Welcome to our Colossus Movie Guide for The Godfather. This guide contains our detailed library of content covering key aspects of the movie’s plot, ending, meaning, and more. We encourage your comments to help us create the best possible guide. Thank you!
What is The Godfather about?
The Godfather is all about the struggle to self-actualize, from both an individual and cultural standpoint. On a broad scale, the central character isn’t a single person but an entire immigrant faction struggling to find success in the United States of America. The inviting presence of the American Dream drove people to this country, presenting a structure that rewarded hard work and perseverance. But the intoxicating allure of achieving progress and finding prosperity reveals the ironic misfortune of the American Dream, as people who are motivated to attain an evolved hybrid between homeland and “The Promised Land” must inevitably turn their backs on an established code of ethics. This results in a warped sense of self from a cultural standpoint. The quest for prosperity suddenly becomes intertwined with America’s capitalistic focus, and before long, “success” becomes more defined by money and power than ideology and morality.
The family business’s transition from Don Vito Corleone to Michael represents how this cultural journey plays out on a generational scale, on an individual scale. Vito disguises and curtails his business’s immoralities—which include corruption, bribery, and murder—with the protection of his family, revealing a sick cycle. In Vito’s eyes, the Corleone family couldn’t achieve prosperity without some illegal activity. But indulging in said illegal activity resulted in pressure from both law enforcement and other criminals, which meant further and further entrenching his family in the criminal world. Everything reaches a breaking point when Vito can no longer manage the business and Michael, who strived to stay away from the family business and achieve a morally upstanding image of the American Dream, must step up and take over. This step reveals the shift in ideology the American Dream can take between generations, as Michael observes new, sinister ways to maintain his family’s empire built upon the promise of America. The once innocent perception of the America Dream morphs into something more barbaric, almost inhuman. As Michael’s sense of self obscures—and, ultimately, shatters—so does America’s, so does his culture’s.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Marlon Brando – Vito Corleone
- Al Pacino – Michael Corleone
- James Caan – Sonny Corleone
- Richard Castellano – Peter Clemenza
- Robert Duvall – Tom Hagen
- Sterling Hayden – Captain McCluskey
- John Marley – Jack Woltz
- Richard Conte – Emilio Barzini
- Al Lettieri – Virgil Sollozzo
- Diane Keaton – Kay Adams-Corleone
- Abe Vigoda – Salvatore Tessio
- Talia Shire – Connie Corleone
- Gianni Russo – Carlo Rizzi
- John Cazale – Fredo Corleone
- Mario Puzo – Writer
- Francis Ford Coppola – Writer, director
The ending of The Godfather explained
A recap of The Godfather‘s ending
The ending of The Godfather brings to culmination the dramatic transformation of Michael Corleone from a war hero who is initially reluctant to involve himself in the family’s criminal enterprises to the powerful and ruthless leader of the Corleone mafia family. After the death of Vito Corleone, Michael orchestrates the assassination of the heads of the rival crime families during the baptism of his sister’s baby, effectively consolidating his power and signaling his complete embrace of his role within the family business.
In the film’s gripping finale, Michael spins a web of lies to Kay about his hand in offing Carlo, who’d turned traitor and sparked Sonny’s violent end. Kay, initially doubtful, accepts Michael’s assurance, but her last glimpse of Michael involves witnessing the old mafia ritual where he is acknowledged as the new Don by his caporegimes. The final moment, where the office door closes on Kay, physically and symbolically shuts her out from Michael’s professional life and marks the completion of his transformation into the Don, isolating him within the realm of power and moral ambiguity he has now fully embraced.
The dark side of the American Dream
Michael’s rise to power within the Corleone family ultimately serves as a critique of the American Dream. He is initially portrayed as an outsider to the family’s criminal dealings, reluctant to immerse himself into the mafia world. But his eventual assumption of the role of Don provides a dark look at power’s corrupting influence, of how American values can be construed for one’s personal gain in the most dangerous and horrifying ways possible.
In the film’s opening sequence, Michael is presented at his sister’s wedding, visibly separate from the criminal activities that define his family. Dressed in his military uniform, surrounded by family that traveled from Sicily to New York, he is portrayed as the embodiment of the American Dream’s positive aspects, honorably serving his country in World War II, pursuing higher education, and planning a future that seemingly distances him from his family’s criminal activities. Michael reflects the best of the American Dream, bravery and integrity, in stark contrast to the Corleone family’s clandestine operations that his father oversees. This sets up an important visual distinction: our goodwilled perception of the American Dream vs. the dark reality of the American Dream.
