The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.
The Godfather is one of those films I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired off. In many ways, it is the ultimate film. A sprawling crime epic that covers themes of family, crime, duty and honour, and it epitomises why gangster culture is such a fascinating subject for many.
The film begins at Don Vito Corleone’s daughters wedding, an opening that lasts for a long time and on initial viewings feels long, but on further viewings you gain a greater appreciation for the craft Coppola shows here with his direction. The wedding subtly introduces us to many of the key characters in the film, giving us small examples of their character traits that will become more important later on, as well as introducing us into the Sicilian way of life and culture. The wedding scenes are juxtaposed with scenes from Vito’s study, where he takes requests from various guests as ‘no Sicilian can turn down a reasonable request on his daughter’s wedding day’.
The title of the Godfather relates to Don Vito Corleone at the beginning of the film, and by the end, Michael Corleone, who has inherited his father’s business and gone through the biggest transformation. It’s a fascinating study of the challenges faced by someone brought up in this lifestyle, and how it isn’t always easy to get out. Circumstance is what changes Michael’s mind – he is the son that is able to protect his father at the hospital, and it’s at this moment he commits himself to being a true part of the family. Watching Al Pacino at the beginning of the film and comparing with his performance at the end of the film is to watch a boy who has grown into a confident and calculating man, shaped by his own experiences and those of his family, and it’s a thrilling transformation to watch.
Part of what makes The Godfather such a great movie is the richly drawn landscape and characters. Even relatively smaller supporting characters such as Captain McCluskey and Luca Brazzi are deeply memorable and important, and it’s surprising looking back to realise that both only appear in 2 or 3 scenes. The script, drawn from Mario Puzo’s novel, creates a vivid period setting that really encapsulates the mafia lifestyle. Every event feels measured, earned and foreshadowed. That’s not to say you know they’re coming, but looking back they make absolute sense. Apart from Sonny, the film features none of the rash, vicious gangster characters we’re used to more commonly in mafia based films, with every decision considered carefully. It’s a real joy to watch these intelligent characters plot their next play, thinking about every possible outcome.
The performances and soundtrack cannot be understated in adding to the appeal of the film, and assisting Coppola’s world building. Marlon Brando is memorably incoherent as the head of the family, with James Caan, Al Pacino, John Cazale and Robert Duvall all producing strong performances as his sons. To an extent, the females get short shrift in ‘The Godfather’ but this accurately reflects that this is a man’s world, with no space for women in the family business. This is shown in the limited appearances of Vito’s wife and the mother of the boy’s, who only ever appears at family occasions and in the background. The atmospheric soundtrack is now world famous, and it really is superb at building up the nostalgic feel of the movie, truly encapsulating the feel of the mafia at a time when that lifestyle was at its peak. Ironically enough, I’d always assumed the great Ennio Morricone had composed the score, however on reading back it turns out it was actually Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola, so there you go!
The famous climax of the film, with the baptism set against the murders of the heads of the five families is a terrific sequence and one of the most memorable in film history. Like the opening of the film at the wedding, this sequence expertly juxtaposes the two notions of family, the birth family at the baptism, and the mafia family with the assassinations. Throughout, the film explores this concept and perhaps that’s what makes the mafia so fascinating? The fact that these men care deeply for the importance of family, “a man who doesn’t spend time with his family is not a real man”, yet can be responsible for such stunning acts of violence is an endless source of interest.
Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, John Cazale, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire and Marlon Brando