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The Godfather's Godfather: Virgil and Coppola

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Introduction Edit

Few films have had the overwhelming cultural impact and near-universal critical acclaim of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). His depiction of the Corleone family’s rise and near fall from power in New York was groundbreaking in its treatment: never before had a film presented the gangsters’ perspective of Mafia life, balancing the story of the Corleones’ family life with the gritty crime business in which they are engaged. And yet the film’s themes are nothing new. Fate, loyalty, pride, war – these are universal subjects, explored by countless authors across all literary traditions. Virgil’s exploration of these themes in his epic Aeneid has made the work a cornerstone of Western literature in much the same way that Coppola’s treatment of them in The Godfather has made the film an undeniable classic. In fact, there are several surprising parallels between The Godfather and the Aeneid in the way both works handle these themes.

A Closer Look: the Deaths of Dido and Apollonia Edit

The central theme of the Aeneid – and arguably of The Godfather – is the inevitability of fate and how this notion influences our actions. It is because of fate that Aeneas must leave Dido in Carthage to continue on his journey whether he wants to or not. Mercury scolds him:

…“Tu nunc Karthaginis altae
fundamenta locas pulchramque uxorious urbem
exstruis? Heu, regni rerumque oblite tuarum!

… “Are you now laying the foundation of high Carthage, as servant to a woman, building her a splendid city here? Are you forgetful of what is your own kingdom, your own fate? (IV.265-7, trans. Mandelbaum)

This reminder that it is ultimately fate that dictates his life prompts Aeneas to prepare for his departure from Carthage. In his final dialogue with Dido, he utters the famous line, “Italiam non sponte sequor.” (It is not my own free will that leads to Italy, IV.361, trans. Mandelbaum) But Dido is mad with passion for the hero. She orders her sister to build a large pyre under false pretenses upon which she eventually throws herself in utter despair. Her love for Aeneas became the death of her because of his inescapable fate.

There is an apparent parallel to this movement of the Aeneid in The Godfather. The similarities are almost remarkable: Michael leaves his home in New York for Sicily, where he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Apollonia (Aeneas, too, leaves his home and winds up in a foreign land where he falls for a native). Apollonia and Michael are married after a brief courtship. Not much later, Michael receives word of his brother Santino’s death – he must leave immediately for a villa in Syracuse where he will be safe. He prepares for his departure, informing his bodyguard Fabrizio that he will be heading to Syracuse alone while his wife will remain at her father’s house in Corleone. Apollonia, eager to please Michael, wants to surprise him by using her freshly learned driving skills to take them both to her father’s house. Michael sees Fabrizio hurrying from the car and suddenly realizes that he’s been betrayed – he yells to Apollonia not to turn the ignition, but too late. The car explodes into flames, and Apollonia is killed in the blaze. I would contend that it is at exactly this point in the movie that Michael realizes that his fate is sealed: his slaying of Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (perhaps a mere coincidence, but highly interesting nonetheless) has made him a gangster, and he will spend the rest of his life dealing with the consequences.

The parallels between the two works may seem only skin deep at first, but far from it: both Virgil and Coppola use similar techniques to portray the unavoidable truth that fate has come to rule the lives of their heroes. Both protagonists, Michael and Aeneas, find themselves in a place that inspires awe and enlightenment. Aeneas and Achates are dumbfounded by the grandeur of Carthage as they look down upon the city from a high vantage point, the better to see its sprawling majesty:

Jamque ascendebant collem, que plurimas urbi
imminet adversasque aspectat desuper arces.
Miratur molem Aeneas, magalia quondam,
miratur portas strepitumque et strata viarum.

They climb a hill that overhangs the city, looking down at the enormous buildings, once mere huts, and at the gates and tumult and paved streets. (I.419-22, trans. Mandelbaum)

Virgil uses descriptive language to present the splendor and wealth of Carthage (lines 21, 22) and emphasizes Aeneas’ wonderment with the repetition of miratur (lines 21, 22). Comparing these views to Aeneas’ final images of a burning, crumbling Troy makes Carthage all the more impressive to Aeneas.

