The Lessons of Santino in “The Godfather”

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (a 1970 film based on Mario Puzo’s novel by the same name) is at its heart a provocative treatise on power and the across-the-board dynamics of it. Based and reflecting on the fortunes, the rises and falls of the Corleone Family — one of five mafia syndicates operating in New York, New Jersey and other states — Copolla’s marathon cinematic venture runs into three movies, spinning down three generations of Corleones.

Godfather I begins with the marriage of Connie, the daughter of the “Godfather” — the pillar of the Corleone syndicate –, Vito Corleone. We are introduced to the various members of the Corleone “family” (which is a term that, as we learn, refers to the core bureau of the Corleone dealings), the kind of transactions that happen in which the “Godfather” is crucially involved, his own world and business philosophy etc. Among others, we are introduced to the three “leading men” from among Vito Corleone’s fold: his eldest son Santino (Sonny) — a short tempered, aggressive youth –, the quasi-solicitor of the syndicate, the “adopted” Tom Hagen, and Michael, who had just returned back among his fold after a stint at World War II.

Michael, Vito, Santino and Fredo Corleone as they appear in Coppola's movie

Michael, Vito, Santino and Fredo Corleone as they appear in Coppola’s movie

When Vito Corleone is near-fatally shot by the rival Tattaglia “family” and is precariously swinging between life and death, the mantle of the “family” passes over to Santino. But, Sonny is clearly seen as too rash and lacking in the farsightedness or business acumen which Vito had used to his advantage: thus, building up his “family”, after arriving in the USA as an orphan refugee of nine years. The subtlety and the “carelessness” with which he chooses his opponents and his business deals is lost on Sonny. For the shooting of his father, Sonny seeks revenge and goes on a spree killing Vito’s driver Paulie (who is suspected of compromising Vito’s position) and Bruno, one of Tattaglia’s sons. Sonny also clashes with Tom on tactics and strategy, as the latter urges caution and strategic withdrawal from violence. Soon after, Santino is brutally murdered, when he is ambushed at a causeway —- again, as he recklessly drives without sufficient cover or guard.

In The Godfather, the parity that is drawn between Vito Corleone and Santino is quite obvious. The Corleone “family”, which initially springs out of a humble olive oil business and which builds up as a business conglomerate sustained by a widely respected and feared mafia unit was, at the heart, a tirelessly built up network. In Godfather II the “history” of Vito’s life story is presented to us and this transportation becomes quite meaningful in contextualizing the work of Vito’s “lifetime” with the present fortunes of his fold. It had been a carefully engineered business, with its roots in the “right kind of” illicit trades: gambling, guns and women.

Santino's brief stay at the Head

Santino’s brief stay at the Head

What suffers as the “family” during Santino’s brief stint is a suggestive metaphor for the nation in transition. If the Corleone family is a dress up for the “national institute”, what we see is the passing of the baton from a type of ruler to another: a transition that is not smooth, as the ideals and the outlook Vito and Santino share lack congruity. At Vito’s death (and by now Sonny has already been killed), Michael takes over and he can be identified to embody the “best” in both Vito and Santino: a ruthless activism coupled with a cold, collected and calculating mind.

The shooting of Vito Corleone comes as a result of him not wanting to be a partner of a drugs racket, which is initiated by a rival “family”. A mafia arm named Solozzo comes over to the Coreolones and expresses his interest in gaining the Corleone “protection” for their drug trade, for a return of a commission. The “Godfather” refuses this on the grounds that drugs, unlike gambling, is “dangerous business” and “dirty money”. Solozzo insists that drugs is the “new” trade and the way forward. Vito Corleone stands for convention and tradition, which makes him and his “family” stutter in the face of change and post-world war drifts of the mafia trade-concerns. He fails to grasp the changes and dynamics around him, thus making his position insecure and exposed.

From a heavily American accented "Devil's Double" (2011)

From a heavily American accented “Devil’s Double” (2011)

Santino is the reckless and careless “successor” we meet time and time again in a variety of set ups in different points of history: he is almost a historical pattern, being the “reckless” son of a carefully crafted empire. The enemies of Saddam Hussein, for example, had promoted his son Uday to the status of a Santino, only that Uday (in films such as the Devil’s Double) is also dressed both as a deviant and a pervert. Many dictators who rose to eminence by building up networks with people, by being a “populist hand” in the ordeals and trials of the common and helpless have lost their place in history because of reckless off spring. The classical example for this is Peisistrautus, the tyrant of Athens (605-527 BC), whose gains of a lifetime was lost by his sons, Hippias and Hipparchus.

The “Godfather” always lays emphasis on values such as loyalty, family feeling, trust and caution. But these words are used at two different layers: in the domestic “family” front, the loyalty and fellowship he demands is absolute. In that way, he stands out as an old school patriarch. In the business front, “loyalty” to Vito is simply a term of transaction: a business. Among his successors, Santino alone embodies these “old” values, though his cardinal flaws of impatience and recklessness give them a novel twist. Among the rest of the “family” — with the possible exception of Tom Hagen — “loyalty” and “trust” remain ever-ambiguous and ever-fluctuating variables on which their momentary gains and losses are balanced.

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