Michael Corleone in The Godfather Essay

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Analysis of the Trilogy of The Godfather

In The Godfather trilogy, the character arc of Michael Corleone takes center stage when all is said and done. The universe of the film is sprawling with many characters, plots and subplots—but it is Michael’s character, played by Al Pacino, who serves as the focal point of each of the three films (though that point is shared to some extent with Michael’s father Vito, played in the first film by Marlon Brando and by Robert De Niro in the second film). Michael’s arc takes him from a state of innocence prior to his entry into the family business (he joins the Marines to fight for his country instead of taking over the family business, but is later initiated into the business in the bloodiest of ways—assassination) to the darker side of the Mafioso lifestyle (accompanied by many more murders—including the assassination of his own brother Fredo) and back again to a kind of respectable peace as he confesses to the future Pope John Paul I, where he is told that he can be saved but that he must suffer for his sins. The last film of the trilogy indeed ends with Michael losing his daughter Mary to a bullet after spending much of the film trying to protect her from the violence surrounding the Corleone family. A flash forward takes the viewer to Michael in old age, dying alone in a chair similarly to the way Vito died in the first film. Michael thus completes his journey.

The story encompasses three generations of Corleones. The first film opens with Vito as head of the family business, responding to requests for favors. Michael arrives home from the war and is greeted with joy and respect for his decision to stay out of the family business—a decision that Vito has come to admire. When an assassination attempt on Vito is made, Michael decides to enter the family business by taking revenge against the conspirators—a decision that pains Vito because he wants Michael to stay pure and undefiled by the corruption that accompanies the family business. The first film ends with Michael assuming the role of Don following his father’s death as well as a series of neatly constructed murders that cement the power of the Corleone family.

The second film is both a sequel and a prequel, telling the next stage of life for Michael as he leads the business out West while also telling the story of Vito’s through flashbacks.
The two narratives are intertwined to accentuate themes of family, power, corruption, codes of honor, and respect are equally integrated through the rise of the Corleones from humble beginnings to unparalleled supremacy.

In the final film, Michael is now older and like Vito in his old age in the sense that he wants to protect his children from the violence all around the family. He also wants the business to be more respectable—just as Vito did in the first film. However, even as Michael seeks forgiveness for the murder of his brother, he is obliged to suffer the death of his daughter Mary whose name carries a spiritual significance, as Mary is the Mother of God in the Catholic religion, which is Michael’s religion. The film’s narrative suggests that in losing his own daughter Mary, he is now better positioned to be with his spiritual mother Mary, who had to suffer the death of her Son that people like Michael might find forgiveness and be redeemed. It is a complex allegorically stunning ending to the trilogy that weaves violence, religion, honor, redemption, and suffering all into one final climactic scene on the staircase—itself a symbol of movement from one stage of life to the next. Indeed, Michael is next seen as an old man about to leave this world and enter into the next, coming before the seat of God for judgment, just as his father did before him.

The role of women is also important in the trilogy. First, there is Kay, the wife of Michael, who is an outsider to the affairs of the family business but who learns of the sordid ways of the crime family as the trilogy progresses (which is one reason she is separated from Michael in the third film). Then there is Mary, Michael’s daughter, who symbolizes the purity and grace that Michael once possessed before he entered into the crime family as the new Don. Michael spends the third film….....

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