Anatomy Lesson: “I believe in America”

The Godfather_I believe in America
Of all the party games, Chinese whispers was the Don’s favourite

Welcome to a new feature here at The Pop Culture Studio – Anatomy Lesson, where we take part of a great piece of pop culture and attempt to dissect it, in the hope of better understanding what makes it so special.

For this first post, we’re setting our sights high, and analysing the classic opening scene of bona fide cinematic masterpiece The Godfather.

If you haven’t seen The Godfather or it’s been a while since your last viewing, you can check out the opening scene below:

Done? Good. Now, let’s get our gloves on, take out our scalpels and get to work carving up the scene (this is actually a far more grisly metaphor than I originally envisioned…).

In the beginning, the first line of dialogue the audience hears is a rich voice declaring, “I believe in America”. We can’t yet see who has spoken as the screen is black, but instantly, we are drawn in by the strength of the line, and now want to know who the speaker is.

In a fine example of economical storytelling, this opening line, which is delivered with the hint of a foreign accent, also introduces us to one of the major themes of The Godfather: the promise of the American Dream (which of course later develops into a study of the eventual corruption of the Dream, both for individuals and for the nation overall).

Having hooked us in, Mario Puzo’s screenplay quickly moves on to reveal the speaker, Bonasera, a dignified looking Italian-American who is framed on either side by complete darkness. This is a man in both a literal and figurative underworld setting, and although we don’t know that information just yet, his foreboding surroundings allow us to register it on an emotional level (kudos to Gordon Willis on his exquisite cinematography).

As Bonasera relates the story of how he came to America, lived as an American and prospered, only for his daughter to be brutalised by men who went unpunished by the courts, we get our first view of the other major player in the room: crime lord Don Vito Corleone.

It’s not much of a view, as the Don is barely in frame and he has his back to us. Director Francis Ford Coppola has chosen this shot carefully, as it forms the audience’s first impression of Don Corleone, and that impression is of a vague figure lurking in the corner of our eye, a man who exists in a world of shadows never fully visible to average people like us.

Coupled with this sinister sense of ineffability is an air of calculation and unspoken power. This is conveyed via the excellent performance of screen legend Marlon Brando, who, as the Don, rests his hand on his chin while he patiently hears Bonasera out, and then uses that same hand to issue a silent command for the other man to be offered a drink.

The scene continues to play out, and we learn that Bonasera has come to the Don to seek retribution upon his daughter’s assailants. As the camera shifts to reveal the imposing figure of the stern-faced Don, the idea of a figurative and literal underworld scenario again comes to mind.

We recognise the Don as the king of this underworld, sitting regally in his high-backed chair and listening in his dimly lit chambers to the pleas of ordinary humans willing to give anything to have their wish fulfilled.

It’s at this point in the scene that Don Corleone really starts to take centre stage and as you’d expect from an underworld ruler, he proves to be a seductive figure to both Bonasera and the audience alike: he is charismatic, intelligent, even-tempered, sympathetic and, crucially, principled.

We can see that this crime lord is no petty thug like the human trash who battered Bonasera’s daughter; this is clearly a refined form of criminal with his own code of ethics (watch him dismiss outright the notion of killing as a suitable punishment for the assault), and we’re now drawn even deeper into the story, wanting to get to know the Don further.

Helping to underscore the complexity of the Don’s characterisation is the kitten that has been sitting in his lap throughout the entirety of the scene thus far. Watching Vito kindly cradle the small animal allows us to see his benign and human side, and yet we also see him with it firmly in his grasp, which subtly reminds us of his domineering persona.

Indeed, the Don’s relationship with the kitten seems designed to mirror his relationship with Bonasera: he is gentle with both, and yet both man and cat are under no illusion as to who is their master. It’s another example of way that Coppola is able to elegantly hint at the themes at play both in the scene as well as in the film overall.

As mentioned earlier, the spotlight has now shifted firmly onto the Don, and gentlemanly though his demeanour might be, he pulls no punches in his conversation with Bonasera. This is made evident by the following passage of cracking dialogue courtesy of Puzo and delivered with precision by Brando:

I understand. You found paradise in America. You had a good trade, you made a good living. The police protected you and there were courts of law. So you didn’t need a friend like me. Now you come and say “Don Corleone, give me justice.” But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me “Godfather.” You come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to do murder – for money.”

