The Godfather (1972)

Published: Nov 21, 2010 |Updated: Sep 10, 2023


The Godfather, one of our time’s most loved films, is a descent into the dark world of the Italian mafia. We find ourselves in a universe where most men are of low moral fibre and where business takes precedence over human life. In this universe, this kingdom, Don Vito Corleone rules supreme. But Vito, an enigmatic character of both wholesome and dangerous qualities, is old. Soon the time comes for another man to fill his shoes. But at what cost?

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Genre Drama
Production year 1972
Director Francis Ford Coppola
Male actors Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Al Pacino

A descent into darkness

The Godfather is a challenging movie to review. First, it is such an important piece of movie history that everybody is likely to be pretty opinionated. Second, it is one of the best loved films of all time (it is second only to The Shawshank Redemption on Third, it’s filled with what are to me mostly unsympathetic and immature men, with some small exceptions, which is why I – unlike many people – find myself mostly unmoved by it. Nevertheless, you readers chose this in a poll some months back, and the time has come to be true to my word. So let’s see what gems we can excavate from this classic family epic.

Don Vito’s twilight kingdom

The movie starts within Don Vito’s dark and brooding office. An undertaker pleads for justice; his daughter has been abused and he wants revenge. The scene makes no attempt at hiding the sinister nature of the Corleone family’s business; the dark interior stands in stark contrast to the bright and cheery atmosphere of the wedding celebration outside. Vito is the undisputed king of this gangster family, but in observing his throne room activities, I get confused.

For I find myself in a place far from the idealized place of Arthurian myths in which benevolent forces are set in motion in service of the kingdom. On the contrary, Vito Corleone seems to have a subdued and sophisticated tyrant quality to him. But complicating the matter further, we see from his loyal subjects that he carries the quality of blessing, that essential characteristic of the mature King archetype. I feel confounded by the obvious maturity of Marlon Brando and the shadow qualities of the character he portrays. Is this a king in whom both wholesome qualities and dark and disturbing shadow qualities are rolled into the same psyche? It would seem that way.

The Corleone family has their golden boy, however. Michael, the youngest of the three biological sons, is back from the war a hero. He doesn’t appear to have the making of a gangster in him; he seems to have the glow of a budding white knight, a guardian, however fallible, of the true and the just. “That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me,” Michael tells his girlfriend when he reveals how his father helped superstar Johnny Fontaine’s career at gunpoint. Michael seems set on making different choices in life. But the people in his life are far from good role models for how to thrive on the lawful side of existence…

Where Red knights rule the lands

From Robert Bly, we remember the evolutionary path of manhood, represented in knightly form, from Red through White to Black. Red is ego and might makes right. White is the naive, the true and the just. Black is the wise, the compassionate and powerful. There are stories of tribes in Africa in which the path of Red is a ritualized part of a man’s early life, lasting well into his thirties.

During this time, he is given free roam to be antisocial, to have selfish sex with women, to be rebellious. He is not free to marry however and he is considered inherently untrustworthy; people don’t respect him. Not yet a true member of the tribe, he is preparing through this time his ego structures to eventually emerge on the other side a changed man.

But such a system only works if you have elders whose souls reside in the Black. They understand the chaos that goes on inside the not yet solidified male psyche. They are lineage-holders of the male mystery and carry the sacred fire that grants ritual space for this temporary, chaotic behaviour. I look at the mafia, however, and I see mostly Red. We see some White come through in Tom Hagen, Fredo, Johnny Fontaine and Michael in early parts of the movie.

And after Vito is almost killed, he strangely seems to develop qualities of the Black, further emphasizing his enigmatic character. But overall, in The Godfather, Ego rules supreme and might makes right. Such a world is hostile to true manhood, to real masculine maturity, and whatever men reside in it remain forever boys or men operating on the shadow side of existence. It’s the blind leading the blind.

Santino and the powerful Feminine

I’m confused by Italian men. Really, I am. They seem to have this oedipal thing going with their mothers that seems totally unhealthy. But then they have some passion and embodiment going on which a lot of non-Italian women seem to find attractive. Is that passion just a facade to cover up underlying insecurities? Or maybe this archetypal Italian man is merely a product of cultural stereotypes?

In any case, let’s remember that the Oedipus of the legends wants to have sex with his mother. And with the contemplation that any woman is on some level (and especially in boyhood) an extension of the relationship with our mother, we may understand that a man who hasn’t severed his attachment to his mother – the world of the Feminine – is likely to end up chasing women to prove he is a man. To understand that concept, we must understand that the mother energy in an uninitiated man’s life is so omnipotent that fucking around is his only way of feigning an individuation (the process of becoming your own person) from mother and prevent that which he fears the most – regression into merger with the almighty Feminine.

