#6 The Godfather

Top 10’s – FAVORITE FILMS

#6 – The Godfather – FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA, 1972

What’s to state about The Godfather that hasn’t been clearly pitched from one mouth to one’s ears? But here I go jumping into a crowded sea of opinions…

The single most shocking aspect to me is how people take The Godfather for face value. I imagine because The Godfather’s face value is so boldly printed. But even if you cant decipher Coppola’s epic metaphor for the corrupting effects of capitalism and the falsehood of the American Dream, you will still come away with one of the most memorable cinematic experiences of your life. The Godfather is an enthralling film with its rich and deliberately paced screenplay that boasts line after line of memorable dialogue, deep and engaging performances and characters studies, contrasting cinematography by the great Gordon Willis of dark and menacing interiors and bright and beautiful exteriors, realistic art direction that brings the 40’s and 50’s to life and a haunting score by Nino Rota, with Carmine Coppola leading the band in the wedding sequence and playing the lovely piano tune during the mattresses montage. This grand fresco of America is a spectacular meld of blockbuster entertainment and masterful artistry, making it accessible to both film buffs and casual viewers.

While watching the film as a I grow older in my movie watching life, I began to noticed many deep similarities with Luchino Visconti’s celebrated adaptation of The Leopard (an acknowledged influence on the film). Not only do they share some of the same themes, were both shot in Sicily, have large scale party sequences (the opening wedding and ballroom finale) and had the same composer, but many characters in The Godfather seem to be directly inspired by the earlier film, including:

The Corleone Family = The Salina Family.

Both are patriarchal families fighting to keep their power, values and influence alive as the newer and younger generation threatens to replace them, against an epic and period backdrop (the Risorgimento and post war America).

Don Vito Corleone = Don Fabrizio Corbera.

They are both powerful and influential heads of their respective families, and the two see their power and influence going down the drain as their older and more traditional ways of doing things are being replaced. In Vito’s case, it is the emergence of drugs, which goes against his every philosophy, and his refusal to aid Sollozzo very nearly costs him his life. In Fabrizio’s case, it is the rise of the middle class and the fall of the aristocracy.

Michael Corleone = Tancredi Falconeri.

Both see that the Dons’ way of doing things are finished and adapt to the changing times. Tancredi sides with the middle class to maintain his influence, while Michael sees the uglier side of America and becomes a ruthless and coldhearted monster to maintain his power.

In true Coppola fashion, The Godfather shows how honor, respect and morals were replaced with large scale corruption and violence throughout America. Hollywood, the justice system, the government and religion, among others, are not spared and are shown to be corrupt from the inside out. The irony here is that while Vito is a mob boss, he has a soul and stands by his beliefs and his family, while the “legitimate” organizations have sold their souls and will do whatever it takes to satisfy their greed. One of the most brilliant scenes in the film is when Clemenza and Rocco murder Paulie. The Statue of Liberty is faintly visible in the background, a symbol of the two faces of America. Even in Sicily, symbolic of a world untouched by the greed and corruption, where Michael attempts to start a new life with Apollonia, who is innocent and pure, they are destroyed by capitalism’s reach. With nothing left to live for, a changed Michael begins working for his father and becomes the don. I still think that Part II has more of an impact, but Coppola gives us a true and unforgettable portrait of the 20th century that is even more relevant today than it was upon release.

The Godfather, and the same goes for Part II, has the best cast ever. Marlon Brando‘s central performance is justly imitated, and he has that huge presence that only a few actors have achieved. This proves to be the film’s biggest downfall, as the film takes a huge nosedive when he is shot down in the street and has no speaking lines for the next 75 minutes. But Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Richard S. Castellano and Abe Vigoda fill the big hole left by Brando and give outstanding performances. Caan, playing the role of Sonny Corleone, taps into the beast that De Niro found in Raging Bull, and his performance is a masterpiece of kinetic energy. There are also moments of tenderness, such as when he comforts his wife and sister, that allow us to sympathize with him more easily, as well as adding more depth to his character. Robert Duvall is the exact opposite of Sonny as Tom Hagen, the calm and calculating consigliere and unofficially adopted son of Vito. He is very likeable and charming, while very deserving of respect. Castellano and Abe Vigoda play Vito’s two capos, Peter Clemenza and Salvatore Tessio. Castellano is loyal, humorous and very deadly, while Vigoda is more strategic and level headed. Most people say that Pacino’s performance in Part II is his greatest, but I think he gives an equally mesmerizing performance in Part I. Considering that this was only his third performance for the screen and that he has to subtly transform from a loving and caring man who is an outsider to the cold blooded killer that he becomes, I’d say he does a remarkable job. Talia Shire and Diane Keaton don’t get a lot of screen time, nor do they make a significant impression until Part II, but they do a fine job with what they are given.

The final conversation between Michael and Vito and Vito’s subsequent death scene never fail to make my jaw drop every time I watch the film. Their acting is so amazing that you don’t even think that they are acting at all. They have literally become the characters, and I have a feeling that even Robert Bresson would have been proud. Brando gives the impression of a man who is content with his life and family and has found peace with himself. Also, notice how the lighting is exceptionally similar to the Sicily sequences, as if the don has returned to his roots. Vito finds happiness, while Michael is the opposite.

Much of the film’s power comes from the cinematography by Gordon Willis. The gloomy darkness of the Corleone compound hints at the dark business that goes on underneath. These interiors are often framed through doors and windows to illustrate how the men live in two worlds. Willis also uses the entire depth of field to strengthen the narrative, themes and characters, such as when Sonny’s wife spots him leaving with the maid of honor in the background while she is in the foreground. As with the Leopard, the Sicilian scenes are shot and lit to appear as a romantic and mystical, almost fantastical place that heavily contrasts to the cold, bleak and somber look of New York. When coupled with Rota’s gentle love theme the sound and images unite like peanut butter and jelly.

The studio wanted a low budget B movie gangster picture, and Coppola wanted The Leopard. Despite the low budget, Coppola still found room for his artistic expression and managed to give the film an epic feel to it. The metaphorical capitalism content is hidden between all the action and drama. I’ve read the annotated script and his notes for every single scene, and it shows how he used all the departments to his advantage. Plus, he also learned to use every opportunity to externalize the character’s emotions and take advantage of problems with the production and lucky accidents and work them into the narrative. His and Mario Puzo’s screenplay is just about perfect, balancing action with character, but there are scenes from the shooting script that were never shot but should have been, and scenes that were deleted that should not have been. They would have slowed the pace down, but from what I read they would have added so much to the film.

The Godfather is among the best films ever if only for the fact that it is able to suck you in completely to this world. It is long but never plods and always builds with every scene. Indeed, each early scene is somewhat of a set-up for something later. The actors all play it so straight and smooth, everything is completely convincing. And Gordon Willis’ dark, moody photography adds to the drama, evoking hidden agendas and secrets. Nino Rota composed one of the most famous of all movie themes, and here it seems to tell us that life is going to get bad and we should have listened to Don Vito. This film put Coppola on the map and made him a director to reckon with. Just like alike the Corleone’s. The one aspect of The Godfather that hit me so hard on my first viewing was all the similarities between my life and the film. I certainly am not drawing a parallel to the murders and the bold lifestyle, but the little nuances. The little girl dancing on the feet of the older man at Connie’s wedding. The family eating pasta with an overloaded dinner table. The unconditional love that family members show. Similarities are what makes movies work on a personal level for me. As for this film, most scenes are like holding up a mirror to my childhood.  Enough cant be said regarding The Godfather. From performances to editing it is pure cinema and all heart.

5 – 1 coming in 2014.

INTERMISSION

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