Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s classic novel is first and foremost a study on justice and hypocrisy. The opening scene of the film shows Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) with his adopted son/lawyer Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in a conversation with a man seeking justice for wrong done to his family. The scene shows that the Corleone crime family is built entirely around a system of justice. The rest of the film details the inner workings of that system of justice. We see the slowly developing, destructive process of self-deception and justification of wrongdoing. In seeing this process, the audience is able to understand why the characters believe what they believe and why they are willing to commit the crimes they commit. Everything that happens in The Godfather happens in the name of justice.
The titular godfather is not Vito, who we see first. Rather, his son Michael (Al Pacino) is to be the next don, but his own ideals of justice are much different from those of his father. With military experience and a general sympathy towards government, he does not seem like the ideal candidate to become the godfather. Through him, however, we see power of deceit that has already caused so much destruction through the family make it’s way into Michael.
Michael, whose personal system of justice seems initially more in line with that of the broader American culture in which he lives, is the heart of the story’s study of hypocrisy. Michael assures that as Godfather, he will have the family completely legitimate in a few years, yet it is his own corruption that causes greater destruction than any other Corleone before him. This corruption culminates in a scene where Michael, at his father’s hospital bed, uncertain even of his father’s consciousness, says: “I’m with you.”
The Corleone family is devout to their own brand of Catholicism that they fit within their own skewed system of justice. Murders, revenge, and all manner of evil are justified within their worldview. Their relationships with the church show us the depth of the hypocrisy. In one of the greatest scenes in film history, Michael takes part in the baptismal liturgy for his godson. Each part of the liturgy involves the renunciation of Satan, of evil works, and of a life separate from the God of the Bible. While Michael verbally makes each renunciation, we see the results of who Michael really is (many murders being carried out because of his order). Creating a system of justice to his own liking (and ultimately to the liking of his family), Michael’s life is built upon the worship of what he thinks justice is rather than the worship of the God who embodies the justice that he claims through his pseudo-Catholic devotion.
In the end, The Godfather vividly displays the reality of how we all can be so good at justifying our behavior that we deceive ourselves no matter how religious or moral we may think ourselves to be. Of course, I don’t think many of us will end up mob bosses like Michael, but seeing the process of self-justification becoming self-deception, we see how all manner of evil is possible from the seemingly most unlikely of sources (one’s own self).
Stumble Alert: The Godfather is an extremely violent film, but every violent scene is necessary to clearly show the system of justice of the family and the hypocrisy within that skewed understanding of justice. If you are uncomfortable watching the violence in the film, know that there is always warning given, so you can close your eyes before seeing it. It may be one of the most violent films ever made, but the violent scenes are easy enough to avoid that this makes it no reason to avoid the film no matter how squeamish you may feel.
Also: See my review of The Godfather Part II (1974)