But the hole in the soul intuited by any uninitiated man is never filled by the Feminine; it is filled by the Masculine. It’s the role of the father and male elders to fill that hole, not the mother or the women who remind us of her. So it’s a wild goose chase. A never-ending story. Is that the challenge of the Italian man? Is the mafia a result of the machismo that arises from this unfortunate cultural attempt at pseudo-individuation? Or in truth, is this a challenge we ALL have? I think so.

The most obvious example in the Godfather of a man like the one we have been talking about is Santino (Sonny), a sorry excuse of a man with little self-control. As any boy with power, he is dangerous, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is weak. And he is a terrible head of the family when an attempt is made at Vito’s life and he disappears from his “throne” for a while. Santino’s King archetype is lacking and his recklessness is endangering everyone; himself and those close to him.

Santino is mired in the Feminine. His problem isn’t that he is too masculine, it’s that the Feminine is crushing him. His machismo is an over-compensation of the impotence he feels and so is his aggression. He hasn’t left the world of the Feminine and is like a deflating balloon in need of constant inflation – through posturing, machismo and sex.

This concept is hard for many to accept, for we have a romanticized notion of mothers and the Feminine in our postmodern culture. But a boy will always, on some level, be either apathetic (implosive) or aggressive (explosive). Ego structure and potency are the hallmarks of manhood, not boyhood. Santino is operating in archetypal shadow territory. He needs initiation, but there’s no-one capable of granting it.

In the end, his feared loss of Self materializes as his assassination. Thought eventually creates reality.

Michael’s descent into darkness

After the attempt at Don Vito’s life, something changes inside of Michael. Through his tour of duty, Michael is no stranger to killing, but the impulse he feels now is not one of duty, it is of vengeance and loyalty to his family. That family lives on the dark side, however, and Michael is not yet intimate with that brooding psychological landscape.

This may be why his family laughs when he proposes he will be the one to kill Sollozzo and Capt. McCluskey, two shady people at the center of the war between the Italian families that becomes so central in the latter parts of the movie. Michael is the good guy, the light of the family, and nobody expects he has the makeup of a murderer in him. But Michael is determined, he knows he is destined to be godfather. At the cost – his demeanor may suggest – of his soul.

In Santino’s absence, the fully recovered Vito starts transitioning control of the family business to Michael. He does so with a heavy heart – he didn’t wish this for his favourite son. He was supposed to be different, which he makes clear in a beautiful interaction between the two, the closest you get to real father-son intimacy in the movie. But as Don Vito’s strong intuition and life experience reveal the conspiracy that has been formed against them, he needs a man with sufficient internal resources to safeguard the continued existence of the Corleone family. Michael is the only candidate.

Michael’s descent from being a man of promise to being a man of no character, potency or integrity is a sad one. This descent is epitomized in two of the later scenes of the movie. In the first of these, we see Michael kneel before God at a baptism ceremony while the movie cuts intermittently to scenes of destruction that is being carried out at his command. In the second scene, we see  his sister Connie and his now wife Kay hold him accountable for the murder of Carlo, Connie’s husband.

He requested Carlo’s murder and is being held accountable for it by the women who are close to him. Kay asks him if he did it and in a display of what is little more than weakness, Michael screams at her not to interfere in his business. But she persists. “Is it true, Michael?” He looks her in the eye and tells her – while forfeiting his soul and his marriage – “no, it’s not true.”


The Godfather is a movie that shows a world of boys and wounded men. I feel in me a sense of sadness about the whole thing. How ugly these uninitiated men make the world which they inhabit! I also wonder what the impact of this parade of immaturity has had on the generations of men who have seen and loved the movie.

The Godfather is a very literal story. I find no undercurrent of profound symbolism for which the main story acts merely as metaphor. It is simply a character driven mood piece on a dark side of Italian culture. It is a good one at that, but other than acknowledging the greatness of the movie making, I don’t know what to tell you.

All I can do is encourage you to experience it for what it is, but to be wary of feeling inspired by the lifestyles or relationships of these men. One might easily romanticize them: “They live life on the edge, they place importance on family” bla bla. However, with the possible exception of a growing wisdom in Don Vito after the attempt on his life, you’ll do better searching for images of maturity elsewhere (you don’t need to go further than the Marlon Brando interviews in the sidebar to the right).

Powerful ideas from The Godfather

  • If you obsess over something happening, it probably will. So obsess over good things, not bad.
  • Karma exists. Hurting someone always has consequences. If not in the outer world, then definitely in the inner.
  • Choose your friends carefully.
  • Your soul's impulse must always take precedence over family ties (don't be afraid of being the odd one out).

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