However, the attack on Vito and Michael’s decision to retaliate against Sollozzo and McCluskey mark the beginning of his descent into the world he once sought to avoid. In choosing to retaliate, Michael forsakes his moral code as the weight of familial duty and a seductive quest for power begin to take hold. Though he’s ostensibly shielding his family, Michael is unmistakably lured further into the mob’s clutches by the intoxicating sway of power. This scene highlights how sticking by your family, by your employer, by your personal interests can sometimes mean turning your back on the “rules” of society, on the purported “American Dream.” All in all, Michael’s initial embracement shows that the pursuit of power can often require people to operate outside the boundaries of morality, of what’s expected.
This transformation reaches culmination in the baptism sequence, where his role as a godfather to his nephew juxtaposes the simultaneous execution of rival mafia heads. In a blunt yet effective blend of the holy and unholy, Michael fully embraces his role in the underworld during a baptism that doubles as cover for his brutal power grab. As Michael disavows evil in a hollow vow, his order of multiple hits unveils the deep-seated irony and ethical rot that often accompanies his pursuit of power. Thus, the film critiques the notion that success can justify the means, illustrating how the accumulation of power can lead to a loss of self, of one’s supposed values.
By the movie’s close, Michael has taken his new role to heart—going as far to kill his own family, like he does with Carlo. Michael’s final lie to Kay about killing Carlo not only cements his newfound power but also marks the disintegration of his once steadfast moral compass. Michael’s deceit to Kay in the last scene marks his complete shift, now fully embodying the ruthlessness he once condemned. Michael now mirrors the criminal archetype he despised, fully assuming the Corleone legacy’s ominous shadow. Michael’s transformation casts a harsh light on the so-called American Dream, challenging us to consider if the accolades and authority we chase are worth it when they’re built on immoral foundations.
The themes and meaning of The Godfather
The evolution of power in America
Michael Corleone’s departure from the path set by his dad becomes yet another thread in the film’s exploration of the American Dream, revealing how its ideals can shift and morph generationally while keeping the same tone, the same ultimate end-game. Vito clawed his way to the top, fighting to shield and support his kin. Little did he know, however, that this quest would someday give the finish line an intoxicating lure to his son Michael—a stark twist in what chasing the American Dream comes to represent generation after generation.
Starting with nothing, Vito’s climb to mob boss captures the raw hustle for survival and power that shapes the American Dream narrative. His engagement in the criminal underworld is depicted as a reluctant choice, driven by the limitations and prejudices he faces in his new homeland. Vito wasn’t just chasing his own success, but was laying a solid base for his kids, dreaming that one day they’d make it big in America’s legit circles.
Michael, on the other hand, represents a generation born into relative privilege compared to their immigrant ancestors. His initial reluctance to join the family business and his military service suggest an alignment with the traditional American Dream—the pursuit of success through honorable and legitimate means. But as Michael steps into the mafia world and ramps up the Corleone family’s operations, he veers off from his father’s subtler way of wielding power. This reveals the American Dream to be a slippery slope—the danger of its corruption by unchecked ambition and the erosion of moral and ethical boundaries in the quest for greater influence and control.
As the Corleones’ narrative unfolds, from Vito’s necessity-driven ascent to Michael’s aggressive pursuit of dominance, it mirrors a cultural pivot towards valuing sheer power and riches above the humble ideas that brought succeeding generations into the fold. Michael’s climb to power, marked by cold-hearted strategies like knocking off his rivals and taking out his own family members, clearly shows he’s ditched the honorable approach to leadership that his father felt was integral to his vision of the American Dream. But just like how Vito stretched the maneuvered the law to fit his vision, Michael too took a new “necessary” path that further stretched the American Dream into morally ambiguous territory. So, the story of the Corleones serves as a stark warning: power can corrupt, twisting the American Dream from an inclusive search for success into a grim scramble for control.
