Let’s break down the scene and assess its case for being the greatest movie opening of all time.
Table of Contents
The Godfather Opening Scene
So what happens in The Godfather opening scene?
- A man, Bonasera, comes to the titular Godfather, Don Corleone (Marlon Brando), for advice.
- In a monologue, Bonasera outlines how his daughter has gotten into trouble with a boyfriend. The boyfriend, along with some friends, took her out one night and brutally beat her.
- Bonasera comes to Don Corleone to seek justice against the men that beat his daughter and got away with it.
- He asks Corleone for help and the Don then responds, refusing what he initially asks for but offering to help in a different way.
- The Don eventually ushers Bonasera out, promising to help him and putting the wheels in motion for this.
At face value, this is a man coming to see Don Corleone for help. But the scene cohesively establishes who Don Corleone is; a man who is to come to for these sorts of problems. Moreover, it gives the audience a clear hint of how this world operates and the machinations that underpin it.
Bonasera’s opening monologue contains many clues as to the themes of the movie we are about to see. Most clearly, the monologue tells of a journey.
At the beginning of the monologue, Bonasera is a believer in the American system, having immigrated there from Italy.
“I believe in America. America has made my fortune.”Bonasera
This opening line not only states Bonasera’s initial feeling about the country he has come to but also gives a smart clue as to why he might be such a believer – it has made him rich.
This immediate equation of America with wealth speaks to the movie’s assessment of capitalism and the American dream, particularly in the context of early 20th Century immigrants to the country.
The idea of America and the American dream is a primary theme running through the movie. In this opening monologue, this is also most obviously highlighted by the fact that America/American is the most repeated word.
Relationship to America
Bonasera’s relationship with America is clear throughout his monologue. He has an inherent belief and hope in America. However, this is seemingly not without qualifications. For example, notice how he remarks on his daughter’s boyfriend…
“She found a boyfriend; not an Italian”Bonasera
In the performance, Bonasera says “not an Italian” with disappointment, albeit acceptance. And he frames his daughter’s choices as something he wasn’t necessarily thrilled with but tolerated nonetheless. He’s proud of himself for giving his daughter freedom.
However, it’s clear that ultimately he believes America has corrupted his daughter. The monologue is subtle in the way it highlights conflict within Bonasera. The timbre of his dialogue illustrates how he tried to raise his daughter in the “American fashion”, but kept the sense of family honor presumably inherited from the old country.
“I gave her freedom, but I taught her never to dishonor her family.”Bonasera
Later in the monologue, this idea of honor comes back. Bonasera’s invoking of it shows how he feels his daughter has been on the receiving end of America’s corrupting influence, whilst valiantly retaining what he taught her.
“She resisted. She kept her honor.”Bonasera
In addition, other elements of his speech highlight his belief that it’s America that has corrupted his daughter. The men “made” his daughter drink “whiskey”, for example; a drink associated with America (and other immigrant groups) more than Italy.
This disillusion with American life and the way Bonasera feels it has let him down all leads into the next part of his speech and is ultimately what moves him to ask Don Corleone for a favor.
Bonasera’s attitude towards his daughter is also highly revealing of the patriarchy at the heart of this world and time period. Firstly, as he says, Bonasera “gave” his daughter freedom. And whilst he’s proud of doing so, there’s a hint of reluctance in his voice as well as a sense that he should be lauded for doing so (“I didn’t protest”).
In this world, Bonasera is clearly the one who lays down what his daughter can or can’t do. This hints at a patriarchal family structure, one in which the men of the family make the final decisions.
Bonasera clearly feels wronged by the idea that he experimented with giving his daughter freedom (presumably in line with the “American fashion”) and was punished for it.
Moreover, Bonasera’s heartbreak at his daughter’s beating is seen primarily through the lens of her beauty…
She was the light of my life…beautiful girl. Now she will never be beautiful again.Bonasera
It’s not as if we hear what the rest of her life will look like with her injuries, such as her ability or not to carry out work. Instead, her ruined “beauty” takes precedent. Again, this highlights the patriarchal view of women that will color the rest of the film’s world. In this world, women are wives and mothers, their beauty paramount to their success and value.
In The Godfather opening scene, Bonasera’s journey more or less highlights the very purpose and existence of the mob, of which the Godfather is the head.
We see how Bonasera is let down by the American justice system and consequently feels forced to seek an illegal and underground form of justice for his daughter’s attackers, to be dished out by Don Corleone.
