This page is an abstract from our full analysis of The Godfather, one of the most appreciated movies ever and a masterwork of scriptwriting.
Sequence 1. The Marriage. 0-26
A man named Bonasera tells Vito of two „non-Italians“ who beat-up his daughter, were taken into custody and dubiously released the same day. Clearly emotional and fearing his family will receive no justice, he comes to Vito Corleone.
This introduction looks like an Act I: exposition and catalyst (daughter beaten) + goal (obtain the support of Vito Corleone to punish the aggressors). Hero: Bonasera, Antagonists: the aggressors, potential Helper: Vito.
The camera zooms out and we can see the Don, Vito Corleone, from the back. He responds by reproaching Bonasera. He tells him that he scarcely came to visit him before, and that he has failed to show him the respect he, the Godfather is due. Bonasera is desperate to know what he must do to get Corleone to agree to punish his enemies. Vito Corleone seated at his desk in an elegant tuxedo, explains that before anything else, Bonasera must respect him by acknowledging him as the Godfather.
This Act II plays on the uncertainty about the Don‘s answer, and consequently about his actantial role: if he accepts, Vito becomes Helper of Bonasera. If he refuses, then he stands as a Skeptic, rejecting the Hero‘s goal.
Another zoom out reveals to us the presence of two other men in the room. Bonasera obeys, stands up and kisses the hand of the Don, acknowledging him as“Godfather“.
The Act III begins. Crisis.
This time, the Don accepts the request. Bonasera leaves. Corleone asks one of his two men – we‘ll get to know soon that this man is named Tom Hagen – to give the mission to Clemenza.
Climax and answer to the dramatic question. The acceptance by the Godfather of Bonasera‘s request, signs the death warrant of the two aggressors, and distributes the actantial roles of a new plot that we‘ll never see on screen: Hero: Clemenza, Mentors: Vito and Bonasera, Goal: punish the aggressors, Antagonists: the aggressors.
Dramatic assessment: this solemn scene constitutes a typical exposition, and it‘s remarkable that this exposition is built on a factorial mini-plot (= a plot that belongs to a wider plot, as a part of it, see Story&Drama 2). Through a minor problem, the Don is shown in his royal function of parallel justice-maker. He is able to decide and inflict death from a distance, and with a single sentence. The same way Tom Hagen gets characterized as the right-hand man of the Godfather, and Clemenza as an ordinary killer, a role that he will take on a few more times in the movie. At last, this set up exemplifies the sensibility of Italians in a non-Italian world and all through the dialogs and social display, for example Bonasera description of the molesters as „non-Italian“, the Italian social formalities twinned with the theme of vendetta.
Violent cut between the silence and darkness of the Godfather‘s office, and the loud and musical merriness of the villa‘s garden.
Effect of transition between plots by contrast.
The Corleone family gathers – Vito Corleone, his son Sonny, his daughter Connie who has just married, her husband, and a few guests gather to take the family marriage picture but the Don isn‘t satisfied because Michael is missing.
Exposition of those characters and characterization of the strong affective link between Vito and Michael.
Expectation effect over Michael, without knowing him yet.
Various shots show Connie, then Clemenza dancing, and then Tessio – soon we‘ll discover he‘s one of Corleone‘s killers. Tessio pours himself some orange juice, and Vito greets Don Barzini. Barzini has just destroyed a picture a photographer took of him.
Exposition of all those characters: their appearance and behavior. First view of Barzini who will become the main Antagonist.
Outside the villa, a man writes down the number plates of the parked cars, then a few shots later Sonny gets out and wants to throw them out. The man show an FBI ID card, Sonny spits on it but the man does nothing. A moment later Sonny destroys the camera of an unwanted photographer.
Exposition of the power of the Corleone‘s clan who can deny the authority of an FBI agent without risking any penalty, and characterization of Sonny‘s impulsiveness – a fundamental property of this character.
General assessment: this succession of micro-events just showed a half-dozen characters, and contributes to set up the frame: the Italian cultural setting, the festivities (music, dance, drinks), the games of power (with the police and between the gangsters).
Back to the Don‘s office for another case. A man, Nazorine, has promised his daughter to an Italian migrant, a man named Enzo, that the US authorities want to send back to Italy. The man asks the Godfather for help in allowing Enzo to remain in the country. The Don accepts. Nazorine leaves happy.
Exposition of a new mini-plot, very similar to the previous one: so the structure here, is plots in series. Hero: Nazorine, potential Helper: Vito, Goal: to obtain Vito‘s help to make Enzo stay in the US. When Vito accepts, the dramatic data become: Hero: Vito, Mentor: Nazorine, Goal: to make Enzo stay, Antagonist: the US authorities.
