Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia masterpiece is simply overflowing with scenes that could fill up this series, but if I was asked to limit myself to just one, it would be the very opening of the saga, wherein the undertaker, Bonasera, goes to see Don Corleone, on the day of his daughter’s wedding, to seek an alternate form of justice for his own daughter, abused by two American youths.
The Godfather – “Be my friend…Godfather”
What makes this scene perfect, aside from the generally high quality of performances, cinematography and script, is the amount of detail it manages to tell us about the title character, this behemoth of the “family business”, and the role that he plays in the universe being presented. Consider what we learn about both Don Corleone personally and his position in the course of these few minutes, without any of it being spilled out to the audience in an exposition dump.
The position stuff is masterful: as the head of an organised crime family, the Don offers protection and support to vulnerable immigrants, the kind of protection and support they are unable to get from traditional sources. But the sort of justice the Godfather offers to dole out is not an unrestrained Death Wish-esque affair, it is controlled, operating firmly under the principle of an eye for an eye. His payment for such services is nothing traditional either, being instead a form of unspecified quid pro quo, a favour that may never actually be called in. And he maintains an obvious control over his organisation, to the extent that he only has to gesture his hand to get the undertaker a drink and has to say nothing specific about how his desired justice is to be meted out.
And personally, we learn much about Corleone here: his patience, his taste for the theatrical, his comfort in being in a place of power and his generosity. But the most important thing we learn about is his sense of honour.
As Bonasera outlines his pitiful tale, Corleone occupies himself by playing with his cat (an apparent on-set ad lib from Brando). He appears to not even be paying attention. The only interruption he makes is to ask why Bonasera went to the police instead of coming to him directly, a very loaded query. And then it comes. The anger – restrained yes, but still incredibly potent – that the undertaker would come to him in this fashion, offering to pay money so he will murder someone for him. Corleone isn’t just puzzled by the suggestion, he’s outright insulted. He can’t understand it, why this member of the community – his community – would speak to him in this manner. His very question is not “How could you offer me money to kill for you?”, it’s “What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?”. And, as we will learn, there is unspoken affront here, as Bonasera is taking advantage of an Sicilian tradition, that a man never refuses a favour on the day of his daughter’s wedding.
Corleone does not want Bonasera’s payment, or his pleading, or even his sob story. He wants his friendship. He wants his respect. He wants him to come willingly into his pocket, and to acknowledge him the head of the community, the Godfather of his people. He knows why Bonasera would have been afraid to get into bed with him, displaying understanding if not acceptance of such a position, but now he calmly takes up the mantle of being Bonasera’s source of law and order.
Corleone and his own empire operate as a state within a state, and the allegiance of men like Bonasera is the playing field for the ideological war he fights with the authorities. The winner of this battle is obvious. Bonasera opens his tale with the line “I believe in America”. He ends it by bowing his head and accepting Corleone as something approaching a liege-lord.
By the end of the scene, we have learned much of importance, about Corleone, about the family business, and about how this other stratum of society operates. More than that, we have been treated to a tense and captivating confrontation, that hooks you in right from the start, setting you up nicely for the three (really nine) hour epic to follow.