, you made a good living. The police protected you and there were courts of law. You didn’t need a friend like me. But, now you come to me, and you 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 is to be married, and you ask me to do murder for money.
The trilogy offers quotable lines rooted in philosophical thought that linger long after the film is over, and the same thing echoes during larger, more memorable scenes.
When Sonny is ambushed, Fredo fishes on Lake Tahoe for a final time, and Kay leaves the man she once loved, the message is clear: Life is short. When Vito chases his grandson, Michael dances with his wife Apollonia in Sicily, and tearfully tells his father, “I’m with you now,” this message is just as clear: Family is precious and loyalty is its own reward.
“The Godfather” stirs emotions, spurs philosophy, and unravels previous stereotypes because it’s as moving as it is profound. Watching the film is its own experience.