I’m fascinated by the outsider position occupied by The Godfather‘s Italians within America as a whole. The power, wealth, and apparent status held by the Corleones and other families appears, on one hand, substantial. They own hotels and mansions, they throw lavish parties, and seem to always be in various stages of formal attire. Yet their ethnic status also makes them targets of derision and hate – called “guinea” and “punk” by other Italians and the greater white world. The contrast between Italy and the new world will act as bookends for the film. We start with the “I believe in America” speech, wherein Bonasera alludes to the question of assimilation that will be central to Michael’s arc, and end by closing the door on Kay, where the “outsider” Italians are able to forcefully exclude the dominant white culture from their insider conversations and affairs.
The use of the Italian language throughout the movie, and the subsequent choice of whether or not to include subtitles, is a key part of their creation of in and out groups. During the opening wedding, for example, we hear “C’é la Lunna Mezzo Mare” sung by the elder members of the crime family without any onscreen translation. An audience unversed in Italian is left in the dark, with only the gestures and laughter of the singers and audience to base our impression of the lyrics upon. At other points, subtitles are provided for the predominantly English speaking audience, such as during Michael’s time in Sicily, when we would be unable to follow the action without knowing the language. The selective use of subtitles would therefore imply that there are things non-Italians are allowed to understand, but others that we are not.
Take the assassination of Sollozzo and McCluskey. Beyond his clearly Irish name, McCluskey’s place as an observer of the Italians is recalled again by his asking of what to order. Sollozzo tells the police captain he and Michael will do their business in Italian. While this could be a matter of comfort, two men using their shared ancestral language, the purpose of their change is revealed in two ways. First, when Sollozzo asks the waiter “Capide?” – “do you understand?” – to which he nods before pouring the wine. Then, Sollozzo will stop mid sentence when the waiter returns, before continuing where he left off when their table is left alone.
It is then clear that the choice of Italian here is a deliberate choice of exclusion. It is a method for Sollozzo to keep McCluskey out of his conversation with Michael. He stops when the waiter returns to avoid being eavesdropped on by another native of the language – “capide?” The effect of language is reaffirmed when Michael glances at the captain before switching to English, seeing that he is not even attempting to understand. McCluskey’s exclusion is then felt by the audience, as we do not receive a translation of what the men are saying either. The choice to deny the audience meaning in this conversation acts to further exoticize the world of the Sicilian mob, leaving us as outsiders.
When Michael switches back to English, his entire demeanor shifts. He goes from soft spoken to brutal, speaking through gritted teeth with anger. His abandoning the romance language is, perhaps, a parallel to the brutality with which he’ll eventually run the Corleone family, a CEO-like ruthlessness that is tied to his assimilation into America and the blending of his two cultures.