It should first of all be stated that The Godfather is a cinematic masterpiece. The cinematography of the film was just genius, with its warm tones that accentuated a nostalgic past and that displayed the pure beauty of an agrarian Sicily; to Coppola’s soft and seamless transitions, to the amazing attention to detail can’t be overlooked, particularly with changes in clothing that represented Michael’s transition into The Godfather.
The first two films in particular were treated like set pieces so there is a ritualistic feeling to the narrative events, and it could even be said that the focus on the intensity of death, love, and life events supports the operatic feeling, something of course, that ties into the overall feeling of Italianness.
[[MORE]]However, my only problem with The Godfather is the fact that it became so successful that it implanted the image that Italian ≠ mafia into the minds of Americans and countries that consume American entertainment, pretty much collectively.
Prior to that time, the images of Italians in the American media had been by products of surface abstractions, and Italians were stereotyped as lazy, and cowards who run from battle, etc. etc.
But the association between Italians and criminals had long predated The Godfather, as they sprang up in the late 1800s and first half of the 20th century as a way of stigmatizing the ethnic ‘other’. And I could go on and on about this and how race is socially constructed in the US, and how Italians were only accepted into the white majority after their services during the Second World War. And despite this integration, they still aren’t fully accepted as white.
This excerpt from Rai Tg3 sums up how films and television shows about the mafia supplanted stereotypes into the collective consciousness:
“In plain words, a stereotype – to be settled in the imagination – needs an external cause. The more it is fixed, the more it means (“vuol dire”*) that its external cause has had a great impact. After that, and always for the same reason, to undermine a stereotype and substitute it with another, a stronger external cause is required, one that could have an even stronger impact.”
And it also speaks about the films we’re discussing here:
“After this, into the collective imagination came the mafia, who became somewhat synonymous with Italy in comics, in movies and in television. The Godfather had such imaginative power that it strengthened the image of a romantic villain, on which the focus of American narrators fixed [upon], when it comes to putting Italian characters in their stories.”
This being said, it’s not hard to see why The Godfather had such a massive appeal, particularly because its focus on family seems quite alluring, particularly in today’s environment where fractured families seem common, and the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ ethos of the films are appealing, and speak to stereotypical American beliefs and values.
And The Godfather influence was also pretty apparent in Helena Bertinelli’s origins, particularly in Cry For Blood, and specifically with the wedding scene where she asks her Uncle Santo to perform a favor for her. It seems like the movie is a specter that shades almost every single narrative about Italian-Americans and organized crime, as the impact of the film was that enormous.
To bring this post to a close, I think I’ll loosely borrow text from Nick Browne about my feelings for The Godfather. It must be noted that the Italian American as criminal image in The Godfather is neither simply an authentic feat, nor a racial slur. It is instead an elaborate construction created by these films for the purpose of mass entertainment. However, the fact that it is rooted in several ethnic stereotypes cannot be ignored. Also, you can take everything I said about The Godfather and apply it to Goodfellas as well.