The Godfather (1972) dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Talia Shire, Diane Keaton
What more analysis or praise do we need to shower “The Godfather” with? It’s the gold standard for cinema – a perfect film with more than enough layers to survive viewing after viewing after viewing. It never wears out.
The film opens with the now famous wedding scene – which is really four or five sequences in one scene. For the first 25 mins or so the audience is sequestered within the grounds of the Corleone family. Getting married is Connie and his husband Carlo. Connie's father is Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) the elderly Don who mumbles quietly to his minions, but exercises absolute power with absolute confidence. There’s the three sons, Sonny (James Caan) Vito’s broad-shouldered philandering eldest son, Fredo (John Cazale) the drunken n’er-do-well, Tom (Robert Duvall), the adopted brother and family lawyer, and Michael (Al Pacino), the unassuming war-hero returning home.
Who would think that by the end of the Parts I and II, Sonny would be betrayed and indirectly murdered by his brother-in-law, and that Michael would ostracize Tom out of the business of the family and then have own his flesh and blood brother Fredo murdered.
After the crucial wedding scene, we finally see the family in action outside the confines of their estate. It's a highly competitive world of gangsters - five families in New York, currently in a period of peace. But when a wildcard shows up in the name of Virgil Solozzo (Al Lettieri), Don Vito finds himself at odds and at a crossroads for the family.
This is where the contradictory morals of the genre are expertly navigated by Coppola, We know Don Vito is a ruthless negotiator and a killer - the horse's head showed us how the Don reacts to 'bad news' - but he has created his own personal set of morals to abide by. Similar to the western genre, the Corleone family is governed by the gangster 'code of honour' outside traditional authoritarian law. The crucial moment in the film is Vito's decision to maintain the intregrity of his family and not get involved with Solozzo's drug scheme - it's partly a political decision, partly a moral decision - and it ultimately causes the war which changes the direction of the movie and all the characters. When Don Vito is shot and left bedridden Michael steps up to exact revenge against Solozzo and take leadership for the family.
"The Godfather" is a timeless film because with each viewing I seem to catch more depth and layers in the characters. The scene when Michael convinces his brothers that he should be the one to kill Solozzo is the first overt expression of Michael's 'turn to the darkside'. But with this recent umpteenth viewing I saw some the seeds of Michael's fate planted in the audience earlier than that. Watch the scene when Kay calls Michael at the house while Clemenza shows him his meatball pasta recipe. Michael of course avoids telling Kay he loves her. By not saying 'I love you', it's perhaps a silent acknowledgement of the new life he's knows he's about to enter - something which Kay cannot be a part of.
The central theme of the film of course is not exclusively about the mafia - but family. Specifically the corruption of family from the inside out. Coppola’s epic scale and archetypal themes seem to borrow or echo classical or even biblical tales of tragedy. Another layer of depth I discovered with this recent viewing is in the scene when Michael meets Kay again after returning from Sicily. Coppola brilliantly plays the scene while Kay is attending to her school children - a great and subtle visual metaphor for this first heinous act of deception to bring Kay into his world and corrupt her innocence.
By the end of the film, Michael becomes the person he swore he'd never become. But the tragedy of the story is not that Michael has become part of the 'family business', but that he's betrayed the code of honour set and established by his father - which is wonderfully articulated in the fabulous closing shot - 'a man that doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man'.
"The Godfather" is now available on Blu-Ray in new "Restored" edition.