Here the Don touches on the American Dream theme once more but then moves on to lay the groundwork for the remaining key themes of the film:

  • the legitimate world vs the illegitimate world
  • respect, and
  • family.

As the Don points out, when Bonasera came to America and prospered as part of so-called legitimate society, he avoided old world figures like the Don. But now Bonasera has found out the hard way that legitimate society isn’t perfect either; sometimes you get royally screwed over, which feeds the temptation to step outside this milieu in order to do the wrong thing for the right reasons.

The conflict between these two worlds, the legitimate and the illegitimate, will become crucial to the story going forward, and heavily informs the character arc for as yet unseen protagonist (and Vito’s son) Michael.

The next theme to rear its head during the scene is respect, which occurs when the Don chastises Bonasera for entering his domain without any. Having operated for so long within regular society, he has forgotten that transactions in the underworld cannot be made with money, but with worship. The wealth that men like the Don prize is power, and its currency is not dollars and cents, but respect and fear.

Once again showing his softer side, the Don goes on to virtually coach Bonasera through the process of respectfully making a request of a man in Vito’s position. This concludes with the pitiful display of Bonasera bowing and kissing the Don’s ring, and the subservience of this gesture perfectly sums up why the Don demands it. Everyone in the Don’s world, no matter how seemingly insignificant, must be made to show him the appropriate amount of respect, because showing respect implies that one fears to do otherwise, and a man who is feared is a man with power.

The final major theme signposted at this point is family. Already we’ve heard Bonasera discuss his daughter, and the Don now makes reference to today being his daughter’s wedding day, so the notion of the bonds of family is well and truly planted in the minds of the audience. There’s not much else to comment on about this theme, but the obligations one has to his or her family, and how they can both empower or suffocate us, is probably the most important theme of the film, so Coppola and Puzo were smart to work it in early.

Things draw to a fairly abrupt close from here; the Don has been shown respect by Bonasera, and Bonsera has subsequently been promised justice for his daughter on the proviso that he one day perform a service for the Don (the lord of the underworld can’t get by on worship alone; sometimes sacrifice is needed), although the scene itself still has one last great moment left.

After Bonasera has left but before we cut to the next scene, Vito organises for the men who beat Bonasera’s daughter to themselves be roughed up. He makes strict instructions that “reliable” men be assigned to the job, as a precaution against the assaults becoming homicides. “I mean,” he murmurs, “we’re not murderers…”.

The is a fantastically rich line to end on, because it seems so off hand and yet it communicates so much. It reinforces how nuanced the Don’s personality is (even ordering a savage beating, he comes across noble!) and suggests again the tension between legitimacy vs. illegitimacy (no matter what the Don or anyone else says to dress up their trade and seem professional, a big part of the business still involves murder). It’s also blackly funny on repeat viewings, when we’re already privy to the amount of bloodshed soon to be committed by the Don’s organisation.

One last thing I’d like to comment on is the scoring and sound mixing for this scene, as it’s quite important.

Although the now-classic main theme plays over the opening titles, as soon as they fade out and the scene proper begins, it cuts out completely, and no other music whatsoever plays until the scene is done.

Similarly, the sound mixing utilised throughout the scene is incredibly restrained. Other than some very minor foley (creaking chairs, rustling clothes and the like), the only sounds we hear are the voices of the Don and Bonasera.

Dialling back all superfluous audio elements was a smart move on the part of Coppola, composer Nino Rota and sound effects editor Howard Beals, as it allows the audience to be totally focused on the performances of the actors in what is a very intimate scene. The near-silence also strengthens the slight sense of discomfort that pervades the scene, particularly early in the piece.

That about wraps things up for this first Anatomy Lesson feature. Hopefully it’s given you all something enjoyable to chew on, and has put at least a few of you in the mood for an impromptu afternoon screening of Coppola’s masterpiece (although personally, I think it’ll be a while before I rewatch those first six minutes again!)

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Anatomy Lesson: “I believe in America”

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