The Godfather (1972)
“An offer you can’t refuse.”
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan
Synopsis: The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather paints a seductive portrait of the life of a Mafioso in which crime is viewed as a business – ‘This is not personal, it’s business,’ is a constant refrain – often conducted in darkened lounges or around polished boardroom tables. Its practitioners take pains to keep their profession from spilling over into family life, refusing to discuss it at the dinner table. However, beneath its often civilised veneer, the business they conduct is of a dark and distasteful hue – and on the cusp of growing even darker as attention turns to the growing profitability of the drugs trade. Keeping it detached from the family grows increasingly difficult, especially as a New Order begins to establish itself, and Sicilian mobsters strive to achieve respectability as they assimilate themselves into American society.
The film’s opening sequence subtly emphasises this slow interweaving of the two: as Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) conducts business in his darkened office, subdued light from his expansive garden, in which his family has gathered to celebrate the wedding of his daughter, leaks through the blinds of the window behind his shoulder. Children burst into the office as Corleone’s henchman Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) pays his respects, and are hurriedly ushered away. The signs are everywhere, and this theme of the disintegration of those once-impenetrable barriers, which marks the beginning of the end of the Corleone empire, is a recurring theme of the movie, culminating in the virtuoso sequence in which a number of mob assassinations are carried out while their architect, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) attends the religious ceremony in which he becomes Godfather not only to his new-born nephew, but to the entire Corleone empire.
The movie begins in 1946. Michael is a war hero, returning home with his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton). The wedding sequence mentioned earlier efficiently introduces us to all the movie’s key players, and establishes Michael’s belief that he is different, that he will not become like his father. Ironically, in a way he’s proven right – his tenure as Don will be marked by a cold ruthlessness completely at odds with Vito Corleone’s more benign – but no less effective – methods. When an attempt is made on Vito’s life by Virgil ’The Turk’ Sollozzo (the wonderful Al Lettieri), it is Michael who takes revenge, but when Michael’s brother Sonny (James Caan), is assassinated, Don Vito’s instinctive response is to bring an immediate end to the violence. Michael’s ascendancy in the family business thus also marks his diminution as a human being.
The Godfather was a unique movie when first released, although it has often been copied in the 40-odd years since. It combined the deep, introspective qualities of an art movie with staccato bursts of violence reminiscent of the Warner’s gangster movies of the 1930s. It was also the first film to take its audience into the inner sanctum of a crime family, portraying its members as (sort of) ordinary people who cared about one another. By divorcing its characters from the real world – the Corleone’s kill only other gangsters and those who have crossed them – The Godfather was able to make its audience care about them.
Its mournful, melancholic signature tune sets the tone for the entire movie – fostering a haunting sense of the loneliness and loss that ultimately awaits Michael. He’s a man writing his own destiny, distancing himself ever further from the woman that is his only chance of salvation with every act of revenge he initiates. And yet the brilliance of the character – and the movie – is that, on a base level, we can understand and sympathise with every decision he takes, no matter how unsavoury it might be.
(Reviewed 7th August 2012)