Michael’s circumstances are quite the opposite of Aeneas’: having come from one of the largest cities in the world to a tiny village in the countryside is humbling, inspiring a different kind of respect. Michael’s first glimpse of his ancestral homeland Corleone is no less awe-inspiring, though it is presented in a different way (not to mention a different medium). Coppola uses a deep focus shot to look upwards at the village, overhanging a cliff at the crest of a hill. Michael pauses very briefly as he beholds the village for the first time; we cannot see his face, but this pause is all the viewer needs to know that he has been struck by what he has seen. The swelling music in this scene as the village comes into view also adds to the sentimental and inspirational mood.

Coppola and Virgil are also similar in their treatment of those victims of fate, Dido and Apollonia. It is abundantly clear that Dido ultimately takes her own life because of Aeneas’ desertion of her. Her love for him is so overwhelming that she cannot bear to live without him. Looking back at Aeneas’ clothes lying on her familiar bed, she says, “ ‘Dulces exuviae, dum fata deusque sinebat | accipiter hanc animam meque his exsolvite curis.’ ” (“O relics, dear while fate and god allowed, receive my spirit and free me from these cares, IV.651-2, trans. Mandelbaum) Apollonia, too, dies a victim of the fate that governs her lover’s life. She is killed by a trap intended for Michael, set by the traitor Fabrizio, now working for Michael’s enemies in New York. Like Dido, it is ultimately her love that is the end of her: eager to please Michael, to be a, “Good American wife,” (as Michael’s second bodyguard Calo says) by showing him her newfound prowess behind the wheel, she dies a casualty of his fortune in much the same way as Dido. She is consumed by fire, perhaps a metaphor for the burning passion that they lived with that eventually became the death of them.

The Moral Ambiguity of Fate Edit

These events, among others, force the audience to reconsider the protagonists’ moral stance in both the Aeneid and The Godfather. Both Virgil and Coppola’s epics are presented from the perspective of an insider: Virgil, as a Roman, is writing of the foundation of his own city by the man for whom it was divinely ordained; Coppola presents the Corleones’ family life in a way that forces us to sympathize with, or, at the very least, on some level respect both Vito and Michael. Vito’s devotion to the old ways – his insistence on preventing the distribution of heroin in his territories, his undying loyalty to friends and family, his strict code of honor – paints him as a highly moral character, even though the audience knows that at the same time he is running a highly influential criminal organization with a reputation for ruthlessness. The character of Michael is also morally ambiguous. He is reluctant to join in the family business due to the violence and corruption it breeds, but he is inexorably drawn into the fold by murdering those who would have his father assassinated. While this is an act of loyalty to his family, and may ultimately be construed as a justified or moral act, it is murder nonetheless. And yet the audience still feels attached to Michael, sympathetic to his cause, compelled to root for him as our protagonist even as we see the carnage that he initiates later in the film during the famous baptism montage. He is ultimately sympathetic to us because Coppola presented him first as an unwilling participant, driven by his fate of having been born into the Corleone family, forced to uphold his family’s honor by an unwritten yet inescapable code of conduct.

Whether or not Virgil intended it to be so, Aeneas is also a morally ambiguous character. When Anchises tells his son,

‘Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacisque imponere morem,
parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.’

‘Yours will be the rulership of nations, remember, Roman, these will be your arts: to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer, to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.’ (VI.850-2, trans. Mandelbaum)

the reader cannot help but see the contradictions present in this statement. Aeneas is to found a city based on fides, pietas, auctoritas, pax. But how can a society that conquers those they deem inferior or barbaric by force of arms institute a culture of peace? Does this set any kind of example? Aeneas is also told that he is to crush the proud – is pride so terrible a crime that it must be punished? What makes Aeneas’ pride – pride in his history, his family, his city, his abilities – any more or less justified than the pride of anyone else? He is ultimately upholding these Roman values, which is possibly a display of a strong moral code, but these values breed violence and despair in the same way that the Corleone family code does.

Conclusion Edit

The parallels in narrative between the Aeneid and The Godfather are undeniable: Michael goes to visit his father in the hospital where he has a transformative experience, the same way Aeneas visits Anchises in the underworld and realizes his legacy; Aeneas leaves his homeland to found a new, more powerful state in the west in the same way that Michael leaves New York for the west to establish a new, more powerful crime empire in Las Vegas. But these similarities are not just skin deep: both Virgil and Coppola use similar situations to in similar ways to evoke the same themes. Coppola owes much to Virgil, whether he realized it or not.

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