Monday, December 22, 2008

Is the "Godfather" Anti-Semitic?

I, like Jeffery Goldberg, have seen the Godfather movies (at least) 145 times and it never struck me that the movies were anti-Semitic. In fact, I've always thought just the opposite: that the Godfather was philo-Semitic. But the rational he supplies via Slate's Ron Rosenbaum is not without merit:
Hyman Roth is the age-old stereotype of the Jewish betrayer. The prime Italian gangster values in the sage are sometimes betrayed, but a betrayal recognized as a departure from the norm, the core virtue in the saga - honor and family. The Jewish values: Nothing but money (and maybe TV dinners), the apotheosis of which is Roth's betrayal of Michael, "This is the business we've chosen."
Look at the Jews in the films, the Hollywood horse lover, Moe Green in Vegas, Roth. Any "good" Jewish gangsters we should respect as we supposedly should respect Don Vito and Michael?
That's a fair assessment, but I think an incomplete one. I always saw Roth as a far more complicated character than merely a stereotypical caricature. Roth is a man that's very concerned about his legacy and is one of the few characters in the movies who is acutely aware of his own mortality. He's an outsider among outsiders. By the time we watch "II" we know that Michael "chose" his profession because it's the family business -- but we don't know how Roth got into the game. Michael carries on about the importance of family, as well he should -- after all, that's his power base. We don't know the same about Roth. In fact, Roth is in some ways a version of Vito: a self-made man who never raised his own family and must now seek alternative ways to carry on his legacy.

I could go on looking at Roth as a character onto himself, but it's really difficult for me to swallow Rosenbaum's critique of Roth in terms of a comparison to a character like Michael Corleone. If Roth is the archetypal "Jewish betrayer," then what is Michael? Roth may out to swindle the Corleone family for his own financial gain, but Michael is the one who betrays his actual family, despite his lofty rhetoric throughout the film that family is the most important thing is life, when he has his weak and ineffectual brother killed.

Plus, isn't it Michael who lays the dreaded "kiss of death" -- that Biblical act of betrayal from which a great deal of the "Jewish treachery" stereotype is based -- on Fredo? In doing so, isn't it Michael who identifying himself with the ur-traitor Judas?

Moe Green and the Hollywood horse guy are trickier to deal with and I'm far more willing to buy into Rosenbaum's critique of their roles in the movie but, again, if we're to judge them in terms of the Corleone family, it's difficult to argue that any character in the trilogy is more villainous than Michael precisely because he falls so far from the beginning of the original to those last lonely frames of "III." Complicating the matter further is that Italian-Americans don't exactly escape various stereotypical depictions throughout the films either...

But the reason that I find it extremely hard to call the Godfather movies anti-Semitic is that -- specific characters aside -- the story itself is very Old Testament. One of the fundamental truths that is passed on through the narrative of the Corleone family is that the sins of the father are revisited on the son(s). Don Vito is a righteous man in an unrighteous world who is forced to take actions that come back to haunt him and his family. His is a twisted version of the American Dream -- a man who is able to rise to fortune and happiness by living the life of a "virtuous criminal" (remember his decision not to get into the drug business?). Micheal's story arc is the inverse of his father's tale and his fall from grace is the American Nightmare that is told in story after story in the Jewish tradition.

But getting back to the issue of Roth, Moe Green and the Hollywood dude being stereotypes. The more I think about it the more I think Rosenberg has a legitimate point about how stereotypes infuse their characters, and yet given the context of the story, I'm more inclined to think this was intentional on behalf of the Coppola and Puzo. For one thing, the Jews in the story aren't the only ones defined by stereotypes --no one can tell me that Sonny isn't the embodiment of the hot-blooded Italian that so many WASPs feared during the first wave of Italian immigration during the 20th Century.

So much of the Godfather is about family that it's easy to forget that the very definition of family and nationality is thrown into flux by the Americanness of the film. The Corleones may speak Italian and live like Italians in the Old Country, but they're almost entirely American. Vito lives in America for far longer than he ever spent time in Europe, but his family clings to the traditions of Sicily like most immigrants do -- and there are few groups who are better at maintaining traditions like Jews.

I've often wondered if there was some sort of metaphysical connection between Roth and Vito -- that Vito established a business relationship with Roth because both were immigrants in some way (Vito literally and Roth spiritually) and that this relationship dissolves when Micheal, no longer an immigrant, ascends to his father's throne. Does that mean Roth doen't exhibit stereotypical character traits? Not at all, but it might be an odd way to emphasis the connection between the Corleones and the Jewish people rather than as thinly veiled anti-Semitism.

1 comment:

GTryon said...

"... isn't it Michael who identifying himself with the ur-traitor Judas?" No, because his brother betrayed HIM. The death kiss would be meaningless if it was meant to connote its initiator as the traitor. More largely, the Godfather films trike some Jews as anti-semitic because they are almost alone in Hollywood releases in portraying Jews as less than benign or neutral characters. Witness a recent post-meltdown movie about Wall St. corruption where the perp is, you guessed right, a Roman Catholic!