‘The Godfather’ turns 50

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the first “Godfather” movie. Celebratory retrospectives are ubiquitous. The film is lauded for its surpassing cinematic artfulness, unforgettable performances, snippets of dialog that have become iconic, and its depiction of the architecture of the acquisition and sustenance of power. About this, like Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” it is almost a manual.

I have enjoyed the movies and Mario Puzo’s novel as well. But I have always been uncomfortable with the fascination inclining toward adoration of some of the characters depicted in the book and the films.

A most remarkable and almost totally ignored feature of “The Godfather” literary and cinematic saga is the invisibility of the innocent victims of the Corleone criminal enterprise. Sure, lots of people are killed in the story. But they all seem to deserve it. They are thugs or perverts, rival henchmen and brutes, traitorous capos who go to their deserved deaths with dignity. And the don is depicted as only protecting his family and friends from predations

He is portrayed as paying back those who have injured the innocent, securing vengeance when the legal system fails to mete out justice for the disempowered, and offering protection to his own. He is admired for his penetrating insight into human behavior and the dynamics of power and control, his effectiveness as a “business man,” his ability to get things done. He is, with what should be seen as grotesque perversity, seen as honorable, even noble, when he is actually a super predator.

Completely invisible are the actual execrable enterprises of the crime family, the devastation of the lives of the ordinary people who are its victims, the cruelty visited upon people trying to run legitimate business who don’t want the mob for a partner, the drug addicted lives of its patrons, the torment and intimidation that is its currency

You read and see nothing of the suppression of the wages of union workers, the legitimate business people who are violently driven out unless they partner with extortionists, the engineered corruption of the legal system, the violence and threats of violence by which control is built over individuals, neighborhoods, and in some cases industries.

This is akin to showing the genteel antebellum life of plantation owning families but never the wretched slave quarters, the rent lives of destroyed families, the cruel and unrelenting labor, the whippings and rapes of their human chattel, and the daily brutality of the lives of the people from whose sweat and blood the wealth of the masters was extracted.

It is also like showing the drama of corporate deal making in high-rise boardrooms, the baronial mansions, yachts and helipads, evening gowned poolside cocktail parties, but never the empty maw of endless decimated rainforests transformed into slag fields worked by near starving laborers, the coal blackened Appalachian landscape with mountain tops blown away, the factory enclaves around the world where sweating, kidnapped, hopeless young women stitch for a dollar a day.

Here now, we have a former and would-be future president praising Vladimir Putin, a monstrous creature of nearly unimaginable brutality driven by greed, paranoia, and grandiose delusions in the service of the achievement of power without limit. What he presumably admires about this psychopath is his canny ways of domination. What is invisible to him because of his own psychopathology is the industrial scale suffering visited upon innocent people in his own country and those that he militarily decimates and dominates.

“A genius,” he is called. At what? Self-serving deal-making on an unending mission of acquisition of wealth and power? Exploitation without accountability? Creative lying in the service of domination of innocents?

In order to admire and even wish to emulate fictional characters like Vito Corleone or living grotesqueries like Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump one must be devoid of understanding of the true meaning of nobility and unable to recognize it when life offers living examples.

Instead let us emulate those of genuine character and integrity who live with dedication to the well-being of those beyond just their personal intimate circle. Volodymir Zelenskyy springs to mind now, along with the late John Lewis. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s extraordinary dignity in the face of scurrilous assaults upon her values and character suggests that she may be such a one. You may compile your own list and consider each one with reverence.

So, while appreciating the artistry of “The Godfather” saga, we must not be seduced into glorification of its protagonists, and we must be mindful of the myriad victims of the mob’s predations so artfully rendered invisible in the book and film.

Jonathan Klate writes regularly about spirituality, political ideology, and the relationship between these two.