Friday, March 25, 2011

Godfather Part I (or just Godfather)

Francis Ford Coppola, 1972, 177m

The story of Vito Corleone, the first Godfather, unforgettably played by a hardly recognizable Brando, has become part of folk-lore and lexicon. Often classed as one of the best ever, I can at least say it had me glued for three hours, in my third viewing over the years. It is thriller-noire, a dark, brooding, elegantly violent, solidly constructed chunk of celluloid. To compare it with Part 2 is unnecessary since they are very different kinds of movies. The canvas of 1 is tightly knit and is confined to the bloody feuds of the "five families" who control the illegal businesses. Part 2 is more ambitious in it's portrayal of the immigrant's experience as it takes us across several generations. 2 is a vivid picture of the rich complexities that constitute the US.

The palette is sepia and it is a film of darkness and golden brown. Nina Rota's melancholy score goes well with the lives of these very human creatures eking out their own survival and ambitions in the crevices of society. The Don yearns for the day when the family will buy it's way to the daylight of legitimacy, maybe even become Senators. Michael wants to steer clear of the family business, but destiny sucks him into becoming it's most ruthless practitioner. This is Brando's film, even though he is on the screen only for a few small intervals. He rarely shows emotion (twice, in fact, to chastise his godson Johnny and eldest son Santino). His voice rarely rises above a purr as he straightens his hair in a contemplative gesture, a picture of leashed power. He does not directly order a single killing. He even has the magnanimity to forgo revenge for the brutal assassination of Santino, in the larger interests of "business" and the safety of his youngest son Michael, his ablest offspring and successor to be. One of the most dramatic sequences is the Summit where the bloody lords of the gang-world assemble to negotiate a truce and settle the differences around the narcotics trade. Another memorable sequence is the Don's grief when he learns of Santino's killing, his veins bursting as his lips spread out in a silent sob. Or the glad smile bursting through his semi-consciousness when Michael tells him that he will hereafter be part of the family business. And the heart attack that strikes him down finally as he childishly plays with his grandson.

It is difficult to lay one's finger as to where the magic of the movie lies. Perhaps the dish of violence has been served with refinement and artistry without passing judgement. The characters ring true and authentic and it shows us the world in all it's complexities which goes beyond simple categories and descriptions. Perhaps it is a a voyeuristic delight to gain admission into an inaccessible world, like the British aristocracy.


Nathanael Hood said...

I personally think that the key to what made this film work was Coppola's upbringing as a pulp film director.

Hear me out.

He got started working under Roger Corman who produced his first film, the "Psycho" rip-off "Dementia 13." He made a number of kitschy, pulp films before deciding that he wanted to do more artistic films.

When he started to do more serious films, his upbringing pervaded his work. Think about this for a of the best parts of "The Godfather" is the discrepancy between the high class and orderly political machinations of the families and their members and the brutal assassinations.

"The Godfather" would not have been the same without the brutal killings, the sex, and the horse head in the bed. If the producers had chosen someone else to Sergio Leone (their original choice), it would not have been as graphically explicit. And yet, it is that very violent sense of exploitation that drove home the reality of mafia life.

S M Rana said...

True, he is a director of vision and sweep without leaving the mainstream of cinema. So was Shakespeare, who catered to the mass audience of his time while touching the summits of drama.

When do your classes start? Believe me, I feel excited to have a friend who is going to be in Film-School. I was just reading Kurosawa's book "Something like an Autobiography" wherein he narrates his life from infancy to his international breakthrough with Rashomon which got him the Golden Palm, as it winds through his close experience of the 1923 Kanto Earthquake, some personal traumas and the films he made during WW2.

Nathanael Hood said... won't be until late August/early September.

And I've been meaning to read that book for the LONGEST time.

Ian Montgomery said...

I'm afraid to watch this film. Every single source has claimed this to be one of the greatest accomplishments in cinema. I'm worried that my expectations will be so high that disappointment is unavoidable.

S. M. Rana said...


I never really found out what a great movie is, except there is often considerable variation in the evaluation of the top experts. I suppose they apply different yardsticks. Godfather series is sure to be enjoyable to most people because it has something for everyone. Do see it and get it over with since there is little chance of avoiding it.