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This week marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the original Godfather film which, together with its immediate sequel (what third volume?) constitutes one of the—if not the—greatest ensemble of American films ever produced. What’s always struck me about the films’ cultural significance is the way they’ve stood apart from other films of their genre. The real reason for this, I think, is not because they’re the originators of the genre, or because they’re the best (though they are). It’s because they’re fundamentally different from the countless imitations and homages which have come after and obscured their message by birthing a cottage industry of shoot-‘em-ups and stereotypes. But the source of their uniqueness is more than their focus on a minority experience in America (Italian immigrants) or the way they flaunt religious motifs often absent from mainstream American culture (as even a half-attentive viewing will confirm, the use of Catholic sacramental imagery is indeed stunning). Rather, the real source of their brilliance is their philosophical and theological acumen.

The films are tragedies, which instantly sets them apart from much of American culture’s relentless optimism. There’s a pervasive realism that shades into cynicism in the films—is anyone redeemed or transformed for the better? Virtually every major character dies an ignoble death. This in itself wouldn’t be especially remarkable except that I think some misread the films as endorsing this view, or as presenting it in order to ‘sober us up’ about the nature of reality. But the films aren’t quite doing this—rather, they’re presenting the violence, betrayal, and hate as an exposition of and warning against a life lived according to the rules of the characters . The thesis of the films is essentially that “the wages of sin are death.”

In the absence of grace, the movies affirm, life becomes a power struggle, a fact which the Machiavellian Michael understands better than anyone else. Revenge becomes an obsession—a path which reaches its nadir in the second film when he cannot forgive even his own brother. But what’s remarkable about the films is that this existence is not glamorized, as many contemporary gangster movies or other elements of our culture are too eager to do. Michael has made it to the top (unlike, it ought to be noted, everyone else who competed—too bad for them), but even winning the contest of wills doesn’t grant fulfillment.

Ultimately, the films exhibit agreement with Socrates’ almost-preposterous assertion to Glaucon in the Republic that “the tyrant is the unhappiest of men.” As the series progresses, Michael eliminates everyone who has featured in his life, but he also becomes increasingly paranoid and ruthless. His initial promise to “go legitimate” within five years of his marriage is put on indefinite hiatus; killings which are supposed to settle problems inevitably lead to another murder, and another, as further plots are uncovered; trust collapses and love, even the much-exalted “family” love, is methodically eviscerated. The master becomes dependent on the slaves, and when he can no longer trust them, sets off on his own into the desert to throw himself off the temple. He is peerless—and that is a terrible thing.

It’s notable that one of the very few instances in the films’ cold moral landscape of someone acting out of ‘higher’ motivations (ie, not out of naked self-interest or the furtherance of their libido dominandi ) is a quick incident in the second movie. While traveling through Havana on his way to conduct further swindles, Michael witnesses a Cuban Marxist rebel struggling with several members of the (soon-to-fall) Batista-backed security force. When the rebel is placed under arrest, he detonates a grenade attached to his belt (and takes the soldiers with him) rather than succumb to arrest. Michael is astonished, later recounting how struck he was by this ‘pure’ act of dedication and sacrifice, and how he is utterly convinced it portends a victory for the rebels.

The other instance of genuinely heroic sacrifice comes, of course, from Michael himself. The concluding scene of the second film is a flashback to a time before the opening of the first: Christmas, 1941. Pearl Harbor had recently been attacked and Michael announces, to the dismay and anger of his family, that he is quitting Harvard and enlisting in the Marines. None of his brothers or uncles understand why he would do such a thing because, again, it’s an act that has no motivation other than genuine belief. One by one, as his family members leave the dinner table in disgust, Michael is seen alone, isolated by his decision. But it’s the isolation of a martyr—-the righteousness of one person juxtaposed against a backdrop of moral confusion. Michael finds himself in a similar position—alone—in the following, final scene, after ordering the murder of his brother. But this time his isolation is a complete inversion, brought about by the destruction of every human tie for the sake of pride rather than transcendence. He’s “won,” but is hardly a king, or a figure to be envied. He’s taken sin as far as it can go, and mastered the logic of life unconnected to God. He’s put himself in hell.

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