The winner of nine Academy Awards and dozens of critical and film-industry awards, and with The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974) voted among the ten best American films ever, the trilogy occupies an iconic place in American cinema and culture. Viewed by hundreds of millions in and outside the United States, its portrayal of Sicilian immigrants, New York’s Little Italy, and the organized crime underworld vie in many viewers’ minds with historical truth.

In a 1963 testimony to the Congressional Hearing on Organized Crime, Joe Valachi, a “soldier” in the Genovese crime family, was the first mobster to publicly acknowledge the existence and power of the Mafia;in films[films]MafiaMafia. His testimony, broadcast on radio and television and published in newspapers, was devastating for the mob, already reeling from the 1957 Apalachin exposure when New York State police had accidentally uncovered a meeting of several Mafia bosses from all over the United States. However, while the Italian crime syndicate stretching across the United States was no longer invisible to the public, few Americans gave it a second thought. Together with Mario Puzo, MarioPuzo’s novel, the Godfather blockbusters changed that.Organized crime;in films[films]Godfather trilogyFilms;Godfather trilogyCrime;in films[films]Italy
Coppola, Francis FordItalian immigrants;in films[films]Little Italies;in Godfather films[Godfather films]Little Italies;New York CityOrganized crime;in films[films]Godfather trilogyFilms;Godfather trilogyCrime;in films[films]Italy immigrants;criminalCoppola, Francis FordItalian immigrants;in films[films][cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Godfather trilogy[02030][cat]CRIME;Godfather trilogy[02030][cat]FILM;Godfather trilogy[02030]Puzo,
Little Italies;in Godfather films[Godfather films]Little Italies;New York City

Marlon Brando (right) as Don Corleone, with his son, played by Al Pacino.

(Museum of Modern Art, Film Stills Archive)

The Godfather (1972) opens in 1945. A decision not to enter the narcotics trade brings Vito Corleone, Italian Mafia family boss, onto a violent collision course with other New York crime families. Peace ensues only after a series of assassinations, instigated by his youngest son, Michael, who takes over the “business” after his father’s death and removes the crime family to Las Vegas. The plot of The Godfather: Part II (1974) is complex and ambitious (the film runs two hundred minutes). Now a billionaire reaping the benefits of legalized gambling in Las Vegas, during the late 1950’s Michael Corleone expands his criminal base, buys political clout, and successfully fends off a federal indictment, while competing against an aging Jewish boss from Miami (modeled after Meyer Lansky). Running in parallel is the story of his father who, as a boy, arrived at Ellis Island from Sicily in 1901, only to rise as a crime lord (“Don”) in Little Italies;in Godfather films[Godfather films]Little Italy. The much weaker Godfather: Part III (1990) picks up the story in 1979 and essentially reprises the plot of the first film, with the aging Michael passing the reins to the crime empire amid a new wave of machinations
and assassinations.

The films are steeped in the Italian immigrant experience in the United States. Italian dialogue (with subtitles) is ubiquitous, in Godfather: Part II amounting to almost half of the film. Scenes of baptism, first communion, wedding, family dinners, and other aspects of Italian Roman Catholic religion and culture are painstakingly recreated. Street life during the early decades of New York, the annual Feast of San Gennaro, and other traditions combine with extensive footage from rural and small-town life in Sicily to enrich the film’s gangster plot and give it an authentic feel of the immigrant experience, not to mention a criminal underworld twist to the American Dream of “rags to riches.”Organized crime;in films[films]Godfather trilogyFilms;Godfather trilogyCrime;in films[films]Italy immigrants;criminalCoppola, Francis FordItalian immigrants;in films[films]

Further Reading

  • Jones, Jenny M. The Annotated Godfather: The Complete Screenplay. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2007.
  • Messenger, Christian K. The Godfather and American Culture: How the Corleones Became “Our Gang.” Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.
  • Puzo, Mario. The Godfather. New York: New American Library, 1978.



Criminal immigrants

Drug trafficking

Ellis Island


Italian immigrants

Labor unions


Little Italies

New York City