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A Godfather bet: one you still can’t refuse, conceptually speaking

by Winston Perez

I’ll make you an offer you still can’t refuse, even after 40 years.

After reading this, go ahead: bet someone that they can’t tell you the true concept at the core of The Godfather movies. I’ve never lost this bet. Like drawing an innocent but ambitious young man into the inner circle of the Don himself, it is a little hard to resist, isn’t it? Because we all kind of know what that movie is about, right?

The greatest films of all time are driven by stories that are, in turn, driven by core concepts, truly defining the soul of a film. In my work of Concept Modeling with studios and production companies, this grouping of core concepts is called the quancept. I define it as significant-concepts. Great writers inject this deeper layer into scripts, though sometimes just intuitively. Concept Modeling takes what is intuitive, locks it down and perfects it. Story and concept are two separate things, kapish? And some concepts can be buried very deep, like Luca Brasi with the fishes.

Concept is obvious once you see it, but don’t disregard it; box office bombs are also obvious in hindsight.

To illustrate Concept Modeling, let’s analyze The Godfather.

The concept attached to its context

Context is the setting, historical time and place, in which story events happen. Context shades the meaning of the actions taking place.

The Godfather rests atop the interplay between American and Sicilian gangster cultures in the 1940s. But that latter culture includes elements of a third culture. Can you guess? The Catholic culture. The Godfather is a Catholic term.

As an illustration, the movie opens on a Catholic wedding being hosted at the Don’s vast estate in Staten Island. And look at Michael. He is the all American kid, dressed in his army uniform. In the 1940s, what could be more American than that? But on a subliminal level he came dressed to fight a cultural war. Here, on this invisible battlefield, Catholic wedding vows are set against Mafia vows exchanged in a dark room. Michael sits outside both cultures, literally, seated at an isolated table with Kay.

But there is a well-known concept at play here: We have two cultures temptingly whispering into the ears of American culture. Resting on Michael’s shoulders are two voices . . . one good, one bad . . . battling it out like the Mafia families in the film. This devil and angel on my shoulders concept works on an intuitive level. It is hidden but universal. The interplay between context, story and concept elevates the film.

The concept attached to the story

This story is about Michael, his return home and his journey to becoming the Godfather. That story is referenced by another story and its deeper concept. It is the famous Prodigal Son story, where a son leaves his father, and his father’s good ways, to go do evil. Having second thoughts, the repentant son returns to his good father’s open arms and is forgiven. The deeper concept is forgiveness.

In The Godfather, we find the opposite of that story. Michael leaves his father, and his father’s evil ways, to go do good, even joining the good guys’ army. He has no second thoughts, until he returns home and events force him into a choice. Now it is the Godfather who is brought to remorseful tears at the thought that Michael will be brought into the Mafia fold, and into his evil way of life.

The veracept at its core

Defined, a veracept is what I call a true concept. Think of it as the difference between true north and magnetic north. The Godfather’s veracept involves a subtle yet game changing twist.

The Godfather is about the Mafia. But just knowing that is not enough to make a great film. Concept has to be precise, modeled and perfected . . . it must capture the essence of the Mafia. Before The Godfather there were plenty of gangster movies. The Mafia’s twist on gangsters is the family concept.

The Godfather’s core concept can be stated like this: How the Mafia is like a family. It is obvious. But there is more at work here; and this is where you can win the bet.

The incredible hold The Godfather has on us is in large measure due to a second core concept. It is a veracept in direct conflict with the film’s magnetic north concept. The Godfather first shows us how the Mafia is like a family, then shows us how the Mafia is not like a family, and that is the true core concept. Those dueling concepts hyper-drive the power behind many of the film’s memorable scenes, like the baptism, where Michael recites the Catholic creed: “Do you reject Satan?” “I do,” he replies, while his men fulfill Satan’s work.

Perhaps the ultimate interplay of all of these concepts comes in the second film: Why is that scene of Michael standing alone in the den while Fredo is killed so powerful? One reason is that the Prodigal Son concept is about forgiveness. We all hope that Michael will spare or forgive sweet, rosary praying Fredo. Michael does not. In that moment, Michael proves he, by extension the Mafia, is not about family.

Seems too subtle? Just think of a grizzly bear: a female grizzly is the most ferocious when protecting her young . . . family. In The Godfather observe how equally ferocious Michael becomes when using the family angle to supersize his threats . . . family is Mafia code for I take this situation to be intensely personal. What could be more personal and thus deeply threatening, than declaring it is about my family?

The unique evil underpinning the Mafia involves the warping of family as a concept. Michael’s cold-hearted accent is not on mi FAMILIA, but MI familia. As it turns out, Michael is about Michael.

Can you win the bet now? Get some respect? What a quancept!

Winston Perez

About Winston Perez

Winston Perez is the founder/CEO of Concept Modeling, perfecting ideas in film, biz & tech. His clients include NBC/Universal, Interscope, Warner Bros. For more information about Winston, please check out The New York Times article. For questions, please email Winston@conceptmodeling.com.

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