The Godfather trilogy directed by Francis Coppola and inspired by a novel by Mario Puzo is one of the greatest series of all time, especially for its portrayal of family ties and the mafia in a time when America was rapidly changing. The film shows a crime family’s rise and fall over the years, and features two distinct characters in Vito and Michael Corleone. The two dons differ in how they conduct their affairs, but there are central themes that resonate through them all. In the novel, Vito and Michael exhibit several similar and differing traits in the way they attend to the family, their mafia links, and the way they approach the code of omerta. This paper aims at exploring the similarities and differences in depth while also showing how these two men varied in their approach to life.
Don Vito is both a Mafioso and a family man. As a family man who cares about succession, he saw to it that his sons understood the family business, even though he never wanted Michael to be a part of it. He is a wise leader who understands that Michael is important for the family and hence he bribes so that Michael can return from the war. He hands over power when it is needed and chooses Michael’s advisors wisely. Vito also understands the need for political connections and loyal allies for the empire to survive. He spends a vast amount of money in political campaigns and educating needy boys who would later hold important offices (Russell). He also makes it a point to consolidate power by either forming coalitions or destroying enemies. Ultimately, he amasses enough power to safeguard his empire and is even willing to compromise when this empire is compromised.
Don Vito is also a Mafioso who utilizes underhand tactics to gain an advantage. Don Vito starts from nothing and has to kill Fanucci before starting his business. He is also a hard hearted man who kills without flinching as can be seen when he kills Don Ciccio by carving his stomach open. He oversaw a business founded on bootlegging, gambling, murder, and extortion that saw him wipe numerous crime families (Browne). Vito is comfortable in his role as a mafia boss and for him there is no tension between the two meanings of family. To him, the crime family and his real family exist in perfect balance and he creates ample time for both of them.
For Michael Corleone, however, getting into the family business is more for succession than being in the mafia or family. We see that of Vito’s children, he is the most eligible to take over the family business, even if he does not want to. Michael was never supposed to be involved with the family business, and Vito wants him to join politics. Michael wants an ordinary Americanized life and even when he starts working for the family he does not seem fully reconciled to the decision and even promises Kay Adams that he would make the business legitimate in five years (Baghwad). Michael is burdened by the responsibility of being Don and slaves away for the benefit of those around him. He just wants the family to be safe, and he spends the most part of his life trying to legitimatize the business. Michael also has selfish motives for his children as he wants them to be immersed in the family business which led Kay to commit an abortion and pass it on for a miscarriage, an occurrence that made Michael very angry.
From the onset it was clear that Michael could not be separated from the mafia as it was the family business, and even kills two people before fleeing to Sicily. Not until his wife Apollonia is killed by a car bomb intended for him, however, does Michael decide to fully join the family business and even becomes more ruthless than his father. He fully embraces the mafia way and loves utilizing force, initially with a bit of restraint. His mafia tendencies lead him to commit crimes such as ordering the killing of Carlo and Frodo for which he ultimately falls apart with his family (Brown). The mafia ways follow Michael everywhere and he has no choice but to embrace it, especially with the numerous assassinations around him. While it can be said that circumstance forced Michael to embrace the mafia way, he soon grows a penchant for it and feels the need to wipe out all his enemies. Ultimately, Michael tries to balance family life and strengthen the family unit while also keeping away from the mafia life, but is unsuccessful in both endeavors.
Omerta was a code of behavior followed by the mafia and regarded as a code of honor. It deemed the involvement of the authorities in solving one’s problems as disdainful and cowardly. Under the code, it is also expected that a man who takes offense with the actions of another should not involve the law in settling the dispute but do it personally. Not seeking vengeance was also considered a crime. As such, men who respected the code of omerta were highly regarded and respected, and the two dons knew so.
Don Vito Corleone respected the spirit of Omerta, and realized its importance in the mafia. He reasoned that a mafioso boss who allowed an assassin to live even after being paid large amounts of money was not one to be respected, which is why he killed Fanucci. His vengeful spirit is well exemplified when after 21 years of absence from Sicily he returns to kill Don Ciccio and the henchmen that had murdered his brother, mother, and father. After the second attempt on his life, Vito together with Michael plot for the downfall of the Barzini and Tattaglia families (Thomson). Tito thus recognizes the need for omerta and lives by the code.
