There’s a reason why The Godfather is widely considered one of the greatest movies of all time: right from the very first frame, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 gangster epic is a masterclass in filmmaking. That’s no exaggeration, either; Coppola and screenwriter Mario Puzo deliver a riveting opening scene that’s also one of cinema’s most stunningly efficient.
Here, I’ve broken down this iconic scene to show how, in less than 10 minutes, Coppola and Puzo manage to introduce all the key themes that drive not only the rest of the film, but the wider Godfather trilogy itself, as well!
The American Dream, poisoned by reality
In many ways, The Godfather is about the American Dream – and, more importantly, what happens when it fails – and Coppola and Puzo foreground this theme right from the off. In his opening monologue, aggrieved undertaker Bonasera’s rich voice declares “I believe in America”, before he recounts the story of how his daughter was brutalised by men who went unpunished by the courts he had placed his trust in.
As the scene continues to play out and we learn that Bonasera has now come to crime boss Don Vito Corleone to seek retribution upon his daughter’s assailants, a pattern of optimism being eroded by world-weary cynicism beings to take shape. It will crystallise fully later on in The Godfather, as Vito’s son Michael slowly transforms from an idealistic war hero vehemently opposed to joining the family business to a ruthless mafioso with little respect for America’s institutions – an arc that runs through all three films.
The legitimate versus the illegitimate world
This brings us neatly to another core theme in The Godfather trilogy telegraphed in the first film’s opening scene: the tension between the legitimate and the illegitimate worlds. Law-abiding society – the society Bonasera and later Michael both long to be part of – is all well and good… when it works. But when it doesn’t? You find yourself royally screwed over, and that’s when the temptation to opt out really starts to kick in.
As Vito points out, when Bonasera came to America and prospered as part of legitimate society, he avoided old world underworld figures like the Don. Now that American justice has failed him, however, he embraces the illegitimate world he previously shunned; just like Michael throughout the rest of the trilogy, Bonasera finds the allure of organised crime and its unfettered freedoms too enticing to resist.
Respect is the true currency
Not that those freedoms come cheap – although the cost isn’t money. No, in the shadowy realm that barely glimpsed men like Don Vito operate in, wealth is measured in how much power you have, and its currency isn’t dollars and cents, but respect and fear. Having operated within legitimate society for so long, Bonasera has forgotten this, and Vito chides this hapless mortal for entering his dark domain – brilliantly realised by cinematographer Gordon Willis – so gracelessly.
It’s played beautifully by star Marlon Brando, especially the transition from Vito coaching Bonasera through proceedings to assuming the lofty stance of the other man’s beneficent master upon the unholy ritual’s completion, when Bonasera pitifully kisses Vito’s ring. Here, the entire power dynamic of The Godfather trilogy – the whole primitive cycle of violence that Michael tries and ultimately fails to break free of – is sketched out in full: fear elicits respect, and respect bestows power.
Crime is a family business
But more than anything – more than the American Dream or legitimate versus illegitimate society or even respect – The Godfather flicks are about family. Again, this is something Coppola and Puzo seed up front; obviously, Bonasera is visiting Vito on behalf of his daughter, but we soon learn that he is visiting on Vito’s wedding day (when traditionally, the Don cannot refuse any request made of him).
Admittedly, there’s not much more to it than that, but even at this early stage, familial themes that will drive the wider trilogy – the obligation one has to their family, and how these obligations can empower or overwhelm us – are at least part of the subtext. These ideas are now planted firmly in our minds, and like the other themes established through The Godfather’s opening scene, they’ll stay with us for the remainder of the trilogy.
All that in less than 10 minutes? Greatest movie of all time, indeed…