By Tim Barlow
In The Godfather: Part II, the character of Michael, cuts a tragic, pitiable figure. He tries to be good, to do right by those whom he is closest, but he can never quite turn that corner. He can’t simultaneously grow the family business while trying to uphold his pledge to turn legitimate and law-abiding. He can’t have his cake and eat it too. Even when his conscience, personified in Tom, the family’s consigliere, attempts to finally intervene towards the end, asking Michael, if it’s worth it to go on, Michael can’t let go yet, or even consider it, and he rebukes Tom. There’s always one more thing in his way, one last thing to accomplish, to finish up. In the end, he is the villain, despite his best efforts.
I can relate. Sometimes I wonder if despite my best efforts to do good, in the end, I’m just a villain too. There is always one more thing to buy, or one last word in an argument, or one more rung to climb, one more raise to get, and each and every time, I’ll have managed to convince myself that after this last time it will be enough. I’ll be satisfied. Then I can focus on what really matters. But if you’re playing the game, even with the best intentions, it’s never enough.
I first saw the Godfathers several years ago, and what stood out to me about Part II was the tragedy of Michael’s crumbling morality, culminating in the ordering of Fredo’s murder, his own brother…his family. Michael’s story brings the audience front and center to a man eroding as his empire is under attack. This downfall is only further punctuated by the juxtaposed flashback scenes focused on his father, Vito’s, rise to power as a Mafia Don. Everything from the cinematography and lighting down to the score treats Michael’s plight as tragic while his father’s is heroic, and after this first viewing I was sure there must be something in Michael’s ways that differed from his father’s, and which could serve as a barometer for my own daily struggle with wanting more; a trait, a way he operated, something, anything I could use to make sure that my own refusal to fully let go stayed under control and below Michael’s tragic levels.
During this week’s viewing though, I focused more on the role of Vito and I gradually realized that both father and son intimidated, and stole, and murdered. Both also tried to do what was right when they could, and treat those who were loyal justly and with some grace. In the end, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a lot separating these two men, except for the cold hard fact that one was on the rise and the other was in decline. For Vito it was morning in Rome and for Michael the sun was setting.
But that still doesn’t change the fact that Michael’s is a tragic figure. While Vito is safely tucked away in the past, and his reputation can rest on the empire he built and passed along to his son, Michael is burdened with that weight in the future. Maybe Vito’s inheritance was a curse, a fall, sin. The tragedy of Michael’s story is not that he squandered the family business, in fact quite the opposite, he massively grew the empire. The real tragedy for Michael is that he was his father’s son. And not just Michael, but his brother, Fredo, and his sister Connie as well. All of the living Corleone children continued to live under the shadow of their father’s moral downfall. They looked back and thought they saw greatness, and they tried their best to measure up, but were all missing the truth: like Adam to Cain, the weight of Vito’s broken nature had trickled down.