Vito, however, recognizes the need for avoiding war and the importance of mediation and arbitration in dispute resolution. Vito recognizes that there will always be enemies, and that sometimes it is necessary to compromise to avoid the needless deaths of those caught in the middle of gang warfare. He is patient and cunning in his approach to revenge, such as when he calls for peace and promises not to retaliate upon the murder of Santino.
Michael is heavily taken by the spirit of Omerta, and is willing to sacrifice a lot to break the enemies of his family. When Vito is nearly assassinated in 1945 he volunteers to murder the men responsible, much to the surprise of Sonny. Besides killing Solozzo, Michael also murders police Captain McCluskey, even though it was common knowledge among the American mafia that policemen were not to be harmed (Brown). When Michael becomes operating head in 1954 after Vito’s semiretirement, there are questions on Michael’s suitability especially after he barred Clemenza and Tessio from retaliating against the Barzini and Tattaglia families. Michael and the Don had, however, started to make plans to wipe out the two rival families. We see that Michael is more concerned about revenge against the two families than peace, and shortly after his father’s death he orders the deaths of Barzini, Strassi, Philip Tattaglia, Cuneo, and Tessio all at the same time.
The spirit of omerta is also evident when Michael orders the killing of Carlo Rizzi, his brother-in-law, for the continuous abuse of his sister and for selling out Sonny. Michael is godfather to Carlo’s baby but is more concerned about revenge, and he is not remorseful even when Connie confronts him about Carlo’s death. Michael’s thirst for revenge ultimately led to his planning the dead of his brother Fredo, a decision he regrets for the rest of his life. Michael’s thirst for revenge is even demonstrated by Tom Hagen who enquires why they have to wipe everybody out even when they had won, to which Michael replied that he only needed to wipe out his enemies (Russell). Michael feels a strong need for revenge against enemies, even if this means killing family members for ratting them out.
Loyalty and betrayal are central themes in the play. A man with loyalty was considered trustful and never lacked a job, which is what enabled Tessio, Clemenza, and Vito to flourish in the early days of their criminal careers. A man with courage and who could fulfill the requirements of omerta was rewarded with loyalty from others. When Don Vito kills Fanucci, he becomes a ‘man of respect’ on the streets, and gains a reputation when he refuses to turn down anyone who sought help from him. Of the two men, Don Vito took loyalty more seriously and lived by a strict moral code towards his friends and family (Brown). In a bid to win the loyalty of the people, he even financed the careers and education of bright young neighborhood boys such as Tom Hagen. Being loyal had its rewards as besides providing one with material wealth, it also ensured that one’s family was taken care of even when he died or went to jail. Clemenza, Tessio, and Abbandado are repaid for their loyalty by being given status and wealth, while Luca Brasi rewards Don Vito by becoming a trusted and ruthless enforcer.
Betrayal, on the other hand, was rewarded with death in the spirit of omerta. A disloyal person needed to get killed as a show of power and courage. While killings among the rival gangs were prevalent, inter-gang executions were also not unheard of especially when they involved betrayal. Cases of betrayal were treated with utmost seriousness and were almost always avenged even in Sicily.
Women are also not far removed from the code of honor, with one of the earliest women to exercise this being Signora Andolini, Don’s mother. When Antonio and Paolo Andolini were murdered for the non-payment of a tribute owed to Don Ciccio, Signora Andolini goes to seek forgiveness from Don Ciccio. When Ciccio refuses the offer, Signora Andolini kills Ciccio to allow her son to escape. Overall, however, women are relegated to the background in the movie and are seldom involved in any operations. Besides Kay, who is not even Sicilian, the other women in the movie play a minute role that does not allow us to capture the women perception on omerta.
Ultimately, the two men were clearly distinct from each other. While Don Vito valued his friends and family and promised hard to deliver results, Michael was a selfish man who spent most of his life running away from his family. Vito is a mafioso who finds perfect balance between criminal and family life while Michael is eaten up by the criminal life that he ends up losing his family. Additionally, whereas Don Vito is patient and prudent in the way he seeks revenge, Michael seeks to wipe out all his enemies. Ultimately, Don Vito does things for family while Michael did many admirable things not for his family but for selfish reasons.
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