According to its very definition, the genre film implies limitations and boundaries. The etymology of the term “genre” originates from the French, meaning “of a kind.” Accordingly, in the context of genre in relation to forms of art, such as film, the intuitive association that arises is one of clearly defined parameters, such as the western film, the slasher film, etc. Yet films are said to transcend their genre when they break through these limiting prejudices concerning content and suggest something universal. Coppola’s 1972 film The Godfather is one such example of transcending genre: despite the film’s belongingness to the mafia genre, it nevertheless has become an undisputed cinematic classic. The question becomes: how does a genre film accomplish this task? Arguably, The Godfather transcends genre through the character of Michael Corleone, who embodies archetypical character traits that are not restricted to particular genre restrictions.
Corleone in the film is the son of the successful Mafia boss Vito Corleone. However, Michael’s biography demonstrates that he is, at the outset of the film, no way a part of this world. For example, Michael is a decorated war veteran with no connections beyond familial to the crime world. Furthermore, his girlfriend is an Anglo-Saxon Protestant, breaking from the close familial ties that characterize Mafia life. Corleone, in other words, at the beginning of the film is portrayed as a certain black sheep in the family, an archetypical motif that is present in multiple forms of narrative. To the extent that the viewer is introduced to the crime family of the Corleones from an outsider perspective, we immediately share the same perspective as Michael, who also seems to not be properly at home in the crime world, despite being a part of the Corleone family.
As the film progresses, Michael begins to enter the crime world, despite his own life ambitions. This is the product of the ties to his family: as he sees his father’s life threatened by mob wars, and, upon losing his elder brother Sonny to these same conflicts, Michael is drawn into the Corleone’s criminal world not because of any sadistic ambitions, but rather because of the dedication to his family. Here, the key motif of family honor and a dedication to those loved ones who are closest enables the viewer to feel empathy with Michael’s situation, despite his criminal background. Even in the genre conventions of Mafia film, therefore, Michael becomes a representative of family, as Coppola skillfully transitions the story from a narrative about a crime family to a narrative about family itself.
Michael sees his family torn apart by the mob conflicts. He is drawn into a leading role in the family after his elder brother’s murder and his father’s death. Michael’s decision is to end the mob war through the murder of the Corleone family’s chief opponents. Here, Michael’s character evokes classical motifs of revenge, which are present in all forms of narrative. The revenge narrative is not bound to a particular genre, such as the mob film, but instead symbolizes oppression, exploitation and the desire for vengeance. In this regard, one could easily imagine Michael’s decision within the context of any narrative, and as such, Coppola successfully transcends the genre restrictions of mafia film.
To the extent that genre implies playing according to a certain pre-established set of rules, a film transcends its genre status not when it breaks these rules, but rather speaks to something deeper and universal. By using motifs such as family and vengeance in his film, Coppola remains unrestricted by any plot conventions that define the mafia genre. In this regard, he presents a film that is universal in its content, unbound to any preconceptions of what a mob film should resemble, instead producing a work that is profoundly human in its essence.