Characterization: power of the Godfather, who here again plays the role of a superior authority, stronger than that of the US government!
Cut again, from the darkness of the office to the lightness of the garden,…
Same contrast effect due to the interlaced structure of plots.
… where Michael arrives – wearing a military uniform – with his fiancée Kay. Michael and Kay start dancing together.
Exposition of those characters: they look happy together, close and united. The audience is meant to remember this.
… Next, Tom Hagen arranges for yet another visitor: Luca Brasi.
Exposition of Brasi‘s visit.
Cut to: we see Brasi sitting alone, practicing his address to Vito Corleone.
Cut to: Michael and Kay sitting at a table. Kay makes fun of Brasi who is clearly talking to himself. Michael tells her exactly who Brasi is demonstrating that despite his peripheral involvement in the family business, he is informed about their contacts. He knows who is who.
Exposition of Brasi‘s character, and characterization of Michael as someone very aware of the family business.
Tom Hagen greets Michael warmly. Michael introduces Kay to Hagen.
Exposition of the thematic links between Tom Hagen and Michael, they know each other well and have a friendly relationship, and of the absence of link between Kay and Tom Hagen, they don‘t know each other yet.
Tom goes into the house. Michael tells Kay that Tom was abandoned as a child. Corleone adopted Hagen. He tells Kay that Hagen will probably be made „Consiglieri“. Kay inquires about the nature of a consiglieri, but Michael is vague.
Exposition of Tom Hagen, and characterization of Michael as a very informed man: he knows the names, stories and functions of his father‘s men. The fact that we are informed through Michael‘s words, helps us to establish a special connivance to him.
Luca Brasi is received by the Don. Luca, a large awkward man, congratulates Don on Connie‘s marriage. Vito thanks him politely and Brasi leaves.
Exposition of submission link between Brasi and his boss.
Back to the party. Sonny whispers in his girlfriend‘s ear, then we see them going separately to a room upstairs in the house to be alone together.
Exposition of a mini-plot, and characterization of Sonny as a man driven by his carnal instincts, this will be further underscored throughout the story.
Outside, the mother starts singing an upbeat Italian song.
That continues the general exposition of the party.
In his office, Tom Hagen informs the Godfather about the gifts sent by judges and senators.
There again, this information exposes the power of influence, the network of the Corleone.
Outside, a famed singer is greeted by an enthusiastic crowd. The bride Connie looks glad and welcomes him.
Exposition of the character Johnny Fontane.
In the office, the discussion goes on about a senator‘s impending arrival.
Notice the interlaced plots structure.
This time, it‘s the mother who welcomes the crooner, and encourages him to sing.
As he sings, Kay makes an inquiry about him. Michael reveals that Vito helped the singer to break a contract he had with a band – inspired by Luca Brasi who pointed a gun at the band‘s leader head.
Exposition and characterization, four strikes in one: Kay is the inquirer, wanting to know, Michael is informed, Brasi is a killer, and the Corleone get what they want by any means necessary.
Structure: this story told by Michael is an included plot. It‘s also a back-story – whose role consists of informing us about the past.
It‘s the first time we hear the expression „he made him an offer he can‘t refuse“. This expression which will come back several times, is a gimmick, an emblem (a symbol that strongly characterizes the hero, like: the ears of Mickey Mouse, the wings of Batman, the poncho of Clint Eastwood, and now: the brutal methods of the Corleone).
Kay is shocked by the brutality of the story. Note the strong contrast here: the violence implied by the mini-story, juxtaposed against the voice of the crooner who is performing a love song. Michael attempts to placate Kay by concluding: „It‘s my family, Kay, it‘s not me“.
Characterization. For the first time Michael shows some distance towards his family.
Notice the permanent interweaving of plots, here between 3 series of plots (interlaced plot structure): we‘re following at the same time the business of the Don co-managed by Tom Hagen; the party around the characters of Connie, Sonny, the mother, and the crooner; and the conversation between Kay, a newcomer in this environment, and Michael who informs her – and us.
Vito welcomes the crooner who asks to talk to him, and Vito sends Tom to call for Sonny.
Set up of the next plot.
Fred, the second son of Vito comes to see Michael and he meets Kay for the first time.
It is the first time we meet Fredo. He is characterized as ill-mannered, already partially intoxicated. Notice the contrast between this negative presentation, the rather imperious character of Sonny, and the elegant and distant character of Michael. The conflict between the 3 brothers starts here.
Vito‘s office. The crooner Johnny Fontane complains about a studio director, Woltz, who refuses to give him a role he wants very badly.
