Families in Film Retrospective: The Corleone Family of The Godfather

By Joan Amenn

Tolstoy wrote that “happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Corleone family in “The Godfather” (1972) is not a happy family, despite throwing a lavish wedding party that presents a unified front of prestige and wealth. The children all carry destructive motives of jealousy, insecurity and an inbred thirst for power so how can the Corleone’s be anything but dysfunctional?

Italians think of family in a broad, all-encompassing way that includes close friends and sometimes business associates, even if the “business” isn’t mob related. “Paisan” is meant to indicate one who is from the same clan, town or close family friend and it is not a word bantered around lightly. For the Corleone’s, this designation is a mixed blessing since the protection of the family can come at a steep price. However, for the typical Italian American the designation is more benign in signifying who gets a plate waiting for them at the holiday table, if not every Sunday.

Speaking of standing invitations to Sunday dinner, the famous line, “leave the gun, take the cannoli” is more than just a comic zing to break the tension from a grisly assassination. All Italian Americans know the cardinal rule to never arrive for dinner empty handed. Clemenza (Richard Castellano) is acknowledging a cultural value as well as being flippant. Should you find yourself at an Italian’s door on a Sunday, at the very least have a box of cookies in your hands. These should preferably come from a bakery and if you are queried if you would like extra powdered sugar on your order the answer should be a resounding yes. Homemade cookies would also be a welcome alternative.

Of all the Don’s children, Sonny (James Caan) seems the most accurate portrayal of being the first born male and therefore the heir to the family name. Spoiled and indulged since childhood, he has the rage of a typical man child and the arrogant swagger of someone raised to continue the family’s stature. That he’s sexy as hell doesn’t help to check his narcissism any. Italians value their sons, often over their daughters and a first-born son is considered a special blessing.

By contrast, Michael (Al Pacino) knows he has to find his own way since his oldest brother Sonny will inherit the family legacy. Life never works out as we think it will and of course, Michael will have a different fate. One of my favorite exchanges occurs in the sequel to “The Godfather” as Michael talks to his mother about what his father might have done in his place. His mother replies, “You always have your family” to which he says, “Things change.” The family dynamic did indeed change under the Corleone roof once the Don passes, and not for the better. Perhaps Michael never really valued his family because he never thought he would one day be responsible for it. Instead, he twists it into an instrument for personal power.

The other Corleone children, Connie (Talia Shire) and Fredo (John Cazale) are linked by bonds of benign neglect as much as by familial love. Cazale took a role that could have been eclipsed by the likes of Marlon Brando as the Don, Pacino and Caan and carved out a place for himself as a legend with his performance. He is perhaps his family’s greatest tragedy, not in his disability but in his family only seeing his weaknesses and not his strengths. Cazale plays him as a man who gradually grows to resent those who love him, but don’t respect him. Connie seems to be the only one who gives him a little of the recognition he craves. She is married off in an ultimately abusive relationship that is the catalyst for much of the unraveling of the Corleone family, but we don’t get to see much of her except as a victim.

In every family, there are the kids who are the favorites and then there are those who seem to be overlooked. We don’t know how Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) was treated by the Don and his wife when they took him in as a boy. Maybe he was shunted aside like Fredo and Connie until he grew up, studied law and was finally acknowledged for being the potential asset to the Corleone’s that he became. It is not unusual for an Italian family to take in a cousin, niece or nephew and raise them as one of their own children, especially in times of need. There is a pervasive sense of taking care of one’s own among Italians that is much more than a mafia code of honor.

Although “The Godfather” implies that Italian Americans are habitually lawless at best, murderers at the worst, it does get two aspects of the heritage correct. We love our family and we love food. Should you find yourself invited to an Italian home this holiday season, you will find the below recipe very helpful. Or you can stop by your local bakery, and remember the extra sugar.

Orange Cranberry Biscotti

3 ½ cups (830 ml) all-purpose flour

½ cup (120 ml) pignoli or walnuts, optional

1 tsp. (5 ml) baking powder

¼ tsp. (1 ml) baking soda

3 large eggs

1 stick (120 ml) of unsalted butter, melted

1 ½ (360 ml) cups sugar

2 tbsp. (30 ml) zest from the shiny skin of an orange

1 tsp. (5 ml) orange extract or 1 tbsp. (15 ml) fresh orange juice

½ cup (120 ml) dried cranberries or dried cherries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (gas mark 4 or 180C) and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or grease the cookie sheet.

Combine the flour, nuts, baking powder, baking soda, and cranberries in a large bowl. In another bowl, beat together the eggs, the sugar, the zest, and the orange extract or juice. Gradually add the melted butter and when all is combined well, add the wet ingredients to the flour mixture in the other bowl. Mix well until you have stiff cookie dough. Knead on a floured surface briefly to help distribute the nuts and cranberries evenly. Divide dough in half and roll into a coil about a foot long. Do the same to the other half of the dough.

Place each coil of dough side by side on your cookie sheet and flatten the tops slightly to give the biscotti their shape. Bake until the cookie shapes are brown, about 30 minutes. Let cool briefly on stove top and lower oven temperature to 325 degrees (gas mark 3 or 160C). One at a time, carefully remove your cookie shapes to a cutting board and slice them on a diagonal about a half-inch thick. Lay the slices back on the cookie sheets and bake for another 15 minutes until lightly brown. Allow to cool on a rack.

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