From its very first line — where the Sicilian undertaker, Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), looks at the camera and says, “I believe in America” — “The Godfather” positions itself as a national epic. Yet despite what Coppola says, or perhaps because of it, it’s also a mob epic. How does one reconcile that with the national character? Is Bonasera saying he believes in freedom? Or is he talking about the land of business opportunity?
America, thy name be capitalism. From Coppola’s lips to your ears, that’s the thematic key that unlocked “The Godfather” for him, made it worth filming, and makes it now worth rewatching ad infinitum. Marlon Brando, too, saw it as a story “about the corporate mind.” It’s a family chronicle as well, like Coppola says, but in “The Godfather Part II,” we see the limits of family for Michael Corleone (Al Pacino).
Spoiler alert for a famous, 49-year-old movie moment: Michael has his own brother, Fredo (John Cazale), killed in “Part II.” That’s Fredo’s exit from the franchise, and Michael watches it happen from a window far across the lake where Fredo dies. Conversely, Fredo’s first entrance in “The Godfather” comes at a wedding reception where he’s up close and personal with Michael, right after Michael explains the family business to his girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton). Michael does that in a chilly, matter-of-fact way, which absolutely tracks with how his character develops in the first and second film.
It gets trickier in “Part III” when the stone-cold killer starts smiling again and they try to redeem Michael. That entails receiving absolution for all his past wrongs from a crooked church he’s supported financially, as if he can buy his way into heaven and back into the viewer’s heart.
What could be more American than that?