Family Matters: “The Godfather” and Greek Tragedy

It may be that the Great American Novel has yet to be written, although The Great Gatsby, which we touched on in last week’s post, is as good a contender for the title as any. When it comes to  the Great American Film Epic, however, many would agree that The Godfather is a definite winner, even though it is usually ranked as the second greatest American film ever, behind Citizen Kane. Ostensibly a Mafia family saga, The Godfather has been seen by many a critic as a metaphor or paradigm for American capitalist imperialism: “survival of the fittest, the ruthless annihilation of rivals and the amassing of money which in turn purchases power” (Peter Cowie, The Godfather Book (London 1997) 174).

“We was like the Roman Empire”

Comparing US imperialism with the Roman Empire is of course a well-worn cliché. The Godfather screenwriters —novelist Mario Puzo, author of the original bestselling novel, and director Francis Ford Coppola— deftly managed to work around the cliché by projecting the Roman paradigm onto the Corleone family rather than onto America at large. Early in the novel, Sonny Corleone, the acting head of the family, is compared to “some newly crowned Roman Emperor”. And towards its end, Michael Corleone, now the new Don, reminds his wife “of statues in Rome, statues of those Roman emperors of antiquity, who, by divine right, held the power of life and death over their fellow men.”

Augustus of Prima Porta, statue of the emperor...

Augustus of Prima Porta, statue of the emperor Augustus in Museo Chiaramonti, Vatican, Rome. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The parallelism is spelled out in the film version too (The Godfather II), in the ominous scene where the Family consigliere Tom Hagen subtly nudges Frank Pentangeli, a Corleone capo turned traitor, towards suicide:

Cover of "The Godfather (Widescreen Editi...

Cover of The Godfather (Widescreen Edition)

HAGEN Frankie, you were always interested in politics, in history.  I remember you talking about Hitler back in ’43.  We were young then.

PENTANGELI Yeah, I still read a lot.  They bring me stuff.

HAGEN You were around the old timers who dreamed up how the Families should be organized, how they based it on the old Roman Legions, and called them ‘Regimes’… with the ‘Capos’ and ‘Soldiers,’ and it worked.

PENTANGELI Yeah, it worked.  Those were great old days.  We was like the Roman Empire.  The Corleone family was like the Roman Empire.

HAGEN (sadly) Yeah, it was once.

The similarities may extend even further. The relationship between a Mafia Don and his protégés — a relationship that is both hierarchical and mutually binding— is in many ways reminiscent of the relationship between a Roman patron and his clients. A patron would protect and assist his clients through his money, rank, and political influence; in return, a client was duty-bound to offer his patron any service he was asked to. In the first Godfather film, Vito Corleone promises Amerigo Bonasera to punish the hoodlums who assaulted the latter’s daughter; he then adds:

Some day, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.

Family vs. State: Echoes of Greek Tragedy?

Though this may not be immediately apparent, the Roman world isn’t the only aspect of the ancient world present in The Godfather. There also seems to be a subtext pointing to the conflict between the powerful family and the state — a theme that crops up in many a Greek tragedy, most prominently perhaps in Sophocles’ Antigone.

In both the novelistic and the filmic versions of The Godfather, the Mafia family not only antagonises the State, by pursuing criminal activities, but also, alarmingly, absorbs mainstream politicians (Senator Pat Geary) and police officers (Captain McCluskey) into its shadowy world. Invariably, the representatives of the State fall victim to their own greed-driven dealings with the Cosa Nostra. Unsurprisingly, the mafiosi regard state institutions and functionaries with contempt. Early in the novel (and in the first Godfather film), Vito Corleone berates the undertaker Amerigo Bonasera for trusting in the police and the judiciary rather than coming directly to him:

Why do you fear to give your first allegiance to me?” he said. “You go to the law courts and wait for months. You spend money on lawyers who know full well you are to be made a fool of. You accept judgment from a judge who sells himself like the worst whore in the streets.

Albeit earnestly aspiring to be a good American citizen —he believes in America (it has, after all, made his fortune) and took pains to raise his daughter in the American fashion— Bonasera is forced eventually to seek justice elsewhere, when the police and the judiciary fail his expectations. He says to his wife: “For justice, we must go to Don Corleone“.

The Mafia’s contempt for legal authority and state power is complemented by its own effort to appropriate the status of a shadowy institution, with its exclusive circle of members and dependants, its own special laws, rituals, and forms of authority. Blood-relations are of the essence here. In the extended TV version (The Godfather Saga), Don Vito sneers at the military decorations his war-hero son, Michael, has won:

What are these Christmas-ribbons for? […] What miracles did you perform for strangers?

Allegiance to the family is one’s first and foremost duty. Allegiance to one’s country is seen either as antagonistic to the family or, at best, as irrelevant.