Leading a double life
One of the most captivating tensions throughout The Godfather is the tug-of-war between your true self and the image you purport to the public; between the inner self and the outer self; between outward respectability and the shadowy underworld that exists within us all. The Corleones’ sharp contrast between their polished public front and hidden underworld dealings starkly illustrates the moral sacrifices entwined with the pursuit of the American Dream. The family, while presenting a facade of legitimate business operations to the public, operates a vast criminal empire beneath this veneer. This split personality not only sheds light on the family’s nature but also paints a grim picture of an American ethos where being seen as wealthy and powerful often overshadows the ethics of how that status was achieved.
Genco Olive Oil, a front for the Corleones’ shady operations, paints the contrast between their polished public persona and covert criminal activities. To the external world, the Corleones are successful businessmen, contributing to society and embodying the ideal of the self-made American family. But beneath that polished veneer, the Corleones wield a hidden iron fist, securing their turf with cold-blooded tactics. Michael’s descent into the mafia world, shedding his father’s more principled ways, serves as a model of how twisted and warped our sense of self can become. While he previously had no desire to be part of the family business, we witness Michael adopting a new set of rules and ideologies that conform less to his own established sense of self and more to a system’s established structure.
The theme of duality reaches its apex in the baptism sequence at the film’s conclusion. Michael’s role as a godfather to his nephew, publicly renouncing Satan and all his works in a sacred ceremony, contrasts sharply with the simultaneous execution of his orders to massacre the heads of the rival mafia families. This scene highlights the unsustainable nature of leading a double life. While Michael attempts to maintain his public image as a respectable family man and a godfather in the religious sense, his private actions as the head of a criminal empire undermine this facade, revealing the inherent conflict between his outer and inner self.
The collapse of the boundaries between the public and private spheres suggests that the dual life led by the Corleone family is ultimately untenable. As the movie unfolds, their illegal dealings start bleeding into home life, sparking a chain of heartache and loss that rocks the clan to its core. Trying to split the criminal life from family time just doesn’t work out, showing that the mob world’s pull is too strong and eventually spills over, messing up not just their jobs but their home lives and bonds with each other.
Why is the movie called The Godfather?
While the answer to this question might seem simple and straightforward, there’s actually a host of things to think about when we consider the title The Godfather. Obviously, that title refers to the central character, Vito, who is both a literal godfather to his godson Johnny Fontane and a figurative godfather within the context of the Italian-American mafia. But the very idea of a “godfather” and his role in a given system starts to take new shape as the movie progresses—and, ultimately, takes on a brand new meaning by movie’s end through Michael.
Vito takes on a double life as the warm, guiding force for his kin and the ruthless head of a criminal empire. His tenure as godfather is characterized by a certain honor-among-thieves ethos, where despite his involvement in illegal activities, he adheres to a code of ethics that values loyalty, respect, and protection of family and close associates. Vito’s approach to being a godfather is paternalistic, as he is seen as a provider and protector, a figure who, while feared, is also deeply respected and loved within his community. The title of “godfather” is also a nod to the entrenched customs and principles that Sicilians and Italian-Americans hold dear, putting family, honor, and steadfast allegiance at the forefront.
However, with Michael’s rise to power, the once revered title of godfather reveals a chilling twist as it shifts from Vito’s old-school values to something much more ruthless. As Michael takes over as the godfather, we see a stark transformation in the Corleone clan’s values—a move from Vito’s old-school honor to Michael’s chilling efficiency. Michael’s leadership style becomes colder, more calculated, and ruthlessly pragmatic. Gone are the nurturing ways of his father, only for Michael to welcome violence and barbarity into the family’s fold. In his attempt to recreate what his father stood for as “the godfather,” Michael invents a new, twisted version of a traditional model.
The irony of Michael becoming a literal godfather during the baptism ceremony at the film’s climax cannot be overstated. As he stands in the church, agreeing to renounce Satan and all his works, Michael is simultaneously orchestrating the murder of the heads of the rival mafia families. This juxtaposition starkly highlights the moral corruption at the heart of Michael’s leadership. The sacred act of becoming a godfather, which should symbolize a commitment to guide and protect his godson in a righteous manner, is perverted into a mere facade that masks the execution of his most ruthless power play. This moment encapsulates the ultimate irony of Michael’s role as a godfather: while he assumes the title and the outward responsibilities it entails, the essence of what it means to be a godfather—as Vito understood and embodied it—has been fundamentally altered.