Exposition of a new mini-plot, similar to those of Bonasera and Nazorine. Hero: Johnny, Goal: to obtain help from the Godfather to force Woltz to give him a role, Antagonist: Woltz.
During this time, Sonny and his fiancée have escaped the wedding party and are engaged in an impromptu sexual encounter against the bedroom door when Tom Hagen knocks and tells Sonny his father wants to see him. Tom, and then Sonny, rejoin Vito.
Last and final of a mini-plot aimed at characterizing Sonny as a carnal, hedonistic person.
Vito gives the singer his assurances that he will take care of any problems the singer is having in California and sends him away, Vito then instructs Tom Hagen to go to Hollywood that very evening in an effort to force Woltz to satisfy the crooner‘s request.
The Don accepts the mission, and that changes the dramatic data: Hero: Tom Hagen, Mentor: Vito (for Johnny), Goal: to force Woltz to give Johnny the role, Antagonist: Woltz.
Last information: a man named Sollozzo has asked to meet with Vito Corleone.
This moment is significant: It is the set up of the Catalyst of the very important plot that will soon follow and structure the first half of the movie!
Characterization. Once again, the Don appears as a master of his world, helping everyone, being decisive, taking actions, sending his men into missions, managing a complex array of problems.
Finally, all family members are gathered, from left to right for a picture: Tom Hagen the adopted son, Fredo the weak, Carlo the quasi-non-existing new husband of Connie, Connie, her mother, Vito, Sonny the eldest brother, then Michael the youngest brother who calls Kay to appear in the photo after she seemed reluctant, and a few children. The photographer takes the picture.
Synthesis of all of those sequences as general exposition.
The photo illustrates an impending family drama that will later become be key in The Godfather II. The fact is this: Kay is a woman who is for the most part unfamiliar with southern Italian ways and cultural traditions, is clearly uncomfortable with the family‘s lifestyle, an issue which will ultimately prove divisive.
At last Vito takes the bride for a dance.
The Godfather – Sequence 1. Commentary
Within the first 26 minutes, the identities and themes of the main characters in the Corleone clan are exposed, thus far we can already place the characters in a few thematic categories:
1/ The Corleone family
- Vito: calm, firm, powerful, master of destinies, receiver of all kinds of requests, bestower of advantages as well as death penalties.
- Tom Hagen: the adoptive son within a family where blood links are extremely important, proves to be the essential right-hand man. He knows everything, manages problems, executes orders.
- Sonny: responsible, in charge, but impulsive, hot-headed and sexual.
- Fredo: weak, not involved in anything. He is never seen with his father.
- Michael: is well-informed about the family but keeps his distance.
- Kay: a pretty American woman, non-Italian, curious about the family of her boyfriend, but the information she gets leads her to stay away.
- Women – the mother, Connie, and Sonny‘s girlfriend – light, secondary, play no critical roles and are not to interfere with men‘s business.
- The killers: Clemenza is mentioned, Tessio quickly seen, as is Luca Brasi. Tom Hagen stands as their operational boss.
2/ The „clients“
- Bonasera, Nazorine, the crooner Johnny, and soon Sollozzo. They are provided services in exchange for their submission and their respect paid to the Godfather. Their Antagonists are pawns treated with contempt.
3/ The „connections“
- Invisible but powerful: there is a Jewish congressman, and other senators who bestow gifts, one of the senators asks to meet Vito.
4/ The police and potential enemies
- Present in the background, there are the FBI agents who were at the villa, but keep their distance. There is also Barzini – for now inactive, but who will become one of the main Corleone‘s Antagonists -and Sollozzo who will serve as his ally.
For now, there is no hint of the main plot, no serious problem, no Hero following any fundamental Goal, and no Antagonist able to oppose the power of the Corleone. Everything is ready, but no action is launched. We already saw 26 minutes, around 1/6th of the movie total duration and yet the action has yet to really start.
Only the crooner‘s request launches a minor plot, in which Vito is the Mentor who makes his agent Tom Hagen the Hero of a mission whose goal is to obtain a contract from Woltz (Antagonist) to Johnny Fontane (the singer/crooner). It‘s the only minor plot that is going to get developed, the Bonasera and Nazorine cases simply serve to showcase the power of the Godfather.
Yet, even if the core of the drama is still to come, the film is already powerful, showing many diversified characters, a detailed and rich action, full of emotions, colorful. This general exposition of the world of the Corleone, enlivened by a series of mini-plots, non-dramatic story-lines, expositions and hints, which are perfectly prepared, and we, in the audience, are now precisely informed about what to expect, about who is supposed to do what, and about the kind of events that can take place in this world. We are hooked, we have to go on watching.
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