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The Godfather (1972) September 12, 2004

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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THE GODFATHER

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 1998

Many years ago, when the author of this review had to rely only on cinemas and television as the source of cinematic knowledge, he was intrigued by the word “godfather”, featured in many movies and television shows as the synonym for organised crime. The use of the word didn’t stop there – many movies were branded “godfathers” by their distributors, in order to bring the audience hungry for intelligent and spectacular drama about gangster organisations. Fascination with the word and the movie who inspired their use grew with years. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see the first movie before being exposed to the second. Nevertheless, the first seeing of THE GODFATHER was memorable experience indeed – years of waiting actually paid off in a three hours of cinematic feast.

In many ways, THE GODFATHER follows the same pattern of many cinematic classics who used to be made in a time periods or circumstances that aren’t here anymore. It was made in a era when the Old Hollywood collapsed, and the new rules hadn’t been established. The studios were willing to experiment and to give the movie authors free reign over their projects. One of such authors was Francis Ford Coppola, who made one of the most intimate, yet most universally appealing movies of all times; the movie which earned its cult status by satisfying both the high standards of snobbish critics and the simple needs general audience. The greatness of the movie can’t be seen only in a success that followed him in a last quarter of century; it could be even more tangible in a series of references, imitations and hidden remakes created by Coppola’s colleagues through the years.

Almost every scene in a movie is memorable, but for many most effective is a beginning – in a dark room, Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), Italian undertaker, tells that he believes in America and its values; but only minutes later his speech gives another spin on the beliefs in life, liberty and pursuit of happiness – they shatter confronted with the humiliating and unpunished rape of his daughter. In order to see justice done, Bonasera is forced to ask favour from his godfather, powerful Mafia figure Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), using the marriage of Don Vito’s daughter Connie (Talia Shire) as an opportunity to win over the mobster’s heart. That same wedding is a nice opportunity to meet Don Vito’s sons, family and friends. Don Vito has three sons – Sonny (James Caan), whose macho temperament is nicely combined with the calm wisdom of his adopted brother and family advisor Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall); hedonistic Fredo (John Cazale); and, finally, college educated Michael (Al Pacino) whose disgust with the violence and crime forced him to leave the family and come to the wedding as a decorated WW2 hero. However, Michael’s reluctance to engage in the family business gets tested soon after the wedding. Angered by Don Vito’s refusal to engage in narcotic operations, other Mafia families from New York organise the attempt on his life; simply by trying to protect his father, Michael gets drawn in the war and slowly becomes the rising member of his crime organisation.

Since both the real-world Mafia and numerous Italian American organisation actually tried to stop this movie from being made or distributed, it is quite ironic to see THE GODFATHER as a source not of numerous movie cliches that actually portray the Mafia as a social element more benign than in real life (mobsters as devout family men; violence exists only between its members and doesn’t affect general and innocent population; opposition to drugs etc.). It is even more surprising to see THE GODFATHER not only as an inspiration to other, less original, filmmakers, but also to the real-world gangsters who tried to imitate the appearance of his main characters. However, although the movie might seem a little bit apologetic towards Mafia, and definitely has insiders’ point of view, it still has the flavour of authenticity, necessary for the viewer to have a critical relations towards the characters and their morally questionable actions.

The authenticity of the movie isn’t just in some references towards real-life mobsters and mob-related stories and urban legends. Coppola worked very hard to capture the way of life in his native Italian American community, and also invested a lot of effort in order to have his epic story, that takes place in late 1940s and early 1950s, firmly set in that time period through production design, costumes, hairstyles and soundtrack that is well balanced with the original music of Nino Rota, that also became one of the identifying symbols of the movie.

The most memorable element of the movie are its actors. Marlon Brando, almost washed-up in the time when he made THE GODFATHER, gave the performance of his life by playing Vito Corleone – his role was so grand that the actor himself parodied it in THE FRESHMAN. Although obviously shadowed by Brando, the other actors were also impressive. Among them, Al Pacino, who had to work hardest by portraying slow transformation of lead character, shines most brightly and his role of Michael shone the path to his future as one of the best serious movie actors in contemporary American cinema. The calmness of Pacino’s character, calmness that crumbles under emotions only in brief moments of family crisis, is so in contrast with the emotional outbursts that would be Pacino’s trademark in a years to come.

The other actors might not be in Brando’s or Pacino’s league, but they benefited from Coppola’s good casting and also gave the roles of their life simply by being in this movie, so well-written and directed. The only exception to this is James Caan, who works well with the role given to him, but whose all-American appearance seems a rather out of place with the more or less ethnically pure Italian American cast. Despite that shortcoming (one and perhaps the only in the entire GODFATHER), the cast is really more than impressive, although many actors and actresses later didn’t live to the potential indicated by their performance in this movie.

Those who like analysing movies to death would probably ask why THE GODFATHER kept its cult status through the quarter of century. There were many well-made, well-directed and well-acted movies produced in the years before and after, but it seems that only THE GODFATHER stood the test of time and kept the imagination of the future moviegoers. The reason might probably be in the universal subject of the movie; although it shows rather obscure and ethnically isolated phenomenon the messages of THE GODFATHER can be translated on all the worlds languages and applied to other systems in different times and places. The movie portrays both the society and individuals who lost their freedom because they were too insecure or unprepared for responsibility; same as the poor Italian immigrants had to rely on Mafia to overcome the difficulties of New World (like Bonasera in the opening sequence), Michael is forced to join the family because he, despite all his efforts, can’t live in a insecure world outside his father’s omnipotent shadow. And even when he actually becomes his father (in a brilliant and most memorable last shot), the freedom is lost – omnipotence and freedom are just illusion, because with the power comes both the responsibility and the never ending task of keeping. The story of this movie could have taken place everywhere in the world, and that explains why the people will associate with its characters for many decades to come.

RATING: 9/10 (++++)

Review written on August 21st 1998

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