Important motifs in The Godfather
In The Godfather, the recurring motif of oranges constantly foreshadows death and tragedy. The presence of oranges in scenes preceding critical events, such as Vito’s shooting and his later death, transcends mere coincidence, embedding a layer of forewarning into the film’s visual language. As Vito collapses, the scattering oranges symbolize the sudden disruption of order, mirroring the chaos that follows in the Corleone family and the broader mafia world. This visual trick, which is perhaps the most well known and discussed motif in the film, embodied the daring approach from New Hollywood (of which Coppola was at the forefront), as the movement was eager to delve into grittier subjects and layered emblems that represented America.
The film’s production designer Dean Tavoularis stumbled upon the orange motif by chance, proving that spontaneous creativity can birth iconic symbols in film. Initially intended to add a pop of color to the somber set, the oranges evolved into a powerful visual symbol, underscoring the idea that meaningful narrative devices can emerge organically from the storytelling process. In this way, the oranges become even more sinister in their banality, as they were nothing more than a movie prop that became supreme omens of death.
In The Godfather, doors symbolize the divide between a character’s outer world and their inner sanctum, serving as a symbol for transition, secrecy, isolation. You can even think of the gate into the Corleone estate as a sort of door that separates the public from the darker side of America’s promise. The most poignant use of this motif is in the final scene, when Michael’s associate closes the door on Kay, physically and symbolically distancing himself from her and sealing his complete immersion into the criminal underworld. With that final door slam, Michael’s transformation into a don is complete, starkly dividing his home life from the murky depths of his business dealings.
The motif of baptism and religious imagery in The Godfather contrasts the sacred with the profane, offering a stark juxtaposition between Michael’s outward commitment to godliness and his simultaneous orchestration of murder. The baptism scene at the end serves an ironic function, as it is where Michael fully steps into his destiny, marking his deep dive into the family business of crime. As Michael stands as godfather to his sister’s child, renouncing Satan and all his works in the sanctity of the church, his orders for the simultaneous execution of the rival mafia heads are carried out. Michael’s metaphorical baptism signifies a deeper thematic exploration of sin and redemption within the context of the American Dream.
Genco Olive Oil
Genco Olive Oil, a legitimate front for the Corleone family’s illegal operations, stands as a motif for the duality of the mafia’s existence in American society. It symbolizes the thin veneer of respectability that masks the underlying criminal activities, reflecting on the complexities of identity and perception in the business world. This motif explores the theme of legitimacy versus illegitimacy, suggesting that the boundaries between lawful and unlawful are often blurred by those in pursuit of the American Dream. The olive oil business functions in the narrative as a metaphor for the immigrant experience of assimilation and success. It challenges the viewer to consider the ethical compromises individuals and families make in their quest for prosperity, highlighting the moral ambiguities inherent in the pursuit of power and success.
Questions & answers about The Godfather
What’s the significance of Michael’s marriage to Apollonia?
After killing Sollozzo and McCluskey, Michael’s flight to Sicily removes him from the mafia conflict in New York. And as somebody who was torn between his family’s criminal dealings and a purer, morally upstanding lifestyle. Michael’s whirlwind romance and wedding to Apollonia serve as his fleeting chance to craft a new persona, one not shackled by the underworld ties of the Corleones. In Michael’s eyes, Apollonia represents an untainted path, one woven with the threads of heritage and a life far from the ruthless power grabs that plague his family in America.
Michael’s union with Apollonia also anchors him in the rich cultural and family history that his dad, Vito, once left behind. Michael’s bond to Sicily isn’t just about family history—it’s the backdrop where he really starts owning his place in the Corleone legacy. Sicily’s rolling hills and open skies, a sharp contrast to New York’s towering concrete jungle, beckon Michael back to the simpler roots of his family’s past. Michael’s time in Sicily pulls back the curtain on a truth he can’t dodge: family ties and age-old customs are woven into who he is, crucial threads in the fabric of his fate.
Tragically, Apollonia’s death by a car bomb intended for Michael underscores the impossibility of escape from his preordained path. Apollonia’s tragic death not only robbed Michael of any last shred of a normal life but also locked him into the mafia’s embrace with no way out. Apollonia’s death starkly underscores the inescapable violence of Michael’s world, driving him deeper into the Corleone family fold. Apollonia’s death is a grim sign of the tough choices and losses Michael will face as he climbs to the top, showing us just how much he’ll pay personally to sit at the head of the Corleone clan.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about The Godfather? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!