The Family Against Itself

There is, however, a tragic paradox here. For all the central importance of the family in Mafia ideology, the Corleone clan falls victim to an overwhelming self-destructive drive. In The Godfather II, Fredo, resentful at being bypassed by his younger brother Michael in the family leadership, takes part in a plot to kill his brother – an attempted fratricide that seems to hark back to the mutual fratricide of Eteocles and Polynices. Michael, in return, goes as far as to disown his brother — and one cannot help recalling how Antigone disowns her sister Ismene in Sophocles’ Antigone:

Tragically, Michael goes much further than that. He actually has Fredo shot by a professional killer on the Family payroll — a scene of hair-raising coldness as well as masterful cinematography:

Not long before that climactic episode, which comes at the end of The Godfather II, a perplexed Michael cryptically asks his aged mother whether a man could “lose his family” despite trying to protect it. “You can never lose your family”, his mother replies. This echoes, of course, the deep-rooted view of the family is a system of set relations, fortified by inalienable blood ties, a system one is born into and cannot simply opt out of. Still, as Michael grimly asserts, “Times are changing…” His father, even as a youngster, managed to salvage his family from near-annihilation; Michael finds himself forced to liquidate his own brother, ostensibly in an effort to preserve the integrity of the family but in reality succumbing to a dark, self-destructive drive.

Greek tragedy is, of course, rife with episodes of kin-killing. The paradigmatic family here is the Labdacid clan — the house of Laius, Oedipus, and their progeny. Warned by an oracle predicting his death at the hands of his (as yet unborn) son, King Laius of Thebes orders one of his servants to expose the newborn baby in the wilderness. The baby, Oedipus, survives, grows up as the adopted son of the king of Corinth, and several years later kills his real father Laius without being aware of his identity. As an old man, Oedipus revives the kin-killing streak that seems to run through his family: this time, in full awareness of the significance of his act, he curses his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, to kill each other — which they do in a duel, at the end of the fateful expedition of the Seven against Thebes, led by Polynices.

Nikiforos Lytras, Antigone in front of the dea...

Nikiforos Lytras, Antigone in front of the dead Polynices (1865), oil on canvas, National Gallery of Greece-Alexandros Soutzos Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s in the blood

Both the Labdacids and the Corleones seem to play out a drama of the blood. The family is, obviously, a unit determined by blood ties which are to be fostered and respected. However, it is also a widespread notion, especially in the Mediterranean, that the propensity for evil can also be, somehow, carried over from one generation to another, as if it were a blood-transmitted disease. The idea is perhaps spelled out most clearly in Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding (quoted in Brendan Kennely’s translation):

FATHER . That fellow is just looking for trouble. There’s bad blood in his veins.

MOTHER . What blood do you expect? He has the same bad blood everyone in his family has. That same blood was in his great–grandfather, a killer, and it has flowed through the veins of the different generations of men in that family — an evil breed, always with knives on their bodies and lying smiles on their faces, happy only when they ’re killing something, destroying what others sweat and labour to create. The devil’s blood is in them.

It will be remembered that, in The Godather III, an aged Michael Corleone dies of diabetes, a hereditary disease affecting the blood — a potent image of the hereditary “bad blood” that gradually destroys the Corleone family.

“Bad Blood” and the Labdacids

The Labdacids are a ruling family that is incompatible with the survival of the very community they rule. In Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, an oracle by Apollo warns Laius that by dying with no offspring he will preserve the city of Thebes. But Laius produces a son, Oedipus, who will eventually imperil his native city. Having defeated the Sphinx, he is rewarded with the throne of Thebes. However, burdened as he is with the crimes of parricide and incest (he has married, again unwittingly, his own mother Jocasta), he becomes a source of ritual pollution for Thebes. The ruling Labdacid family is again at odds with the community, and ruin can be avoided only by the dissolution of the family (Jocasta kills herself, Oedipus is exiled, their male children die at each other’s hands).

Farewell of Oedipus to the Corpses of His Wife...

Farewell of Oedipus to the Corpses of His Wife and Sons by Edouard Toudouze (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oedipus complex: Oedipus explains the riddle o...

Oedipus complex: Oedipus explains the riddle of the Sphinx, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. (ca. 1805) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The self-destructive introversion of the Labdacids seems, alarmingly, to reverberate outside the immediate family as well. In Sophocles’ Antigone, Creon starts off as a model statesman, genuinely intending to save the city from the evils that have been heaped upon it by the Labdacids. Still, at the end of the play, after a series of imperceptible transmutations, he finds himself enmeshed in a situation that has been, so far, characteristic of the Labdacids. Creon’s politically driven decision not to inter Polynices leads eventually to the destruction of his entire family: not only his niece Antigone commits suicide, but also his son Haemon kills himself over his fiancé Antigone’s body; and this causes Creon’s wife, Eurydice, also to commit suicide. The kin-killing patterns associated with the Labdacids now spill over to Creon’s family too. Exactly how this reversal happens, and what its implications are, is examined here. You should be warned that this is a lengthy paper written in rather heavy-going academic prose; but I hope you will find something of value in it nonetheless.

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3 Responses to Family Matters: “The Godfather” and Greek Tragedy

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