“…for justice, we must go to Don Corleone.”Bonasera
The movie is preoccupied with this theme; the mob exist as an underground economy and society for people who feel purposefully left out or let down by the primary, mainstream economy and society.
Through the monologue, we see how Bonasera believes in America until it doesn’t work for him. When it lets him down, he goes to the underground system put in place to try and account for these injustices.
“I went to the police, like a good American.”Bonasera
He plays by the rules only for as long as they work for him. If the law won’t punish his daughter’s attackers, then he will make sure someone will – all the while keeping himself relatively distant from it.
It’s worth noting that when the monologue finishes, Don Corleone’s first lines are…
“Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first?”Don Corleone
This goes further in highlighting the purpose of the mob’s existence and the power and influence that Don Corleone seeks to have. He knows the gaps he can fill in order to justify his presence and existence in American society.
If the American justice system doesn’t serve the Italian-American community, Don Corleone can catch the fall. This is something Bonasera knows. He tried to be a “good American” initially but in the end, his desire for justice has left him no alternative but to go to Corleone.
Michael Corleone’s Journey
As well as underscoring many of the themes that will run through the rest of the movie, the opening monologue also brilliantly gives us a clue as to its plot.
The journey that Bonasera goes on in the opening monologue – from believing in America to disillusionment and consequently seeking resolve in the mob – mirrors the journey of the protagonist, Michael Corleone.
- When we first see Michael, only a scene later than this one, he is still a Marine, having recently fought in World War II. He seems the epitome of a good American boy, serving his country.
- As the movie unfolds, Michael grows closer to his family, particularly when his father (Vito Corleone) dies. As he seeks to defend his family, particularly when they come under FBI scrutiny, he becomes increasingly entrenched in their ways.
- By the end of the movie, he has left behind his good American boy image, no longer serving his country but serving as the head of the crime family into which he was born.
And this is a brilliant way that The Godfather opening scene sets up the movie’s themes. We don’t even know it at the time, but Bonasera is essentially laying out the key character arc in the film right in front of us. His journey of change is the one that will define the film.
Subconsciously, the monologue sets the tone for disillusionment with the American dream, family ties and underground justice. The monologue ultimately serves as a brilliant example of how to maximize dialogue, particularly within monologue form.
Every line is purposeful and pertains to the story and its themes. It’s one of the most meaningful monologues in cinematic history and starts off the film compellingly. We await the Don’s response…
The Godfather’s Response
Once Bonasera’s speech is over, it’s Don Corleone’s turn to speak. Here he highlights more of the film’s key themes and concepts.
Initially, Corleone bristles at Bonasera’s request, which we don’t actually hear, delivered as it is through a whisper. He’s almost disgusted at the request, which we assume is for murder.
However, more than the nature of the request itself, it’s the request’s context which upsets Corleone. Corleone furthers the idea of Bonasera believing in America up until it has worked for him. He sees through Bonasera’s incredulity and seems offended by the idea that he’s not kept him as a friend until this point; when he needs a favor and more importantly, his power.
You found paradise in America, had a good trade, made a good living. The police protected you; and there were courts of law. And you didn’t need a friend of me.Don Corleone
However, he also quickly sees this as an opportunity to bring Bonasera under his sphere of influence.
- Bonasera might initially have been someone who he had lost.
- But now he can make sure Bonasera owes him something and needs protection from him.
- And this is the fundamental mechanism that makes the mafia – and, therefore, Corleone’s operation – tick.
So it’s not the nature of the request but the transparency of it that annoys Corleone. The essential equation Corleone wants is something in return for his protection. He characterises this as friendship, though it may be something more akin to loyalty. And Corleone doesn’t see this as a virtue that Bonasera has upheld.
But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me Godfather.Don Corleone
Reeling Bonasera in
The Godfather opening scene lays down a few ideas that it returns to at its end. Thusly, it shows the journey present in the scene. Corleone saying “You don’t even think to call me Godfather” is one of these ideas.
It’s clear this upsets Corleone. And this shows how important this moniker is to the functioning of the system in place. Corleone is the Godfather. And the acknowledgement of such is important in making it work. It is, after all, just an honorary title with no official recognition.
This is in contrast to the officials of law and government who do have titles to justify their work. The Godfather is just an idea and tradition. It’s something that only functions if everyone upholds and respects it. And this is exactly what Corleone is annoyed at Bonasera for neglecting.
But by the end of the scene, Bonasera calls Corleone “The Godfather”. How does he get there? Well, firstly, Corleone castigates Bonasera further when he offers money.
