Love Lessons From ‘The Godfather”

No matter how much we fight it, we all end up with bad family habits, whether it’s getting crumbs in the margarine container or leaving the silencer in the trunk.

Romantic relationships are confusing. So we search for guidance in many places, including the cinema. We look to movies because they’re a contemporary cultural experience shared with our closest companions. And we’re too lazy to read.

But which movies? Romantic comedies? It’s true some have posed poignant questions: “When Harry Met Sally” (Can men and women be friends without physical attraction getting in the way?); “Sleepless in Seattle” (What is the magic that makes people fall in love?); “While You Were Sleeping” (How did they manage to make a cutesy romantic comedy without Meg Ryan?).

But we need answers, not questions. How about the classic romances? Sure, some reveal profound truths. Like in “Casablanca,” a man discovers that the cause of world freedom outweighs his own happiness. Great, but how often does that happen?

No, sometimes we have to look for wisdom in unexpected places. I realized this watching one of my favorite movies for the umpteenth time. Now, it’s not based on a novel by Jane Austen, trusty Meg doesn’t even make a cameo, and there’s no hokey music sequence where the love-struck couple kisses with cake smooshed on their face, has a pillow fight, and then falls off a bicycle-built-for-two into a lake, all while laughing hysterically. Even so, there is much we can learn from this American masterpiece: “The Godfather.”

It’s the story of Vito Corleone, a Sicilian boy who escapes to New York City when the Mafia kills his family. Appalled that the local Mafia boss uses violence against his own people for personal gain, Vito offs him and establishes his own powerful family. Vito dreams that his youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), will be the one to bring greatness to the family without going into crime, by becoming a senator or governor (The Godfather apparently is too busy to keep up with the news.)

Michael sticks with the plan until a failed assassination attempt on his father. Unfortunately, instead of seeking comfort in a support group, he shoots two people through the head and later tries to see how many people he can have killed during a single baptism.

Kay (Diane Keaton) falls for Michael while he’s still on the Senator Track. It’s never easy to pinpoint when a relationship goes sour, but it was probably right about when Michael kills a New York City police captain and disappears to Italy. When Michael returns and asks Kay to marry him, she points out that he hasn’t written or called; and also that his family is a bunch of murdering thugs. But the dating scene can be a drag, so she takes him back anyway.

While it’s not your typical love story, Michael and Kay’s relationship teaches valuable lessons:

1. You marry the whole family.

When Kay gets upset over the nature of the Corleone family business, Michael says: “That’s my family Kay, not me.” Okay, that might work for little things like cooking with too much vegetable shortening. But more important things, like running a crime organization, or hairy backs, warrant more caution. No matter how much we fight it, we all end up with bad family habits, whether it’s getting crumbs in the margarine container or leaving the silencer in the trunk.

2. You marry their work.

If only Michael could have left his work at the office. But sometimes there was just no better place to whack a disloyal employee than the middle of the driveway. For most people, of course, bringing work home means simply making a few phone calls. Still, it’s worth learning as much as you can so you don’t find yourself in Kay’s shoes, competing with clients for your spouse’s attention, or scrambling under the bed to avoid gunfire.

3. They’re not going to change.

Michael persuades Kay to marry him by assuring her that within five years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate. Kay is apparently convinced that Michael will soon be selling insurance for Aetna. She commits a classic mistake: assuming Michael will undergo a complete personality overhaul the day after the wedding. Kay learns this lesson the hard way, as she later finds herself reminding the still mob-employed Michael that seven years have passed since his unveiling of the five-year plan. Amazingly, she stays with him, buying his explanation that the insurance market has been really tight lately.

And finally . . .

4. To make great spaghetti sauce, fry some garlic, throw in some tomatoes, mix in a little paste, toss in your sausages and meatballs, and add some wine and sugar.

Since they say the way to a person’s heart is through his stomach, this could be the most important advice of all.

Next time: Golf tips from “Gone with the Wind.”

Stephen A. Simon writes for Washington Jewish Week.