Bonasera…Bonasera…What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully?Don Corleone
Again, Bonasera reverts to what is perhaps a learned lesson from his time in America: if you pay, you can get anything you want. However, this isn’t how the Godfather operates, at least not in this instance. It’s not money he wants, but respect, friendship and loyalty.
Corleone Teaches Bonasera a Lesson
Corleone’s chastising of Bonasera is, therefore, a lesson to him. The subtext of what he is saying is that he’s forgotten his roots, believed too much in America and that it’s now time to show some respect to those who have his best interests at heart.
Corleone ultimately pulls Bonasera in by tugging on the instincts that make an operation like his so successful; the idea that there are those outside the mainstream systems of protection that truly have your best interests at heart.
Some day, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But uh, until that day accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.Don Corleone
Corleone offers kindness. But truly he is asking for loyalty. This is visible in the way he hints at Bonasera potentially one day doing something for him in return. Right now though, Corleone offers to solve Bonasera’s problem, which is all that Bonasera wants.
Corleone takes advantage of Bonasera’s tangible, emotional desire to seek justice for his daughter by pulling him into his sphere of influence and control. An undoubtable exchange is at work here and that is apparent nakedly in the dialogue itself. However, this exchange is subtly disguised by the friendship and kindness that accompanies Corleone’s words.
The Others in the Room
It’s easy to miss really, but there are other key characters in the room during Corleone and Bonasera’s exchange in The Godfather opening scene. Specifically, Corleone’s consigliere, Tom Hagen, and his eldest son, Sonny. They don’t have any dialogue. However, they still play a crucial role in the mise-en-scène.
Both characters are fully visible at the Don’s side when the camera pulls out from his and Bonasera’s conversation (about halfway through the scene). They watch with a knowingness but also intrigue.
- Clearly, they know how Corleone is likely to react to Bonasera’s request.
- But they also seem to watch with respect, interested to know how he will handle the delicate situation.
The way these two important characters feature in this scene furthers the idea that The Godfather opening scene is a masterclass in how to foreshadow plot and character. So much is said about how the two characters will feature in the story and the role they play in it, as well as in the Godfather’s operation itself. And this is all done without any dialogue and just with subtle reactions and movement.
Framing and Reactions
Notice too the different positions and postures of the two characters:
- Sonny is standing close to his father’s desk. He swigs his drink and stands. This hints at his character’s restlessness and liability to act emotionally. He seems to be his father’s literal right-hand man, standing on his right.
- But Tom sits back from the table a little, attentive and focused. We will come to learn that Tom is the real right-hand man. Even just at the end of this scene we see Corleone seamlessly give him the instructions to carry out Bonasera’s request.
Moreover, the two characters know the Don so well they react to merely his movements.
- When the Don stands, Tom also stands.
- Sonny, meanwhile, knowingly nods at Bonasera, almost to say he is dismissed.
- The Don continues to speak to Bonasera, perhaps to Sonny’s surprise.
- Sonny stands in the background, casting a somewhat disparaging look at Bonasera.
- However, when Bonasera kisses the Don’s hand and calls him Godfather, Sonny looks more approving. There’s almost a look of inevitability on his face, as if he’s familiar with seeing people fold to his father in this way.
Then, after the Don escorts Bonasera out, Tom appears. This seamless appearance demonstrates how much of an effective servant Tom is to the Don. He’s ready and waiting to take instructions, anticipating them and willingly carrying them out.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The Godfather opening scene illustrates the fundamental dynamic at the heart of the movie’s portrayal of the mafia. And the scene is a perfect opener in this regard. We get a brilliant introduction to the world and to the mechanisms that will underpin the entire story.
It’s worth noting that we don’t even meet the protagonist (Michael) in this opening scene. But we don’t need to because of the way the scene so brilliantly encapsulates the story and its world. It’s a perfect set-up for what we are about to see.
But furthermore, it’s in retrospect that its power feels so pertinent. When we’ve finished watching the movie, we look back on the opening scene and marvel at how it foreshadowed the core of what was to come. At the time of watching though, we just enjoy what is a compelling introduction to an intriguing character and setting.
The stakes feel high in this scene and they, therefore, hook us in. This makes for the perfect opening scene; one where we don’t even know the full extent of what is happening but are riveted regardless.
Does The Godfather opening scene deserve the title of the best opening scene of all time? We’ll leave that for others to say definitively (let us know your other suggestions in the comments below). However, what is definitive is the way The Godfather opening scene perfectly demonstrates the key elements of gripping an audience into a narrative and story world.
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